Taking care of your Mental Health and Wellbeing on a PhD

This week, one of our PhD students Charlott shares her insights into approaching the challenges of a PhD in a way that promotes a healthy body and mind.  If you’re not a PhD student, do keep reading, as there are plenty of tips and insights applicable to all academic programs and for life after study too. 

We particularly like Charlott’s point about reaching out and talking to someone if you’re struggling, especially with national TimeTo Talk Day just around the corner on the 1st of February! 

Thank you Charlott. 

I have always wanted to do a PhD. During my undergraduate I was taught by inspiring people who showed me the magic of research and after skipping a Master’s degree due to financial reasons, I started my PhD at King’s College in January 2016. At this point I was so full of excitement and confidence from the undergrad exams I had aced, that I was certain I would equally breeze through my PhD. I knew it would be a challenge, but this knowledge was more of a vague notion, rather than my own conviction.

Fast forward to the Upgrade Proposal, several months into the program:

My supervision circumstances had changed, I moved to another lab and was scrambling to prepare a decent upgrade proposal. Despite the efforts of my supervisors all those things combined took a toll on me.  I felt overwhelmed by the amount of work I was expected to do, unsure if I had done enough reading, if I understood everything, if I was good enough, if I was a failure after all. I never had to deal with not being successful academically. The uncertainty, the loneliness, the not-being-top-of-the-class-anymore, I wasn’t prepared for. I stopped going out as much, I ate badly, I slept badly, I worried all the time about every aspect of my life and my work suffered.

I am telling this story not to discourage anyone from doing a PhD, but to point out how important it is to take care of your mental health. While I have come a long way from the anxious student described above, I admit that doing a PhD is still not always easy. This is why I have created a list of things that can help to keep you sane until your doctorate (and hopefully beyond):

Expectations vs Reality

Many people have unrealistic expectations when starting out on a PhD and that’s perfectly fine, even necessary. To embark on a big task like this you need confidence, a strong believe in yourself and maybe even a little naivety. Those things are great to have, but familiarise yourself with other people’s experiences, and be aware that when things are getting difficult, it’s not you, it’s the very nature of a PhD to be a pain in the buttocks from time to time.

Talk to someone

I decided to add this point quite early on, because whoever you are and whatever your situation is; if you feel you’re not coping, you’re lonely, or you just have an off day: talk to people. Obviously, this can be to friends, family, your pet, random conversations in the office kitchen or corridor. Talking to other students about their messed-up experiments can put everything into perspective again.

Portrait of two beautiful young girlfriends sitting in modern coIn addition to this King’s College provides counselling services (including same day appointments with a Mental Health Advisor), which helped me a lot when I first experienced anxiety and didn’t know what to do with myself. The NHS offers counselling services, which usually require a longer waiting time, but have helped me immensely. Note, that those things might take a while, but you can always contact charitable organisations, such as the Samaritans, at any time of day (more details below).

Meditation

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When someone suggested meditation to me, my first reaction included heavy eye rolling. I couldn’t really picture myself sitting in an incense filled room going “ooooom”, when my anxiety barely allowed me to sit still as it was. But then I stumbled across the Headspace app and it helped me massively. I would recommend trying it out for anyone who ever felt that their heads were full to the brim with thoughts, worries or anxiety. The app offers a huge range of different guided meditation sessions, including 1-3 minute emergency ones, anxiety related mediation or just sessions that you can listen to before a nerve-wracking presentation. I know that this won’t be for everyone, but give it a go before resorting to eye rolling.

All the things you know already

I know, I know, healthy eating and exercise are being shouted from the rooftops everywhere. And I am the first to admit that I am not great at following my own advice here. BUT, eating in a way that provides you with enough nutrients and getting some movement in are huge mood busters for me. I will never skip all the biscuits or go running every day of the week, but having comforting home cooked meals, rather than pizza every night and going for a walk during your lunch break do make a huge difference. Don’t overdo it with the good intentions if you’re a bit of a lab bench potato, just try and incorporate some movement throughout your day, get out into the fresh air and eat an apple here or there. Healthy body, healthy mind and all that.

Don’t overdo it!

I think this is the most important lesson I’ve learned: don’t overdo it. Sometimes, when I felt just overwhelmed with work, I would react to it by staying in the lab for 12 hours a day and spending my weekends thinking about work / actually being at work. A PhD IS hard work, however burning yourself out is not going to help anyone. Try to make a plan of the work you have to get through, treat your PhD like a job and go home when you’re done for the day. It seems obvious, but a lot of students feel peer pressure to basically live in the lab and you really really don’t have to! Yes, there might be the occasional weekend or late shift, but always make sure to get enough free time and do something nice for yourself.

Summary

  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, you’re doing great
  • Make time for yourself, friends and family
  • Have a plan, but don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t all go smoothly (it never does!)
  • Treat yourself with whatever makes you feel good
  • Stop and actually listen to your body and brain, they have a lot of clever things to tell you
  • Just try to enjoy it, remember: it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience

Useful contacts

 

 

New Year New Start: The KCLSU Advice Service

NYNS_Materials_WebpageFooter (007)We hope that you’re enjoying New Year New Start!  If you’ve been to one of the chill-out zones, you might have noticed that one of the KCLSU Academic Advisors was on hand to deal with exam-related queries and concerns. 

