Dealing with stress during your PhD

Dealing with stress during your PhD

Learning to deal with and overcome stressful situations during your PhD will prove a useful technique not only during PhD but throughout your career, a technique you will turn to again and again.

The Biology of Stress

Stress as we all know can affect how we feel, think and behave but it can also have physical implications as our mind and body are constantly communicating with each other.

When we experience stress a small region in the base of the brain known as the hypothalamus responds by producing hormones such as Adrenaline and Cortisol, these are key hormones responsible for the “flight or fight” response.

Adrenaline acts to increase your heart rate and raise your blood pressure. Cortisol acts to temporality increase energy levels by triggering the release of glucose into the bloodstream, during this time other bodily functions which are not needed are supressed.

This may all be well and good over a short period of time, during “flight or fight” situations. However, when sustained over a long period of time, the duration of a PhD for instance, it can have detrimental effects on your health both physical and mental.

PhD and stress go hand in hand

Every PhD is different, so too are the emotions and stressful situations experienced during a PhD. I do believe though that there are some common unifying emotions whether you’re doing a science or humanities PhD that everyone experiences at some stage. During my PhD from the early days to the viva I commonly experienced all of the below emotions.

  • Overwhelmed – by my never-ending workload.
  • Doubt / Imposter syndrome – I felt that any day I would be exposed as a fraud and told I wasn’t worthy of doing a PhD.
  • Lack of focus – I often found that my never-ending to do list inhibited me from doing anything. While trying to complete one task I was constantly thinking of what I had to do next or what would happen if this experiment failed and how far that would set me back. A vicious circle affecting me completing any task with precision and focus.
  • I could always do more – No matter how hard I worked I felt it would never be enough and that I could work harder.
  • Exhaustion – Both physical and mental exhaustion
  • Discouraged

Tips for learning to live with stress

To say you won’t be stressed during your PhD or in day-to-day life if you follow these tips is wrong. There is no one size fits all “cure” but what I have found, is that doing some of the below if not all of these helps me overcome that sick feeling in the bottom of stomach when things aren’t going well in the lab, or I make a mistake. We all are human and human error is something that happens.

  1. Exercise – Yes this is a dreaded suggestion for a lot of people but the power of getting out in the fresh air for a walk, run, cycle or swim is unparalleled. I also recommend leaving the earphones at home, sometimes you just have to clear your head and doing this while listening to music can be a challenge.
  2. Sleep – This is easier said than done I know. Try and promote sleep by switching off blue light devices such as your phone and tablet an hour before bed. Read a book instead (not work related). Herbal remedies, pillow spray and a hot bath may also help promote sleep.
  3. Allow your life to happen – Life is what is happens when you’re busy in the lab! Having a social life and being present in your own life will really help show to you that you are more than just monkey in a lab, a cog in wheel – you have more to offer. Taking time out to meet friends, go on a weekend trip will help you disconnect and reduce your stress levels. As much as taking a day off to go to a wedding or a family event might seem like a chore as it will set you back, time apart from your work will allow you to see things in a new light. Another tip which I am personally a big fan of is not talking about work during lunch, this provides you with an hour or 30 minutes when you are not thinking about your PhD.
  4. Celebrate successes – Discouragement was probably one of the most common feelings I had during my PhD. I was constantly aiming for success and perfection, then when inevitably things don’t work out that way or there was a minor bump in the road, I was devastated. What I found was that writing down my successes however minor they were e.g. teaching an undergrad about PCR or my cells didn’t die, helped both motivate and boost my self-confidence.
  5. Acceptance – Some days will be more productive than others and that’s that. This is particularly relevant for when you are writing up your thesis. Tuesday, you could nail it writing all day and into the evening full of inspiration and motivation. Wednesday, you could struggle hour by hour time never seeming to pass. This is a normal part of the process – don’t freak over it as you will make up for it the next day when are on a roll, bearing in mind it might be next week when that happens again but it will happen again.
  6. Reduce caffeine – Try and reduce your caffeine intake. Studies have shown the caffeine increases levels of stress and anxiety. Read more about it here.
  7. Talk it out – Sometimes having friend, parent or partner who you can offload all your inner worries and concerns to will really help reduce your anxiety.
  8. Practice mindfulness – Mindfulness and meditation has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, read more about how integrate mindfulness into laboratory life here.
  9. Say no to negativity – Try and not let negative thoughts in – you can do it. Check out some great motivational posters here.
  10. Some days you will snap and it will all fall part but you will endure. As my PI used to tell me regularly when I was feeling defeated a PhD is a war of attrition, endurance is key.
18th Dec 2020 Mikaela Byrne

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