Researcher Life: Managing A Stormy Journey

If you read the blog on The Metaphor, you know that sailing the PhD boat can be difficult for a number of reasons. You may notice a hole in your boat that needs fixing (or else you will drown). There may be a storm you did not foresee. You may run out of resources on sea and have to find your way around on a hungry stomach. Dealing with these requires physical as well as mental resilience, and a PhD is the perfect time to build them. This post will continue in the spirit of The Metaphor and talk about stress management techniques that I use at sea.

I was in India for the last three weeks, relaxing with family, friends and good food in 30 degrees while my home in Europe struggled with snow storms of -18 degrees. I took a conscious decision to go to India when I knew temperatures would be most stressful. I even chose to work a bit while at home this time, because I needed a change of environment to re-think my analysis. In a way, I avoided a physical snow-storm to keep my mental sanity intact. For more on this, do read my post about winter blues.

My India visit acted as a buffer to my existing and would be climatic stressors. If this wasn’t already enough, I also found my Stress Management text book while at home. That’s right, a textbook. For my Bachelor’s degree, we had one year, i.e. 2 semesters of Stress Management. Everything from definitions and models of stress to physiology of stress, illness caused by stress, interventions (physical, emotional, inter-personal), coping strategies, stress in specific environments (occupational, family, student life), so on and so forth. I am really glad we had this one year early on in life, since it help build a lot of strategies and tactics I use even today.

While the trip to India was relaxing and insightful, it took barely 2 days back at work to start feeling the stressful effects of my occupation. I realized I needed to get back on track with all my coping techniques. While on vacation I had comfortably skipped yoga, writing, engaging in any hobbies other than passively watching movies, and don’t even get me started on the on-vacation-junk-diet. Moreover, I had eased up the routine that I held on to so dearly while at work.

Although I use a lot of physical, emotional and social coping techniques, I will not cover them here. It’s general knowledge now that exercise, yoga, hobbies, a healthy diet and having a good social support network are excellent stress management techniques. In fact, my stress management and clinical psychology teacher in Undergrad always recommended to have a bag full of techniques for whatever life throws at you (Thank you for that awesome tip Archana ma’am!)!

Most of us can identify when we need to take a relaxing break, when we need to go for a run and when we need to sit and bitch with friends; but we ignore thinking about the way we think about stress. A major way to deal with Stress is to change the way we think about it. Statements like ‘stop to smell the roses’, ‘remind yourself what you’re grateful for’, and ‘laugh it off ‘ have entered mainstream lingo now. Just motivational statements, however, do not always work for me. I need more detailed models in my head. So along the way, I’ve picked up my own perceptual interventions. Here are some of them that can be used in a variety of environments.

  1. The Vairagya-Aishwaya Classification : This has been with me since the yoga classes I did in my Bachelor honours program. The idea here is that some yoga postures work with gravity and some against. While doing the ones with gravity such as bending forwards or lying down, one has the feeling of surrender or giving in to things beyond you. This feeling or emotion is termed Vairagya. Whereas while working against gravity such as when bending your back or poses that require lifting your body from the ground, one requires strength and self confidence to challenge oneself. This feeling or emotion is termed Aishwarya. When facing challenging situations, I like classifying them as Vairagya Situations and Aishwarya Situations. Are these things I need to surrender to and go with the flow, or challenge myself and conquer them?
  2. The Documenting Approach : From a young age, I’ve had the need to write out my thoughts. Something about seeing them in ink on paper, validates them. So when I was stuck in a ‘am-I-progressing?’ phase at work, I made an excel table with 8 columns, 8 areas that I wanted to see concrete progress in – 4 for professional development, 4 for personal. I filled these columns up on a weekly basis. This served 2 purposes. First, I wasn’t just vaguely scared about being stagnant overall. Instead, I could clearly see that I was making progress, however slow, in column 3, but column 2 had been stagnant. Second, I could feel good about the columns that did make progress. This progress was previously being overshadowed by the stagnant columns. I continue this excel even now, but on a monthly, bi-monthly basis.
  3. The Work Triad : Going through my Stress Management book last week, I re-discovered the studies on Workaholics. A model by Spence and Robbins immediately got added to my perceptual coping bag. They proposed a triad of work involvement, drivenness and work enjoyment. They suggest that workaholics are highly involved and driven but lack work enjoyment, whereas work enthusiasts score higher on involvement and enjoyment than drivenness and have a healthier work lifestyle. This made sense to me and I decided to stop now and then and think if I was being guided by blind ‘drivenness’ to finish my work or if I was still involved enough, and enjoying the process. Sometimes our environment may be focused on drivenness, in turn making everyone in it a workaholic. Something that should be kept in mind and avoided.
  4. The Motivational Bag : Visualizing an actual bag (drawn on paper) of things that you love and your support, was an activity in one of my early Stress Management classes as a PhD. We had to stand in pairs and tell the opposite person what we loved about our work and who or what we considered supporting. This needed to last for 2 minutes, but the first round barely made it past a few seconds. This was tough! It’s interesting how most of us couldn’t just come up with these points on the top of our head, but after doing this multiple times, our paper bag was quite full! Since then, I’ve made it a point to visit and re-organize my bag often and never completely forget it.

Finally, I would like to share with you with two concepts I like to think about when evaluating my own stress levels – daily hassles and daily uplifts.

Daily Hassles are stressors you deal with on a daily basis, such as missing a train to work, troubles with your partner, smoking, concerns and anxieties (about money, meeting deadlines, living up to a standard of work, world events), physical health, noise, pollution, grocery shopping, filling out forms…things we do on a daily basis and things that we think we are used to may be causing more stress related problems than we’d imagine.

Daily uplifts are buffer against all these hassles. Daily Uplifts are things that reduce the negative effects of stress, such as exercise, supportive friends and family, healthy relationships, meditation, watching a nice movie, engaging in hobbies, a baby smiling at you in that train you caught too late.

Stress that you face at any given point is not just based on major life events and trauma but on the ratio and frequency of hassles and uplifts in your life. We can try and eliminate as many hassles as we can, or reduce their frequency, but for those that we can’t we should at least have enough uplifts to compensate.

If you’ve made it this far, here’s something for you to take home and think about – If you were to think about your days in terms of hassles and uplifts, what would the ratio look like? How frequent would each item be? Would a perceptual intervention help?

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