I get by with a little help from myself: making self-care a priority when times get tough

It’s the holidays, which means making the lighting-fast gear shift from last semester’s grading to next January’s grant deadlines, all while navigating the ups and downs of the holiday season. For me, it’s been more downs than ups (family drama, and distance always sucks). I’m feeling the weight of anxiety and depression pretty heavily this season, and a series of rejections hasn’t helped. I’ve had a really hefty travel schedule, too. I still haven’t replaced the social safety net I had in graduate school, and I’m feeling pretty isolated. For better or worse, I’m not feeling very resilient right now.

And yet that’s exactly what I need to feel, to bolster myself for a new semester (two new courses to prep!), and three NSF deadlines in January, and manuscripts to write, and students who need me to be a rock through their yough times, too. Plus, given the long turnaround times of papers and grants, I’m already thinking about next year’s review even though I just turned in this year’s (it was really positive, but I hear the Year 3 reviews are brutal in comparison).

Anyone who knows me well knows that I don’t like to wallow; I try to give myself space to feel what I’m feeling, and then I shift gears, make plans and work on moving on. So, how does an occasionally depressed-and-grumpy academic get by? With self-care! It’s important to make time and space for taking care of yourself, even when you’ve got deadlines and expectations. This is true at any career stage, but it’s so, so easy to forget.

It’s important to remember, though, that some forms of “self-care” aren’t actually really that great for us, and they may reinforce unhealthy habits. I know that I tend to emotionally overeat, so I’ve worked hard to come up with treats for myself that aren’t food- or drink-related. Similarly, as someone who often uses retail therapy in unhealthy ways (I grew up poor and have had to unlearn a lot of bad fiscal habits), I try to avoid shopping when I’m down for the same reason. Hitting the snooze bar or skipping out on socializing are also not always the best thing — for me, sleeping in can trigger a migraine and make me tired for the rest of the day, which makes me feel worse. My therapist used to tell me to “act normal until you feel normal,” and it was great advice. I never regret pushing myself to get out of the house, even when I’m not feeling it.

Similarly, therapy helped me learn that venting is not always the best way to process. Think about it; when does venting ever make you feel better? Usually, it just gets me riled up, and I end up more upset than before. Resist the urge to get a group of other academics together for an airing-of-grievances. It’s one thing to say “here’s what I’m going through, and it’s hard, so I’d love some comfort right now.” Venting is entirely different, and the more people that get caught up in it, the more the bad feelings and stress tend to be amplified.

So what does work, in terms of self-care? A comforting book or TV show, a glass of wine, or a little home pampering routine can go a long way on a day-to-day basis, but sometimes you need to break out the big guns. Here are some things I’ve found helpful:

Yoga, zumba, or other forms of exercise: We all know that moving our bodies can make us feel better. But sometimes, it’s hard to get off the couch. I highly recommend signing up for a class. As cheesy as it sounds, having appointments to get yourself moving can make a huge difference, and if you paid for it, you’re more likely to actually do it. Whether it’s rock climbing, dance lessons, or a weight-lifting class, try something new. Novelty plus exercise-induced endorphins plus a sense of accomplishment will do wonders, and help reset your brain.

Meditation: I thought I hated meditation until I tried Headspace, a mindfulness app. The app challenges you to “take 10,” with ten ten-minute sessions of guided meditation for beginners. It’s not too frou-frou, which I appreciate; I just started it recently, and I’ve noticed benefits right away. Once you’re hooked, you have the option to subscribe, which unlocks a ton of “packs” of 30 meditations, plus some one-off sessions for mid-day freakouts, problems with sleep, new approaches to commuting or eating, or other applications. Mindfulness is wonderful, and I cannot recommend this enough.

Pampering: I hate that getting pedicures, facials, or other activities are looked down on as feminine indulgences for the appearance-obsessed. I don’t get pedicures for how they look; I get them for how they make me feel. I recently got a facial, and it was the most relaxing thing I’ve ever experienced. This shit costs money, though, so if you can’t afford one, get your friends together for a DIY night. You can whip up a lot of masks and treatments with stuff in your kitchen. But seriously, even if you’ve never thought something like a facial or a manicure was your thing, give it a try. You may be surprised.

Have a night out: Take time to do something that is the complete and utter opposite of your work. If you’re an film studies major, go to a natural history museum. If you’re a microbiologist, get tickets to the opera or the symphony. Bonus points if you have to dress up a bit — I find putting on a costume of sorts makes me feel powerful (your mileage may vary). The important thing is to do something fun that takes you outside of your own head for a while– something you can get lost in. Depending on what you need right now, this could be a night with friends, a date night, a family outing, or even (gasp!) just you. Go look at something beautiful for a while, and forget your deadlines and your to-do list. When you start to think about everything you could be doing right now, file those thoughts in a box. You’ll get to them later. If you have to, say the word “no” out loud, firmly, as you might to a persistent puppy.

