Doing a PhD is difficult. At times, it will feel impossible and you will need all of your self-motivation, self-discipline, and tenacity to get back and keep going. These moments are made so much worse when you are struggling with your mental health.
It has been widely documented how pervasive high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression are amongst PhD students, whether connected to an existing mental health issue or not.
Whether you are a new PhD candidate or have been at it for a number of years, I want to highlight a few topics and issues that I have found useful when seeking to take care of mental health issues while also progressing with my PhD.
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Whatever field you are in, it will be competitive. It is easy to continuously compare yourself to others, causing you to doubt yourself, or even make you feel panicked and anxious. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘impostor syndrome’ before and, however difficult it is, it is worth reminding yourself from time to time that you are already doing the research and you are already making progress.
Everybody will have a different path and, while it’s easy to feel jealous of those getting certain funding or positions, remind yourself that you are doing this PhD for you. There is no one else that can do it. So surround yourself with positive influences and people if you can, and focus on yourself.
I learned this the hard way during my research: listen to your body and your mind. You might be tempted to keep working, even past your normal level, just to get that extra paragraph finished or that extra bit of work in. While hard-working is a great trait for a PhD candidate, don’t push yourself too far. PhD programmes can be isolated and lonely, and find support in others when you need to socialise.
Stay healthy, go for a walk if you feel cooped up, or unwind by finding a hobby, picking up a sport, playing an instrument. This has helped me over the years where I would start feeling burnt out and I needed something completely different to focus on. Maybe yoga and meditation can help you focus, relax your body and mind, and bring you back on track. Find out what works for you.
Your PhD thesis.
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Not every writing style works for everybody. When I started my PhD, I would wait until I felt ‘inspired’ enough to write and felt that whatever I produced had to be perfect.
Over the years I let this go, instead allowing myself to write (sometimes atrocious) first-draft quality pieces, and then later editing them to make them acceptable.
Letting go of the pressure to instantly create something brilliant can help you get more done. Find the times of day that work best for you, create an environment you can focus in, and acknowledge that your first draft will never be perfect. This will help relieve some of this pressure.
So allow yourself to write those terrible first drafts, and to make mistakes and figure out your argument and research along the way.
Similarly, be patient with yourself; nothing will happen smoothly first time around, so allowing yourself to grow and flourish in this way can relieve some of the stress.
If you are experiencing mental health issues, chances are you will have heard the phrases ‘self-care’ and ‘coping mechanisms’ before. I don’t want to throw them around as buzzwords, but, speaking from experience, a PhD is taxing and it will be tempting to compromise your own mental and physical health to squeeze in a few more hours of work.
Balance your work and your mental health – easier said than done, of course, but a way to start is figuring out what your coping mechanisms are for stressful situations. We’re all looking at the Viva at the end; so, how can we make ourselves more confident in public speaking and debating in order to pass, for example?
Sometimes, when the work is overwhelming and you can’t stop doubting yourself, step away from your work for a few hours or longer, and let your body and mind relax. Take a hot shower, make a cup of tea or coffee, try to unwind even if this seems impossible. Taking a step back often allows you to look at your work with fresh eyes and it will make you more productive in the long run.
Reach out for professional help if this is necessary, of course; remind yourself that you are not alone in this. Remind yourself why you chose to do this PhD, why you are passionate about it, and what helps you to continue, whether that is through colleagues, friends, self-motivation, or otherwise.
At the end of the day, doing a PhD is a stressful and mentally taxing journey. Wherever you are on this journey, listen to yourself – especially in our current social, climatological, political, and cultural climate. It will not be easy but take it one day at a time.
Listen to what your body and mind need, take the journey into your own hands, and be kind to yourself. Set your goals realistically and, if necessary, avoid the constant stream of news you find online. Focus on the here and now to maintain your own mental health and focus on what you can control.
Marte Stinis (Twitter handle @martestinis) is a fourth-year PhD in History of Art at the University of York, England. Her research focuses on the intersection of music and painting aesthetics in the nineteenth century within the Aesthetic Movement in England.