So, this post has been a long time coming almost a month in fact. I promised a week by week synopsis of my time conducting fieldwork in Boston and well I failed, I managed one week in total. However, I hate that word fail or failure or failed or whatever derivative works because I don’t actually think there is such a thing as failing as cheesy as it might sounds, try again and keep trying. So, I won’t say I failed to write about Boston each week instead I’ll say I was prioritising. I prioritised my fieldwork and maybe once or twice my social life. Normally, I would beat myself up for this, beat myself up for making a commitment and not being able to come through but in the last couple of months I have been trying to figure out the negative attitudes and reactions I have towards myself and work towards changing how I deal with these, changing how I (over)think, changing how I deal with my anxiety because yes, I suffer from anxiety and yes, it is a mental illness and unfortunately, it has a tendency to ruin important times in my life through worry and stress. I set out to write about my final three weeks in Boston (and I will soon) but I think considering the attention mental health has recently gotten in the media and understanding the negative attitudes and reactions I and others have to oneself is a much more important topic. A topic that is rarely spoken about in work either by my peers or by our mentors even though it can be one of the most debilitating aspects of a person’s characteristics.
Before I begin I want to make it clear that this is completely from my own perspective and that not everyone who identifies as doing one of these actions suffers from mental illness. Instead, these are normal actions that most people undertake on a daily basis that can contribute to someone developing or can maintain mental illness.
Problem: Not saying no
How many times have you had a diary or calendar with no empty space? How many times have you had to skip that run or skip a meal or go to bed late and wake up early just so you can meet deadlines? How many times in the midst of all that do you agree to take on something else? This might sound like an injury lawyers advertisement but seriously ask yourself those questions.
I do it all the time, I often feel like I am incapable of saying no. A very recent example, (it only occurred last week) I was asked to cover someone’s invigilation shift during the University exams, over the phone I explained that I had a meeting with my supervisor and that I wouldn’t be able to do it. However, for me that wasn’t the end of it. I felt so bad that I had said no that I ended up emailing and saying if I can be half an hour late I can do it. This is not a good reaction or attitude towards a situation. I couldn’t do it, I said no and that should have been it.
I recognise this behaviour, I recognise that I am a people pleaser and that I tend to put everyone else’s happiness ahead of my own but is that really an ideal way of living? I don’t think so, I think it burns you out and creates a person incapable of being happy because they never have time to do what they want to do or to complete their own work creating more stress and worry.
Recognise the action! Recognise that you have a tendency to people please, to agree to help or do a favour without actually thinking of yourself. Then (and I swear I am going to start doing this) instead of saying yes straight away say something like “let me check my calendar” or “I am not sure I’ll have the time but let me check and I’ll get back to you by this evening or in the morning”. Give yourself some time to think through what they have asked you to do, how long it will take, will it affect your schedule and “done list” (more on this later) dramatically and most importantly, can you actually do this without stressing yourself out?
If the answer is yes, then great help away because let’s be honest nobody likes someone who never does anything for anyone else. However, if the answer is no, tell them but don’t feel as if you have to defend yourself and explain why you can’t help (that’s an action of guilt) just say “I’m sorry I can’t help, I have no free time” and then if you begin to feel guilty go eat some chocolate (I have to agree with Prof. Lupin chocolate cures everything) or go for a run or simply remind yourself of why you had to say no but whatever you do don’t give into the guilt especially when you know you had no choice.
Problem: Putting yourself under pressure
This relates to the first issue and learning to say no will go a long way to helping you here. I am always writing unrealistic to-do lists or giving myself deadlines without actually considering everything else that I have to do and places I have to be before that deadline. This puts me under a lot of pressure and I often feel like I haven’t had a successful day, week or month because I didn’t finish all my tasks but what I forget about is all the things I did complete. This has a very negative effect on me, I get completely stressed out, I end up in a bad mood, I eat all the wrong food, I don’t sleep and I let exercise or relaxation time slip by. When this is a continuous action, you end up exhausted and unmotivated, I’m sure you have heard people saying they just aren’t motivated anymore or they don’t care anymore, I have been a victim to those sentences. It’s a vicious circle of to-do list->undone tasks->bad decisions and moods->to-do list with leftover tasks and new tasks and so on until you end up with a to-do list you can never finish in a reasonable work day.
