I think I might need help. Staying sane. Which, frankly, most days, I manage just fine. It’s the days when deadlines got my brain so occupied, kids are getting their 3rd strep infection in 4 months (and of course, not sleeping), dishwasher needs to be replaced, fridge is persistently empty (of anything nutritious any way), dog’s got the runs… well, you know, the opening scene from “Bad Moms” comes to mind. Except in the movie, this scenario is funny.
So, what helps you stay sane? You personally. If it’s diet and exercise, that’s wonderful, but that’s not what I’m looking for. I want to know something that keeps your mind in balance of blissful homeostasis after or during an insane day, something that the internet doesn’t know about you. Because, let’s be honest, the internet is already full of really (un)helpful suggestions. But I want less impersonal/generalized/blanket statements about how I must do this or that… until my eyes glaze over with information overload. So I want something a bit more personal.
Ok, I’ll start. For me, I mean besides the obvious (wine was created for a reason!), it’s probably keeping a small garden at work. I have a large window that faces south, and I grow lots of plants. Some bloom gorgeous colors, some are just green and leafy. They make me feel happy and calm(ish). That way, when something has gotten my mind so uptight I feel like my head could snap off any second, I take a moment to water my plants. That feels good. I am doing something productive, taking care of a living thing, and in that moment, my mind rests. Sometimes, I dump whatever cold leftover tea is in my cup to just think “hello there green friend, thanks for blossoming” before I refill with some hot water. That’s another reason why I try to bring my dog to work at least once a week – he forces me to go for a walk and watch him splash in puddles, chase after squirrels and be happy just by being. Also, CandyCrush, but please don’t tell anyone I said so, I don’t want anyone to know because that’s embarrassing.
I have not been shy [here] about expressing how unhappy/stressed/lost I have felt in the first 4 months of my new postdoc role. In addition to the immense solidarity I have found with a few moms with similar circumstances, I have found frequent peace of mind in the following:
- Getting home early enough to spend time with my baby. Because he is my first. Because at 8 months, he is still new (for how long are babies “new”?). Because he is happy and relatively easy right now. I cannot get enough of him or my husband on days that we can briefly stop time and spend a bit of quality all together.
- I live in Sunny Southern Cal, where there are many days that I can take a cup of coffee, step outside of my building and spend a few moments with my caffeine and the sunshine. Before I became a mother, I drank almost exclusively tea; recently, I have swayed toward the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps someday I’ll settle down nicely in the middle…
I have a few strategies to avoid and cope with workplace stressors:
- I try to identify and avoid certain types of people at work: the gossipers, the bullies, the freeloaders, and the unrelenting pessimists. If that’s not possible, I intentionally keep our interactions to polite but impersonal conversations.
- If someone’s having a bad day, I might jot them a quick encouraging email, or buy them a cookie. But I no longer postpone my experiments to talk for hours to calm someone’s nerves before a meeting. Or stay up till 3AM listening to someone practice their terrible talk over and over again. Or routinely clean up after someone else’s lab messes so they won’t get in trouble. Yes, I have done all those things. The funny thing is, you get more credit for buying a stupid cookie.
- I take walks. This is my big-guns stress-buster. Stupid things happen in academia that will drive you crazy if you let them: unfair reviews on papers and grants, soul-destroying amounts of administrative red tape, collaborators making careless mistakes that cost months of work, prehistoric department heads berating you for taking pumping breaks, etc… When these things happen, I need to step out of the lab and I’ve found that short walks work wonders. If the weather is awful, I wander the weird labyrinthine basement tunnels that connect the labs on campus. Eventually, my thoughts fall in time with my footsteps, and I can sort things out. (an added bonus: I know where all the cool, hidden places are on campus. Just discovered a ‘textbook-exchange’ room the other day– who knew?!)
- When the minor stressors start to get to me, I focus on my environment– what can I see? What do I hear? Sometimes I get so lost in my head, or so fixated on something someone’s said to me, it’s like I’m blind to what’s right in front of me. Deliberately trying to notice what my five senses are telling me is grounding and calming.
- I have a savings account with ~6 months of income saved. The knowledge that this money is there prevents me from feeling trapped in my job and servile to my PI or department head. Having this economic cushion stops me from panicking and obsessing over my relationship with my superiors. Which, ironically, has improved my relationships with them (at least from my perspective!)
- I do my best not to feel guilty about any of my sanity-saving methods. Taking even a 15-minute walk can feel like such an indulgence, but if stress is hampering my work, I’m no use to anyone.
