Before my PhD journey I heard stories of the depression and sheer mental exhaustion that you may experience whilst pursuing this degree. I thought I had understood the feeling and to a large extent beat it with my numerous schedules and plans. To quote Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes of mice and men, go oft astray.” Which basically means that no matter how fantastic your plans, something will still go wrong- and in my case it did, spectacularly.
Everything came to a head about a month ago when I had to make cosmetic changes to my final thesis manuscript. The changes that should have taken me an afternoon took weeks. I would open my laptop and look at it and forget how to do simple things such as change the font in my manuscript. I kept getting very terrible colds, which is unlike me, and I was a teary mess.
I realised then that I was suffering from PhD-induced blues and was teetering on the edge of depression.
I want to share four helpful things that have managed to get me to slowly emerge from this funk.
First things first, talk to someone. The best person to talk to is a mental health professional or your pastor /spiritual guide. Talking is therapeutic, especially if it is someone who is level headed and has your best interests in mind. I did speak to my loved ones about aspects of what I was feeling and trying to pinpoint some of the root causes.
Second, is focus on self –care. I realised that in my quest to finish my work I was no longer looking after myself. I had stopped exercising, eating healthily or even drinking water. I subsisted on my kid’s left overs, sour jellybeans and coffee. And for the longest time this didn’t bother me because all my colleagues were doing the same. But my melt-down forced me to change. I’m making little changes every day, the first being drinking water and minimising caffeine. Scheduling self-care has given me a better outlook on life and a lot more energy to get things done.
Third, do a little bit at a time: don’t convince yourself you can do it all with one big effort. I made a list of things that I had to do and tried to achieve them in 15-minute chunks- I got the idea from Jon Acuff’s Do Over challenge. To be honest, some days are better than others, but I managed to get my manuscript done and hopefully the examiners are kind and don’t require me to do too many revisions.
Lastly, help someone else. It sounds really crazy when you are time-pressed and tapped out, but it really does make a difference to your sense of well being. Being kind to someone else is a great reminder that the world does not revolve around your PhD. I am not talking about doing research work for free. I’m talking about doing things like charity work, or even something as simple as helping someone move house or donating your previously loved clothing to a worthy cause. Great opportunities are available with Stop Hunger and BetterSA, but there are many fantastic options available. Just be careful that this doesn’t become another form of procrastination.
I am still on this journey for the next few months, as I wait for the examiners’ reports and produce the journal article I need for graduation. I have learnt that during a monumental project such as PhD, self care is important and its ok not to always be ok.