Writing

PhD Mental Health: The importance of self-care during the writing process

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It’s so hard. The relentless re-writes. The late nights and early mornings spent locked away with your PhD, juggling work, papers to publish, supervisors to please, and perhaps small children or others to care for, not to mention a whole world to envision in the desperately limited or all-too-vast word space of your thesis. 

High rates of stress and depression among PhD students have been well documented. This article explores some of the ways in which the specific pressure of writing can impact your attitude towards your PhD, mental health, and broader behaviours, and offers some ideas for self-care to help get you through.

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Each day we send a short, thought-provoking email that will make you think differently about what it means to be a PhD student. It is designed to be read in thirty seconds and thought about all day. 


Triggers of troubled PhD mental health while writing up



‘Am I doing it right?’ ‘Others are so much better at writing than me.’ ‘I have to please my supervisor.’ ‘My future career, my life, depends on how well I write this thesis.’ Sound familiar? 


So many PhD mental health issues that are triggered as a result of the writing process can be traced back to these voices, echoing both your expectations of yourself associated with the writing and the expectations that others place (impose) on you. These voices may be summed up as generating deep feelings of insecurity and low self-worth attached to the writing process.More specifically, as you write your thesis, and especially as the deadline approaches, you may experience feeling:


  • Anxious
  • Unsafe
  • Panicked
  • Alone
  • Afraid
  • Incompetent
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Paralysed
  • Ashamed (especially for having such seemingly disproportionate feelings about the seemingly prosaic act of writing up your thesis). 


If you find yourself regularly feeling several of the above before, during or just after writing your thesis, it may be time to pay attention to your mental health.


Other red flags that your mental health might be suffering include exacerbated, potentially hidden coping mechanisms such as compulsions with regard to food and alcohol, escapism via Netflix, turbo-charged socialising, and other addictive behaviour such as drug taking; nihilistic or suicidal thoughts; and heightened levels of irritability with your partner, child, family or friends, which occur before or after a thesis writing session. Combined, these feelings and behaviours may be key warning signs alerting you to the serious need for some self-care while writing your PhD. Mental health is not something to be facetious about – identifying and being honest about how you’re really feeling is vital. 



This is not a normal blog subscription

Each day we send a short, thought-provoking email that will make you think differently about what it means to be a PhD student. It is designed to be read in thirty seconds and thought about all day. 

Ok… but how do I know I’m not just being dramatic?


You will know by following these two very simple steps:


1. Listen to yourself


So many PhD mental health problems arise from assuming that you ‘should’ be coping and that, therefore, you are, or that others in the same boat are as distressed as you, so it’s all fine and ‘normal’. No. Stop. Listen. To your body and your mind. Following a writing session that has triggered several of the above feelings and one or more of the behaviours, sit down for 10 minutes somewhere quiet, with pen and paper. Check in with your body – your stomach, chest, throat, head, neck. Do you feel tension, discomfort, or outright pain? If so, where? And what is your first instinct as to what it could be related to? Write down everything you feel, physically and emotionally. Map it out if you want, or represent it in drawing. See this as an exercise in identifying and sorting what’s really going on inside you associated with the writing process. Then take a few moments to ponder what you’ve produced, thanking yourself for taking the time to listen. 


2. Acknowledge


That you’re not ok, that you might be suffering and need help. Allow yourself to cry, to feel frustrated and angry, expressing that in a safe way (such as hitting a pillow). Not only will this help to release some of the tension inside you, but your emotions could prove to be a springboard for healthier choices.



Self-care while writing up


The following are some basic steps you can take if you suspect that, due to writing your PhD, mental health may be paying too high a price:



1. Morning routines

This ten-minute practice, developed by Julia Cameron, is designed to have both therapeutic and creative benefit. First thing in the morning, before you so much as glance in the direction of your thesis, take a pen and notepad, and write out around three pages’ worth of whatever comes to mind, stream-of-consciousness style, without stopping. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, chronological coherence or ‘nice’ language – give yourself permission to be as outrageous as you like. You may be surprised and considerably lightened by what comes out. 



