Recently a postdoc told me he was concerned about his mental state. Stressed about changing jobs and moving countries, he was finding it hard emotionally and psychologically to cope with the upheaval. We had a long discussion, after which I sent him this transition graph to help him to understand some of what he was going through, that his feelings were a normal reaction to the process of change. I thought it was rather a trivial thing to do but, actually, the graph turned out to be a revelation: “I feel better knowing this is something we all go through and it’s just a normal reaction”, he told me. “I can see which stage I’m at right now and it’s motivated me to be more positive about my situation as I know I will get through and out the other side”.Reflecting on this exchange made me think about some tactics which might be helpful for those currently experiencing stress or anxiety due to their personal or work situation:
Admitting to yourself and others that you’re scared, anxious or stressed shows strength of character. It’s not possible to be happy and confident all of the time, so don’t feel intimidated to hide your more negative persona sometimes. You’ll be surprised how much it liberates others to be more open with their feelings too. You don’t need to broadcast this to the whole department or world (if you’re on Twitter) if you don’t want to, however just opening up to one or two trusted friends or colleagues can really help to release some of the inner tension, as well as receiving support, reassurance and a different perspective on your situation. .
Having experienced depression myself, I know how debilitating it can be, affecting energy levels, motivation and outlook. If your feelings of depression are being caused by your current situation, you may decide to get help from counsellors and the medical profession, however I found it equally valuable to seek support from work-related professionals who helped me to improve my situation. Mentoring and coaching has been introduced into many universities nowadays, facilitating people to find a pragmatic, realistic way forward. For example, mentors can assist you in gaining access to information and networks enabling you to find ways to resolve issues associated with your research and related activities. Qualified careers advisers and coaches give you the opportunity to reflect on your position, suggesting tools and approaches to help you to realise your ambitions and consider realistic options for your next career transition.
Knowing that others are in the same situation and getting access to peer support makes you realise you are not alone and that you don’t have to face difficult times on your own. The internet provides many opportunities to interact with people on line through social media which can be helpful for those working remotely. Within your faculty or wider professional sphere there is capacity to join or create common interest groups or PhD and postdoctoral associations to bring people together for mutual support and social interaction. Attending career related events in your university or at conferences brings together early career researchers and students who can also share stories and form alliances.
Referring back to the transition graph, one thing is clear – life comes with its ups and downs so that when we’re ecstatically happy we know it won’t last for too long and vice versa. For example, having a paper published is a joyous moment, but soon afterwards it’s time to get on with working towards the next one. Equally, when things are going badly and experiments aren’t working, this is a temporary situation which will not last forever. Either you will find a way to resolve it (speeded up by asking others their opinion) or realise it will never work and move on. Faced with stress and anxiety related to other situations, such as the prospect of writing up your PhD thesis or moving to another job and country also presents you with choices to make: give in to your negative feelings or do something positive, even if it’s just making a small change.
It is clear from many surveys and reports that evidence of mental illness within academia is increasing due to reasons such as pressures of the work environment, temporary contracts, isolation and competition. Changing policy or influencing decision-makers is usually out of your control. However, changing your own behaviour can help you to avoid being paralysed into inaction: recognise the temporary nature of your situation, look for strategies to resolve whatever is causing your negative feelings and take positive steps towards changing things for the better.
Related post: Mind your career