Therapy: Hell yes, therapy is self-care. I need to find a new therapist, now that I’m in a new place, which is something I don’t look forward to (hence being over a year behind on this). Therapy helped me get through grad school, and it helped me navigate some productivity-killing anxiety during my postdoc. I cannot express how useful it can be. I always feel amazing leaving a therapy session — energized, relaxed, and optimistic. I’ve learned some valuable skills that help me break bad habits, reducing my overall anxiety and depression. I’ve learned to make good boundaries and reduce toxic interactions with colleagues, family members, and acquaintances. If you need it, I hope you have access to it. And if you have access to it, I hope you give it a shot. It’s worth it.

Schedule some damned fun: Start or join a knitting group, a bi-weekly 80’s movie night, a book club, a trivia team, a regular karaoke date, a board game night, a Dungeons and Dragons group, an indoor soccer team, a fly-fishing meet-up, or a local chorus– it doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as it’s 1) fun, and 2) regularly scheduled. If you don’t schedule your fun as an academic, you won’t have it (this is something I learned the hard way). It may seem counter-intuitive to add something to your schedule if you’re over-stretched, but I promise you the benefits to your mental and physical health will outweigh the time demands.

Get some help: If you can afford it, hire a housekeeper, even once a month, for the deep-cleaning. Sign up for a meal delivery program. Drop off your laundry at a wash-n-fold service laundromat. Get someone else to do the yardwork/shovel the walk/do the handyman chores for a while. Reducing your work load and improving your living space will do wonders to restore your sanity, even if it’s only for a short time. You can give yourself permission to let the house fall by the wayside, which is great if you can handle a messy living space. I can’t, and so punting on chores occasionally– but keeping a clean, organized living space–  makes me really, really happy. There’s nothing like the experience of walking into a house someone else cleaned for the first time. At first I felt guilty about the idea of having a housecleaner, but a friend pointed out that this is often a valuable source of income for single homemakers without other skills, and I’ve since relaxed about it.

Yes, many of these things cost money, but even with a few small adjustments (try making your own coffee instead of stopping at Starbucks) you might find that you can fit a few of these into your budget, or come up with workarounds (try trading off on house-cleaning with a friend who de-stresses by cleaning, but doesn’t like to do yard work). The important thing is to get your mind and body in order, to clean your metaphorical and literal spaces out, and to take care of yourself– and to do it in healthy ways.  These may seem like super obvious things, but we all forget to do them. Then, we’re suddenly sitting in a coffee shop parking lot sobbing over an email about renovations or losing sleep over search committee work, or snapping at our loved ones when they ask us if we’re okay. Most of us are academics because we love it, as brutal as our jobs can be. Sustainability is important. Be well. Let’s all make self-care a priority in 2015.

17 thoughts on “I get by with a little help from myself: making self-care a priority when times get tough

  1. It is great for me to be reminded not to vent for venting’s sake. You’re so right, although it might feel good in the moment, iit doesn’t actually make things better. And if the group/person you are venting to/with doesn’t entirely agree, they can be left with the feeling that the people venting are whiners, or just leave with a generally not positive feeling about hanging out with them, which is the opposite of what most of us would like, I think.

  2. I’m writing a response to my year 3 review now– HA! And I had no idea this (brutality of the year 3 review) was even a thing. That makes me feel better. I love all of this. I’m going to try that meditation app since I’ve got most of the other bases covered– gorgeous mani, a lil whiskey in my tea, and still paralyzed by two grant deadlines in January and 2 classes to prep for. I’ll just add, though, one thing that has really helped me. I’m part of an every-other-week mentoring group (all women, all ranks) and it’s really helped. It’s constructive by design, so we bring problems to solve and have a no complaining or venting rule! I highly recommend this. Group has been great for perspective and helping to build that grad school-esque safety net, which honestly, I can only hope to re-assemble, too. Thanks for the posts, Acclimatrix.

    • A “no complaining or venting rule” in any discussion, coupled with “write down something constructive to do/ and-or positive that has happened” .. great ideas

  3. I agree with all of these- especially hiring help. A lot of academics in particular shy away from hiring out their time-consuming domestic work, I think due to some sort of terror of “privilege”, but it helps enormously to have someone else deal with cleaning, yard work, or whatever else you have piling up. Additionally, it gives someone else’s income a boost and helps the local economy. Wins all round.

  4. Someone gave me this piece of advice last autumn, when the skies were getting gray and so was my mood:
    “When you smile, think that all the cells of your body have a bright smile as well”.
    Sounds cheesy for sure, but it’s costless and efficient!

  5. Thanks for the post, those are great suggestions and many are on my list. Hopefully I will manage to improve my life a bit, even though I’m not a great believer in the new years resolutions. I try to periodically assess things and go from there, rather than attempt to change everything at once at the beginning of each year (and fail). The one thing that slightly irritated me, probably because it seems to appear in every other post I read, is the “give up Starbucks coffee” suggestion. Why does everyone assume all folk spend money on such things? Strange. Anyways, good luck in the new year!

  6. Pingback: The Importance of Self-Care in Academia | DoctorAl

  7. I’ve been feeling guilty about spending quite a bit on housekeeping, but thank you for pointing out that it is really self-care! I really like your list, thank you so much for it! Exercise and Headspace are really great too, and for me there is nothing more relaxing than a good pedicure. Here’s to a year of self-care! Good luck!

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  9. Pingback: Physical, Mental, and Emotional Taxation in the Classroom | Pedagogy & American Literary Studies

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