I read recently on lifehack.org about done lists. It’s a great article that goes through why done lists are so much better than to do lists and it even offers some advice as to how you can begin a journey of no to-do lists but one full of done lists.
In the last couple of weeks, I have scrapped the to-do lists except to remember due dates etc. I just write them down in the notes on my phone, no DO TODAY or MUST FINISH BY TUESDAY, instead they are just there. I then flick through my phone and I find a task that is urgent or one I would like to do and work on that and I repeat this action. Then at the end of the day rather than ticking boxes, I write down what I completed today. This has the complete opposite affect on me, instead of feeling down and stressed, I feel like I have been productive, I feel energetic and happy. I make good choices and I do normal stuff like exercise and give myself relaxation time.
Problem: Sleepless nights and sleepy days
When I’m stressed or worried I don’t sleep or at least I don’t sleep well. This is becoming less of an issue as I make the changes I have suggested above but it has been a huge issue for the last year. I regularly went 2 or 3 weeks without a proper nights rest and found that my productivity rates were down during the day as I suffered from awful headaches, lack of energy and difficulty concentrating. I’d spend my nights thinking about everything I have to do tomorrow, thinking about that email I forgot to send, thinking about different parts of my PhD and worrying about work, family, my life etc.
Implementing the above ideas will help but for me regular exercise in the early evening helps to calm me down and then I leave post-its and a pencil on my bedside locker and when I have a worry I write it down and who I need to speak to, when I forgot to send that email I write it down so I won’t forget again, basically I write. I didn’t think this would work but it does instead of spending a half an hour worrying about something writing it down feels like a release and it allows me to recognise that I can’t fix it now but its written down so I can deal with it in the morning. This might not work for everyone but it has helped me to regain the power over my brain and I can now sleep relatively well, which of course means that my productivity has increased and my done lists for a day are getting longer resulting in being happier, less stressed (I’m a PhD student I’ll always be somewhat stressed) so I sleep better. It’s a happy little feedback circle of positive actions and results.
Problem: Too much negative re-enforcement
By negative re-enforcement I refer to all those negative things you say to yourself about yourself. My biggest issues would be with my confidence and self-esteem and I regularly tell myself how horrible I look or that I am not smart enough or that I don’t belong in this PhD. Out of all the negative issues I have this is probably my worst one and the hardest one to overcome. None of the above actions really help me to overcome these insecurities and I know too well how they are affecting me such as I never defend my work against criticism (I am working on this) or I struggle to look in mirrors. To be honest its hard writing how negative re-enforcement affects me as I don’t think I can actually comprehend and list how it affects me because it’s such a huge part of who I am.
I am not sure I have a solution for this. I haven’t found one that works yet. Instead, I try small things like “fake it till you make it” to try and act like I’m confident in work or accepting compliments rather than questioning them or worse completely discounting them by using things like she is my mum, sister, friend, he is my dad, brother, friend, supervisor they have to say that! No, they don’t! They don’t have to give you a positive compliment if they don’t want to, so I try to make myself use that logic and accept their compliments.
I have spoken about four actions that I see amongst my peers; actions that are negative and affect us all. Most importantly, these actions can lead to anxiety, social exclusion, depression and more. Protecting our mental health is a huge issue and one that you can do as an individual. Recognise these actions and responses (and all the other ones I couldn’t discuss) both in you and friends. Don’t advise them but instead offer helpful tips, bring them for ice-cream or coffee, simply be there. Recognise that not everyone who acts like the above has a mental illness but learn to know what is normal and what could be different. Accept that mental illness is real and people need help. Actively discuss mental health, open up about your own mental health but most importantly, work together to fight it and actions, such as the above, that can negatively impact anyone!
Mental health isn’t an individual’s problem its everyone’s problem and we need to start recognising that and helping those in need rather than berating them or mocking them for it because from personal experience the mocking only makes anxiety, depression, OCD, any mental illness, worse. Even what is deemed harmless banter can affect someone suffering from mental illness in a way you never imagined.
So, the next time you have a friend stressed out or worried, especially a friend you know is or could be suffering from a mental illness be kind rather than “humorous” and simply be there!