This blog entry comes from Adina Bernstein, Advice and Support Outreach Coordinator for KCLSU who fills us in on how their advisors can help with academic concerns and even shares how she looks after her own wellbeing at busy times of year. 

A day in the life of KCLSU Academic Advice

KCLSU Advice supports more than 1,300 students each year, many at exam time. We provide confidential, independent, impartial advice for all King’s students on plagiarism, exam misconduct, complaints, appeals, and when their fitness to practice is called into question.

Here’s what a typical day might look like in our office:

 I get to the office at 8.30am and log on to my emails straight away to check the Academic Advice inbox. Things can get quite busy during the exam period as we aim to get back to every student within two working days; this can be an anxious time for students one of the best things about the job is being able to reassure people at a difficult time.

 Most of the people who get in touch during exams have some sort of Mitigating Circumstances (or “mit circs” as we usually call them) which affect their ability to study and sit exams. Mental and physical health really affect students’ ability to study, as do family and personal circumstances. If there was one thing I could tell students it’s that we really do welcome them contacting us even if they’re not sure whether they have mit circs. We will never judge you or tell you what to do and can advise by email, phone, and Skype as well as face-to-face.

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 When a student comes to me with mitigating circumstances, I usually help them by going through the form they have to fill in and letting them know what evidence they need, such as a note from a doctor. This is usually a simple process once you know how to ask for it, and we can empower students with the knowledge and confidence to ask for what they need. It’s really positive to know I can help students get their mitigating circumstances granted at this stage as this usually means they won’t have to go through an appeal.

The  exam period is certainly one of our busiest times, and one of our most rewarding in terms of the work we do with students, but all of our other work still continues at the same time.  It’s really important for me to take care of my own wellbeing at this point in the academic year, so I work hard to balance new and existing cases and remind myself to take the advice I give my students and take a break!

You can speak to one of the KCLSU academic Advisors this week at the New Year New Start chill-out zones.  More information here

They are also contactable all year round in term time by telephone and email.  More information here

New Year New Start – My Experience of Coaching

Welcome back and a Happy New Year!  As 2018 begins some of you may be heading into exams and even more will probably be thinking about goals and resolutions for the new year.  To help you start the year in positive style and offer some moral and practical support during exams, King’s Wellbeing and KCLSU are running a New Year New Start campaign with a variety of activities.  More details available here

This week, we also have a testimonial from one of our coachees about their experience of wellbeing coaching and how it helped them to set and reach positive goals.

My Experience of Wellbeing Coaching

I think I speak for everyone when I say that we all want to be the absolute best versions of ourselves. In our ever-changing, fast-paced and competitive society we ceaselessly strive to be better and do better. While this is an admirable attitude to have, it can come at a cost.

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Over the past few years, there has been a lot of movement towards wellbeing – you may have even heard the words wellness and mindfulness being thrown around. There are so many ideas on what this entails and how you should achieve it in your life that it can all get a bit confusing! It is time to demystify it and show how simple yet important it really is.

What is wellbeing?

In a nutshell, wellbeing is a physical and mental state of being happy, healthy and comfortable in your surroundings/career/studies/life!

How does this coaching service differ from counselling?

When recommending this service to a few friends, one of the most frequent questions was: is this a counselling service? The answer is no.

Whilst both services aim to help you move forward positively in life, counselling provides a deeper level of emotional support to help you better understand your current emotional state and find coping strategies to deal with the challenges in life.  Depending on the approach, it may also look in more detail at past events for a better understanding of the present.  Wellbeing coaching looks to the future and allows you to build tangible, attainable goals for personal development  in order for you to achieve your happiest and more successful self.

As well as this, wellbeing coaching is for everyone – you can be happy and healthy and still benefit from this service! When I started using the service, I wasn’t unhappy or struggling with anything in particular.

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Going into my final year at King’s, I wanted to make sure that I was maintaining a healthy work-life balance and making the most out of my time. This is exactly what the service has helped me to achieve! Rather than telling you what to do and how to manage your life, the highly-trained wellbeing coaches engage in conversation with you and help you to come up with actionable solutions and tools that will ensure you reach your personal goals and positive change. For example, I wanted to make sure that I was getting enough study-time in during the weekdays whilst still allowing time for myself to rest, exercise and socialise. Keeping up with my studies and still getting enough sleep and me-time is so important to me, and having not been so good at maintaining this balance in the past, I knew that this was an area that I could definitely improve in.

pexels-photo-261909 (1)What wellbeing coaching has allowed me to achieve is identifying my optimal studying hours and making the most of these so that the workload is manageable rather than daunting. What’s more, coaching helped me to feel more confident in my present self and to look to the future with excitement rather than worry.

How can YOU benefit from this service?

University life comes with its challenges for every student – managing academic study, being in control of your finances, and maintaining healthy and happy relationships to name a few! Having to juggle everything can get a bit much sometimes, and every once in a while you need a bit of support and guidance.

Wellbeing coaching is all about setting goals for your future – emotional, physical, academic or professional! This service is incredibly empowering and eye-opening as it helps you tap into your inner resources in order to elicit positive and healthy change in your life

To find out more about wellbeing coaching click here

To find out more about the KCL Counselling Service and Mental Health Advisors click here