I want you to imagine you’re holding a small red pillow.

If I were to ask you to pick a pen up off the floor without dropping the pillow, you’d be able to do it. Sure, it’d be a bit cumbersome, but you’d manage.

Now imagine that I added one blue pillow on top of your red pillow. Picking that pen up is getting a bit more difficult now, isn’t it?

Gradually, I add one blue pillow after another. As I do, you start to disappear behind a tower of pillows.

Picking that pen up without dropping the pillows is now impossible.

Now imagine that the red pillow represents a problem you’re having with your PhD. Perhaps it’s a problem with an experiment, or an issue you’re having planning a chapter.

Whatever it is, it’s an objective issue you’re currently having.

And much like the pen and the red pillow, even though you’ve got that problem on your mind, you can still go about your day to day life largely unencumbered.

But the blue pillows represent our brain’s capacity to worry, stress, ruminate, catastrophise and do all the other things it does to turn a small problem into a nightmare.

Over time you start to add blue pillows. You start to worry about whether you’re an imposter, or the perfectionist in you starts to convince you you’re a failure. You start to worry about whether you’re going to complete or even why you bothered to start in the first place.

Much like with the blue pillows, as you add these problems one by one, you start to feel their weight and you can’t perform basic functions. You notice you’re crippled with stress, anxiety or worry.

But you have a choice. Sure, the problem – the red pillow – is real so you can’t really change that. But you can change how you respond and you can choose not to add the blue pillows. Catch yourself when you’re adding those pillows and stop yourself doing it.

That’s the art of mindfulness. It’s the art of choosing how you respond to the world around you and it’s a great way to manage common PhD stresses and anxieties.

Practicing mindfulness in this way sounds straightforward, but it’s an art and it takes practice. A good place to start is a guide I’ve recently published on The PhD Knowledge Base that talks about the science of mindfulness for PhD students.

Click here to check it out now.

Good luck!