2. Look after your body

Eat as healthily as you can, without being rigid or making this into another distraction or addiction (now may not be the best time to go from carnivore to raw vegan). Try to find reasonable time for exercise you love, be it running, kickboxing, yoga or salsa. This will also help you sleep better – another vital self-care aspect here that many PhD students under pressure struggle with. 



3. Remove the pressure of needing to write a certain way

The knowledge that there is no one right way to write is worth gold to your PhD mental health. Putting down bits and pieces, mosaic-style, and then arranging them into a cohesive pattern is no more right or wrong than following a more structured, sequential approach. The important thing is to write using a style that truly resonates with your character and the way you work best.



4. Connect

Note: not with your fellow PhD pals, who, while being able to offer the commiseration you need, may reinforce the difficulties you’re going through and actually leave you feeling worse. No – find someone who isn’t in any way related to your PhD and has no expectations associated with it. A non-critical friend who can offer you true empathy and remember to see you for the person you are beyond your writing process, could be the mirror you need to remind you of your gifts beyond the PhD alone. 



5.  Keep a careful eye on your coping mechanisms

 If you feel that that your writing process has become so painful that you absolutely must block out the pain with an addiction (here defined as any behaviour engaged in compulsively and defensively), seek professional help. 



6. Remind yourself why


While a regular, guided mindfulness practice has been shown to help alleviate the effects of stress in the context of PhD mental health, this may not be enough to remove the horrible, hollow feeling of a lack of meaning in your writing, which may be driving you into the arms of other distractions where you hope to find it. 


So take some time to seriously assess what this writing is worth to you – you, not the academy, not your parents, peers or future employers. Where did the motivation for this writing originate? You can explore this by, for example, writing a letter to your past self who started the PhD, or meditating on your original motivation and how it makes you feel in your body.



7. Take control of your writing environment


Take control of where you write so that it feels like a safe, creative space, reinforcing you and building you up as a writer. If the PhD office and its associations just don’t cut it anymore, don’t be a prisoner – take advantage of your student flexibility to find a place where your writing soul can take flight. Establish the background you need, be it a certain type of music to listen to, or a particular view that inspires you; even air quality and smells will have an impact. Above all, demarcate this space solely for your PhD. This could act as a positive trigger, with your brain coming to associate that space with positivity around your PhD, mental health, and freedom to write as you will. This could, in turn, help you move past procrastination and other blocks, so that your writing begins to flow. 



8. If it’s an option, take some time out


Your writing process is a triadic dance, a relationship between you, your writing, and your theme. And, like any relationship (particularly a demanding polyamorous one), sometimes a break can help to put things into perspective.




Regaining a sense of perspective when writing your PhD: Mental health is for life



Writing a PhD is an incredibly arduous task. And PhD mental health is a very serious aspect of your life that you need to consider when this writing process threatens to overwhelm you. Whatever you’ve achieved so far, however much or little you feel you’ve done – be gentle with yourself. Remember that your PhD will, eventually, be a closed chapter in your life, but that you will need your mental health long after that happens.


Remember, also, that you are involved in a dynamic, painstaking, long-term act of creation, which, just like composing a symphony, parenting, nurturing a garden or inventing the latest green technology, takes immense fortitude, perseverance, sweat and tears. Remember that you are more than your writing.


And, ultimately, remember this: you’re not a machine. One way or another, your mental health will not be held hostage to your PhD. The less attention you pay it, the more vigorously your PhD mental health will wave those red flags until you do. So listen to what this part of you truly needs and take the responsibility for your self-care into your own hands.


Do you have any other tips for managing your mental health as you progress through your PhD?

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Lidija Mavra is a PhD-qualified social scientist who, over the past ten years, has worked intensively with people from disadvantaged communities internationally, from Lima to London. She has also devised a solution to a social ‘problem’ with one group of marginalized individuals, harnessing their creativity to co-create the award-winning social enterprise, Unseen Tours, which coaches homeless people to lead guided city walks in London.