“Stayin’ Alive, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Stress”

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From the Badges series…

Stayin’ Alive, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Stress
A Primer

By Adam Feinman

I recently returned from a major scientific conference with 30,000 attendees of all stages of academic life. I tweet with people in all fields and specialties. There seem to be two things that are common between all of them. They are all extremely passionate about their work, and many are not handling the pressure and stress of academia well.

Stress and pressure, particularly peer-pressure, are insidious forces. They infect every department in every school. They are present in every walk of professional and academic life. And the higher up the food chain you go, the bigger the stakes.

Stress-related mental health problems (MHPs) presenting as early as the school years are more common than you think. Whatever you think the fraction of the population has one, doubling that fraction is probably more realistic. You may even have one yourself and not realize it.

Now here’s the $64,000 question: if there is potential for graduate or professional programs to crush my life, then why am I doing this to myself???

Alas, we all have to answer this question for ourselves. But the answer is out there, waiting for you to discover it. It’s certainly possible that the answer is to take a break, it’s very common.

For myself, I knew going into graduate school that designing medical devices was what I wanted to do with my life. The fact that it’s stressful doesn’t change that. You may well find that your goals also have not changed, and you can take strength in that. Sometimes. If you’re going to stick with it, you need to answer this question so you can feel good with it. Talk about it with people who know you well and are encouraging, don’t let the cynicism of the jaded poison you.

At this conference, and through other venues, many people have been opening up to me about their experiences, how they are rebuilding themselves, and why they choose to carry on. There is a huge amount of variety in the paths that led to people having problems, and frankly, the stories are inspiring. I will get around to posting some interviews soon, but for now, this is what I have.

Grossly speaking, I feel like there are two paths to MHPs in graduate school. The first is combining the normal, albeit intense, work-related stress of school with life’s curveballs. The second is living with very high work-related stress for long enough without respite. (If you don’t agree with this assessment, email or tweet me, and maybe our discussion will lead to further refinement and interesting blog posts.)

Unfortunately, there is probably nothing we can do to avoid the first kind. Life does not leave us alone, no matter how hard we try. The second kind may not always be avoidable, but some of the tools that can prevent the second kind overlap with the tools that allow people to cope with (and sometimes heal from) MHPs.

There are lots and lots of articles out there on the Internet that I’ve seen over the years, and I’ve personally found most of them to be garbage. But based on what I’ve seen and what others have told me (particularly at this year’s conference), I have some ideas to share, and some encouragement. (Stories will have to wait for futures posts. They are inspiring enough that they deserve full interviews.) A lot of the things I’m going to say will sound like I’m repeating psycho-babble, but give it a chance, think it over, read it again.

It is very easy to deny that a problem exists. Often, MHPs don’t manifest any physical symptoms. Behavior and emotions are affected; productivity and socializing are stunted. But it could feel like just a little bit. And all your friends are also doing that too, right?

Recognizing an MHP and living with it require first and foremost that one be honest with themselves. MHPs are not shameful, and they can teach more about yourself then you might have ever thought possible. But first, you have to admit it exists. You only stand to gain by this admission, and to lose much by denying it. (You can’t really self-diagnose, but admitting that you need help is the first step to getting it.)

The second, and much more difficult, thing to do is to accept it as part of who you are for the time being. We tend to refer to some MHPs as “emotional baggage”. The term has acquired some strong negative connotations, but the analogy illustrates my point here perfectly. The MHP will not evaporate just because you’d rather not have it. Attempting to fight with an MHP is like trying to amputate yourself. Accepting it as part of who you are is like wearing a heavy backpack. It’s heavy, and it affects your life. It limits what you can do and what you can’t. But it frees your hands and your mind to think about other things and to accomplish.

The third, and arguably most difficult point, is to be yourself. This is important to prevention as well. Stress and MHPs are not all of who you are. There likely are other activities you enjoy besides your work. Be it exercise, music, socializing, or other activities, doing things that make you feel good and break up your week will help you feel like yourself. You have to be pretty careful here though. You may enjoy lots of things, but graduate and professional programs require a lot of time. Think carefully about which activities speak most strongly to the person you were before you started on this career path and the person you currently are. Latch onto those few hobbies and never let go.

An additional element to maintaining mental health or living with MHPs is support. Not everybody likes to share their problems with others, but the value of support cannot be understated. Some of your friends will likely understand what you are going through. But finding counseling or group support can be a tremendously useful tool, both in helping you understand what you are going through and in learning how to stop worrying and love the stress.

I don’t have any interviews yet, but for now, here is a link to a tweep’s posts of feelings and advice about MHPs.

http://phdisabled.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/living-with-depression-while-doing-a-phd/comment-page-1/#comment-31

http://phdisabled.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/chronic-illness-outside-the-academy-part-2/

I’m an engineer and a scientist, so most of the stories I have to draw on come from those fields. If you are reading this and have a different spin (professional school, humanities, etc.), have stories to share, or have topics you would like to hear about, follow me on Twitter (@AMFeinman) or email me at feinman@usc.edu, I would love to hear your experiences!