Finding sanity has been a real challenge for me at this life phase. I have 2 small children, a job that requires me to be “on” from the moment I walk in the door, I just sold my first home and I’m remodeling a new, larger (and seriously in need of work) fixer. On top of all that, my husband was recently out of town for a month long work trip, and I often feel like I’m drowning. I don’t get nearly enough down time, and nothing is ever “done”. Here are my methods for finding sanity (though I don’t really feel like I’m in a position to be giving advice, but should be taking it).
- Taking a break at someplace new. Instead of going to the convenient starbucks across the street, I’ve been trying a new coffee place weekly. It breaks up the monotony and gives me something to look forward to. Simple, I know.
- Do something that feels tangibly productive: I am about to go clean out my work bag. I have a million other things to do, but having a little order in my life always helps me stay grounded. Some days, I clean the lab space in my classroom, clean out my car, or organize a drawer. I realize that this is actually adding more work to my overly busy life, but it helps me.
And now I’m opening my ears for all your suggestions, because my list is long and my patience is thin.
Besides chocolate chip cookie dough, my go-to when I’m stressed is arranging my calendar. I use Google calendar to map out every hour of my waking days and I check it frequently to keep on task, remember things I’m likely to forget to do, and also de-stress. Yes, I can see how looking at your to-do list could be anxiety producing in many people, but it helps relax me to know that there’s a time set for everything, so it will get done. Even when things are not getting done at their set time, it makes me feel good to just rearrange things, figuring out how the time blocks best fit together like a puzzle.
My sanity searching behaviors have changed over the years. This was an interesting exercise that helped me reflect back on the different work environments I have been in and how the stresses have changed with the different responsibilities, goals, and people. Grad school: In graduate school, it was hard to ever let go of feeling like I needed to be doing something productive. This caused a lot of guilt for me, and that increased my need to escape from it. Going to social media, and getting lost in fun internet searches, and trails was a way I used to escape that feeling. But not in a healthy way, because after this escape, this feeling intensified.
One of the more healthy things I did to grasp onto that sanity was going to career preparation seminars. I would try to sit and chat with the panel member or another mentor-type faculty member. It would help me to widen my perspective, and take in all the possibilities and good ideas without sitting there dumping all my stress onto them in return. That was a fantastic mental escape for me that would leave me with an optimistic feeling that lasted for a while. The downside is that it is not a daily accessible escape. But I would imagine that there might be a few webinars and email questions that might serve this purpose.
Post-doc: A similars set of stresses plagued me during my time as a post-doc fellow. I still sought out refreshing conversations with people who were ahead of me in the career path, but my strategies changed a little during this time, and shifted towards utilizing my peer support a little more. It was different (for me) in grad school, because being an incredibly competitive person, I couldn’t get away from that negative behavior of always comparing myself to my classmates and focusing only on the aspects were I was behind. My post-doc friends all started at different times, and we were not really competing for funding. We just were all kind of dealing with similar fears, personalities and stresses, so talking about it on a coffee run or lunch breaks was very therapeutic. One person and I had a regularly scheduled walk around the building that really helped us clear our heads. I agree with Megan, above, that the most helpful times were NOT with “the gossipers, the bullies, the freeloaders, and the unrelenting pessimists.”
An administrative person that I was friends with at the time was also a breath of fresh air. We would take little breaks and plan on which park we would visit in the coming weekend. When I moved to this new city, she had the idea of going to a new place each weekend. Yes, it did involve exercise, but it would always be early one of the mornings for no longer than an hour, so it really didn’t get in the way of social or work planning at all.
Current gov’t job: The environment I am in now is SO different than academia. The stresses I experience now revolve almost exclusively around people – mostly peers, sometimes management. So, my current strategies revolve a LOT less around people. I actually get lost in my work now, and it is so refreshing to me now when I say “no” to that coffee walk or that lunch outting. For one, it leaves the lab a lot more vacant from the (to use Megan’s phrase again) “the gossipers, the bullies, the freeloaders, and the unrelenting pessimists”, and getting out those short, relatively short reports is SOOOO satisfying. Amazing how my strategies completely flipped with the change in career.
And, like Notarealteacher, organizing also provides sanity.
I wrote above about one or two strategies I used, however, I relate a lot to many of the other things already mentioned. In reflecting back, what sticks out most to me is that I tried lots of things, and it took a while to see what stuck.