Advice and tips, My Experiences

Your mental wellbeing – When should you seek help?

First of all, I hope you are all keeping well in these weird times. I rarely read and watch the news these days but whenever I do catch it I never see them addressing or talking about the mental health aspects of the coronavirus situation (although do feel free to correct me on this if I’m wrong). Mental wellbeing is something that needs to be talked about more, especially at this current time. It’s totally understandable to feel like you’re struggling with your wellbeing given the current situation.

Something that I have personally found difficult in the past is understanding when to seek help with your mental wellbeing. And sadly I can’t provide you with any concrete guidelines of when to do so in this post. Everybody is different; different environments, different minds and different characteristics. Your mental wellbeing is personal to you and knowing when you should seek help is something that is also a personal decision you have to make, based on your own views and beliefs. When I was younger and struggling with my own mental well-being, I thought I wasn’t suffering enough to warrant seeking help and support. I thought only those people who were acting strange or being manic should get help, how naïve was I.

I thought for those who need it, I would provide a list of factors I feel could be indicators that you may need a bit of support for your mental wellbeing. I am be no means a professional; the indicators below are purely based on my own previous experiences.

  1. You notice changes in your own behaviour – these changes may not always be ones you find good or healthy. You may be more snappy towards others or lethargic and finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. You may also become dependant on something such as alcohol to get through the day.
  2. A person you trust has expressed concern – An example may be a friend or family member asking you if you’re okay because you seem a bit down. Notice I use the word ‘trust’ here. A lot of people can fling around insults like ‘you’re crazy’ without thinking about the consequences.
  3. You avoid doing things you normally would do – for me, I started to avoid going out to see friends or going to busy places because I knew this would trigger my anxiety. Although avoidance feels good in the short term, it may not be the best solution long term.
  4. Basic functioning becomes difficult – For example, you may find eating a meal or going to sleep challenging.
  5. You can’t see a way out – When you are struggling, it can be difficult or impossible to see that light at the end of the tunnel.

I think that ultimately, I just got ‘a feeling’ in my gut that I was struggling and that prompted me to seek support for my own mental wellbeing. If you find yourself struggling I would always recommend seeking help from a professional as a first port of call. But counselling may not be feasible for everyone for a variety of reasons so here’s a few other techniques I’ve used to help support my own mental wellbeing over the past few years:

  1. If you feel comfortable in doing so, try talking with a person you trust (maybe a friend or family member). Sometimes talking can help ease your worries and you will have an extra person to help you tackle the issues and discuss your options with.
  2. Try Mindfullness. I know this may not be for everyone, even I was a bit skeptical at first. But I have practised guided meditations on a free mobile app called Headspace and I have found them to be beneficial for me.
  3. Be active and try to exercise every day, no matter how little (just do what you feel up to). If you don’t feel able to leave your home there are loads of workouts on youtube that you can take part in without going outside. There is also an app I’ve used previously called down dog which is offering free home yoga classes for beginners until the beginning of June.
  4. Listen to a podcasts, there are some great mental health ones out there. I find it can help to hear others talking about their struggles and discussing how they have overcome them.
  5. Check out cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This therapy can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave about certain situations. Although it’s typically done in a talking environment with a counsellor, I have recently started working through this book and I have found it interesting challenging myself and my own beliefs. Hopefully it will be beneficial to me in the longterm!

I hope that some of the things I’ve discussed in this post are helpful to you or someone you know. I regard mental wellbeing as something that needs continuous support and work, like working your muscles at the gym. I was surprised by just how beneficial indulging in a little ‘mind-time’ each day was for my mental wellbeing.

What techniques do you use to support your mental wellbeing? I’d love to know below 🙂

Stay safe x

Advice and tips, My Experiences, The PhD process

Dear PhD Student – Why the doctoral research process may be hurting your mental well-being

This post is aimed at any PhD students; perspective, current or graduated. I was reading an article the other day which states that 1 in 2 students will experience some kind of psychological distress during the PhD process (although from my own observations I’m surprised this isn’t higher).

