Mental Health during a PhD: lessons from my first year

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

In the past year of my PhD, I’ve been learning that in order to feel seen and supported, you need to let people see you. It can feel challenging and uncomfortable to be vulnerable in a professional or academic setting, but talking about mental health struggles with both my supervisors and other PhD students has been key in helping me gain the support I need to work through difficult times.

I have also been recognizing the value of balance, and the kind of routines that can help me feel balanced in my life and in my mind. I see myself as someone with a wide emotional range, and it’s not uncommon for me to feel like I oscillate from one end of the spectrum to the other. I see my challenge as accepting those fluctuations and learning how I can ground myself. 

The struggles that I have in my PhD are certainly an extension of the struggles I have in my emotional life and mental health, and that can make them difficult and often overwhelming to face. Accepting that I often find myself on opposite ends of that emotional spectrum and learning what I need to do to bring myself back to a grounded place is not just the work of my PhD, it is the work of my life. I recognize that I usually do my best work when I am grounded, consistent, and committed to the process.

Notes to self: What to remember during the PhD

Here are a few things that I want to remember as I continue my PhD journey (notes to self, built from my own reflections and advice I’ve received from others): 

  • Productivity (and success) might look different for you than someone else, it also might look different day by day. Define it on your own terms. 
  • Accept that the lows will happen and trust that you will find your way back. Struggle adds depth to the experience and increases gratitude in moments where you feel great about your work. 
  • This is important work, but it doesn’t define you or your self-worth. Let go of the shame that can come up when you feel that you aren’t good enough or haven’t done enough, as this is not a helpful feeling for moving forward. 
  • Recognize your meltdown moments. Step away and do what you need to do to take care of yourself. 
  • It’s always much clearer to reflect on emotional challenges than to experience them in the moment. In the moment it feels messy. When you are unclear on what you need, talk to someone about it. Let people in. 
  • Draw upon all the support and resources available to you. Ask for what you need, and don’t be afraid of having/expressing needs (especially needs outside of intellectual guidance). 
  • Find your communities of people who can support you and relate to you in your PhD journey and continue to nourish all the valuable relationships in your life. 

Mental health as an ongoing process

I see emotional health and wellbeing as an ongoing journey, and I’ve found it is important for me to speak openly about this, to move through it, and not hide when I am struggling.

It feels unrealistic to live a life without stress and anxiety but having the tools and support to manage it is the difference between complete overwhelm and what I like to think of as “liveable anxiety”. I’ve also come to understand how a certain degree of anxiety can push me to stay focused on tasks and committed to the work, and that it doesn’t have to be a negative thing. The challenge is to find balance and learn how to manage both time and energy in a way that feels sustainable. This will always be an ongoing process. 

Recommended Reading:

Shannon O’Rourke: Where I’m starting from: responding to impostor syndrome

Serena Haines: Wellbeing during a PhD

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