Maintaining Your Mental Health

Lisa M. Balbes

There is a grow­ing awareness of the importance of mental health among graduate students and postdoctoral scientists. Although institutions are providing more resources and raising awareness, it is important to be aware of your mental well-being. Most impor­tantly, you need to protect your long-term mental health by taking care of yourself, managing your stress, and developing coping strategies. When you exhibit signs of stress, or even earlier, there are corrective and preventive actions you can take.

THE 80/20 RULE

Some people find it helpful to analyze their tasks and priorities using the “80/20 Rule.” It states that often 80% of the benefits result from 20% of the work.

Here are a couple of articles on the topic:

The 80/20 Rule And How It Can Change Your Life

The 80 20 Rule – The Pareto Principle

Get Physical

Before you can take care of your mental health, you need to take care of your physical health.

Although free pizza and cookies after departmental seminars may be budget-friendly, they should not be your main source of nutrition. Eat a variety of food, includ­ing fresh fruit and vegetables. To save time and money, cook large amounts of healthy meals, then freeze leftovers in individual portions. Keep a cheer­ful mug full of water on your desk, and drink up and refill it often. Staying hydrated will make you feel better, and the walks to the bathroom will provide mini-breaks.

Exercise is not only a good stress reliever; it’s good for you. Use a fit­ness tracker or app that monitors your steps or activity, and try to do just a little bit more each day. Start a friend­ly competition with your friends and encourage each other. Get out into nature—take a walk around campus at lunchtime, go to a park for a few min­utes in the evening, or go for a hike on the weekend.

Make sure to get enough sleep. More time in the lab doesn’t help if you’re too tired to be productive. Keep your bedroom cool for sleeping, and turn your phone to “Do Not Disturb.” Build consistent sleep habits—go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Don’t stay up late during the week, then “make it up” by sleeping in on the weekend.

Create healthy habits. It may be hard at first, but after a month you won’t think about it anymore. Maybe it’s taking a piece of fruit for breakfast, taking the stairs at work, or walking 30 minutes at lunchtime.

Avoid short-term fixes that cause bigger problems, such as alcohol, ciga­rettes, mind-altering substances, or excess caffeine, sugar, or carbohydrates.

In addition to taking care of your physical health, there are many ways you can adjust your mental attitude and protect yourself during your down time.

Be Grateful

The more attention you focus on the good things, the more of them you will notice. Start a daily journal where you list three things for which you are grateful and three things that you have accomplished. Write a thank you note to someone who helped you. Go back and review the list occasionally.

Let It Go

Get worries and anger out of your sys­tem. Write them down or tell someone about whatever’s bothering you, then let it go. Forgive others—the person who cut you off in traffic may have been on the way to an emergency, so take a deep breath and move on. Let go of perfec­tion—often 90% is good enough.

Reboot Your Brain

You need breaks—short ones during the day, and longer ones over the course of a week or a month or a year. Mini-breaks can be as simple as inhaling deeply (not like a chemist) the smell of a good cup of coffee, or the scent of the outdoors after a spring rain. Turning your phone off for a few hours can provide a wonderful mental break.

Schedule breaks and fun outings, rather than randomly falling into time-wasting activities. Put longer breaks on your calendar, and take them. Planning a short getaway gives you something to look forward to, and just exploring pos­sibilities (even in your own town) can boost your mood.

Your Life

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, you will be more productive and happier if you have more things going on in your life. Being able to mentally leave a prob­lem and focus on something else lets you return later with fresh eyes. Often you will see something new that allows you to solve the problem.

As supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “My success in law school, I have no doubt, was due in large measure to baby Jane. I attended classes and studied diligently until four in the afternoon; the next hours were Jane’s time, spent at the park, playing silly games or singing funny songs, reading picture books and A. A. Milne poems, and bathing and feeding her. After Jane’s bedtime, I returned to the law books with renewed will. Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of propor­tion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.” From My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Student Assistance Programs

Many educational institutions offer confidential Student Assistance Programs (SAPs), usually at no cost. Sometimes they will turn up in an online search for the school’s name plus “SAP,” or the phone number may be posted in the student union. Here again, the student health services office might be able to help.

Seek Out Positive People

Surrounding yourself with positive peo­ple will elevate your mood. Block out time to spend with friends—in person! You can maintain connections using electronic means, but in-person contact builds trust and deepens relationships. Sharing experiences is wonderful, espe­cially when they are things that involve conversation and learning more about each other.

Cultivate a wide variety of friends—some in your research group or depart­ment (who are going through the same things you are), some at other institu­tions (who can tell you what things are like there). You even may have some friends who are nonscientists and who have a completely different perspective. Even if you can’t see them often, keeping those relationships healthy is important to your support system.

Help Others

Build time in your schedule to do some­thing for others. Volunteering at an ani­mal shelter, for instance, allows you to spend time with animals (which lowers your stress hormones) without having the full-time responsibility of a pet. Vol­unteering to tutor an undergraduate will help you learn the subject better. Volun­teering to organize a scientific outreach event will put you in contact with other scientists and help you build your pro­fessional network. Helping others can help you in more ways than one.

Monitor Your Monologue

What are you telling yourself? Try to catch yourself when you have negative thoughts, and then turn them around. Instead of, “I have too many things to do; I can’t do them all,” think, “I have lots to do; I’ll do X next.” Or, “What’s the best thing I can do next?”

Set ambitious, but realistic, goals for each day, week, and so on. Break large projects into smaller pieces, then celebrate accomplishing each piece.

Set Boundaries

Practice not answering e-mails or texts immediately. Maybe others just wanted to get something off their desks, and they would love for it to sit on your desk awhile before they have to think about it again. You don’t have to be on 24/7, you just need to set realistic expectations for others. Let people know when you’re unavailable, or how long it will take you to respond, then follow through. Others will respect your time more when you start protecting it.

Use Your Resources

If you feel like you’ve tried to handle things on your own, and the situation has not gotten better, it’s time to use your resources.

Many institutions have stress man­agement resources, support and small discussion groups, peer counselors, counseling services, and more. Start with the student health services, and if they can’t help you directly, ask them to refer you to someplace that can. If you’re a postdoc at an institution where you can’t use the student health services, your per­sonal physician should be able to provide a referral. There are resources out there to help with almost any type of issue, so don’t stop looking until you find the organization that is right for you.

Self-care should be a priority, not an afterthought. You chose to continue your education in a scientific field because it excited and interested you, so don’t let the daily grind rob you of that joy. If you find too long has gone by and you can’t regain your enthusiasm and excitement, it may be time to leverage resources that can help you to regain your footing.

In the end, you are the person most in touch with your own men­tal health, keeping in mind there are many supports and resources you can turn to. Just like any other activity, it takes time, attention, and practice to learn what you need, what works for you, and what does not. The earlier and more you learn about what the options are, and which ones work for you, the better off you will be. Managing your health, either physical or mental, is a continuous balancing act, and practice can be the key to success.