But feeling mentally drained and unwell isn’t your own fault. In my opinion, the current PhD process is full of different factors that can contribute towards poor mental well-being. Below I outline the reasons I believe the PhD process to have such a negative impact on mental well-being, based upon my own experiences and observations.

Under pressure

First of all there’s pressure, lots of pressure. Throughout the PhD journey you are expected to cope with pressures that would be overwhelming for anyone. When you aren’t working on that conference paper, you are running yourself into the ground to meet the internal stage deadlines set by your supervisor. The pressure of having to deliver results can dominate your life, leading to a loss of sleep and self care time. When I was completing my research it was just accepted that PhD students are put under significant pressure and this is simply the way it is. The current ‘accepted norm’ of a constant three years of pressure can definitely contribute to bad mental well-being, especially when paired with any of the other factors mentioned below. 

Imposter syndrome and social comparison

I spent most of my PhD journey feeling like an imposter. I felt like I didn’t fit in and I just wasn’t good enough to get a PhD (spoiler: I was good enough and I did get one in the end). Feelings of imposter syndrome seem to be common and I talked to many other students who felt the same way that I did. Talking to others actually made me start to question if anyone ever truly ‘fits in’. Whilst struggling at times during my PhD, I would look around at others who appear to be breezing through the process. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, comparison is the thief of happiness. Social comparison is a completely natural and sometimes unavoidable thing to do but it can lead to negative effects on your mental well-being. 

Looking back after completing my PhD, there are a couple of reasons why comparing myself to others was never going to be beneficial. Firstly, I was comparing myself to my own perceptions of my fellow research students. To me they appeared to be doing fine, but I would find out later on that they weren’t doing as well as I thought they were. They struggled too at times the same way I did. From my own observations, I feel that there’s a stigma around admitting you are struggling as a PhD student. Some feel that to talk about struggling is like admitting weakness and this stops research students sharing these worries with each other. Secondly, each PhD journey is a deeply personal thing to each student and it can vary depending on their research area, supervisor and environment. Because of this, it was never useful to compare myself to others. It would be like comparing the process of training to be a teacher and training to be a vet; similar in some aspects, but so very different in others. 

Loneliness

Getting a PhD can feel like a lonely process, and for me it did most of the time. These feelings of loneliness can definitely affect your mental well-being. Although I worked in an office some days with about eight other people, at times I couldn’t have felt more lonely. Alongside this loneliness, some students may feel a lack of support available to them, which can have a further negative impact on their mental well-being. Some may feel that talking to their supervisor about mental well-being is a no go area; I myself only talked to my supervisor when I absolutely had to. I think this circles back around to feelings of not wanting to appear weak. Your supervisors are amazing at conducting research and analysing results, but they may not be trained in how to support you with the mental aspects of the process. Because of this it may appear tough to find support within the academic environment when you are struggling.

Fear of failure

Finally, during a PhD you are highly likely to experience some type of failure and rejection (unless you are super super lucky). For some it can happen on a daily basis, maybe you had a conference paper rejected or you didn’t get the study results you were expecting. This failure and rejection can definitely have a negative effect on your mental well-being, especially in the cases where multiple rejections happen at the same time (believe me, I had a few days of this throughout my PhD journey).

I hope that this post isn’t disheartening, there’s no doubt that the PhD process is a tough one. I guess in a way I’m writing what I wish I had heard a few years ago. I just wanted to highlight some of the issues I found with the process to ensure any PhD researchers out there that you are doing a great job, and if your mental well-being is struggling at times then it is totally understandable given the circumstances.

If you are struggling, I would suggest talking to someone you can trust about how you are feeling and working through things together; whether this be a personal friend or a trained professional. As a follow up to this post I will be sharing some tips and advice based on my own PhD experience which I hope may help some of you out there.

Are there any other elements of the PhD process which you feel can impact mental well-being? Feel free to share below