PhDepression: Practical Ways to Start New Habits

The new year is a new horizon full of possibilities and potential. While the clean slate can seem daunting to some, to others it represents an opportunity to commit themselves to something new. Although these New Year’s resolutions are good, they are often not very sustainable (we all know you can’t completely cut pizza out of your diet!). Instead of setting yourself up for failure with goals that you have probably already forgotten, it may be better to instead focus on beginning new habits. With all of the uncertain twists and turns of graduate school, one of the most important habits to establish is a plan to evaluate your mental health.

Recently, Nature Biotechnology published an article that shocked academia. Nature Biotechnology reported that almost 40% of all graduate students, not just graduate students in the sciences, had symptoms of depression and anxiety. When you think about the many pressures of graduate school (funding, interaction with bosses, long hours) it’s not a huge surprise that students suffer from anxiety and depression.What is surprising is how little is being done about the high levels of anxiety and depression in graduate students.

UNC’s own graduate student, Susanna Harris, created the Instagram page PhDepression to not only draw attention to the lack of support for those in graduate school dealing with mental health crises, but to also provide a safe space for those people who are dealing with mental health issues. I sat down with her to have a conversation about some practical ways to start new habits and take care of your mental health. The first step to begin a mental health journey is recognizing that a problem exists and then making the decision to address the problem. From here you can choose to find resources to help and work to change thought patterns. Finally, most of the work comes from actively maintaining those behaviors.

Perform a mental health evaluation: Once you recognize that a problem exists Susanna recommends determining where you are in your mental health journey. This may sound daunting, but it just involves taking online surveys that ask questions like “How often are you sleeping through the night? and “How often do you feel anxious?”. It can be a productive way to stop and think if you are stressed or depressed and some potential reasons why. Once you know some of your stress triggers, you can think about how to avoid those triggers or how to deal with them in a way that is less mentally jarring.

Find an accountability partner: If you decide to address a mental health issue in your life, find an accountability partner to open up to. Often, people are not quick to share if they’re anxious or depressed because they fear judgment or do not realize they need help. One of the hallmarks of both anxiety and depression is isolation. While isolation may feel good in the moment, it can lead to negative self-talk, an inability to determine what is true and an overall feeling of helplessness. It is very important to have a person or group of people to whom you can talk and from whom you can seek support. These people can also encourage you and walk alongside you. PhDepression has a Facebook support group called GRAD that you can get involved with to talk with others who are struggling and find encouragement. As always, it is important to find someone who understands your struggles but can also help you make positive steps forward.

Develop some tools to combat anxiety/depression: Gathering a list of resources is extremely helpful to begin managing your mental health and one of the first resources you need to prioritize is time! If you are not prioritizing time for yourself to decompress, then you will not be an effective grad student/friend/spouse/etc because burn-out is lurking behind the next corner. It’s easy to put yourself on the backburner, especially during graduate school when it seems like there’s so many other important things that clamor for your attention. Doing something you love will help you switch off your science brain so that you can be aware and excited to get back to science. It is not selfish to take the time to refill your ‘you’ tank. Calling activities self-care makes them easy to put off. Instead, think of your hobbies/activities as necessary life tools that you need to prioritize and set aside time for. Your friends/family/significant others will thank you for it and you will be a more well-balanced graduate student.

Write a letter to your future self: One way to work to change your thought patterns is to write a letter to your future stressed self speaking the truth that your balanced, relaxed self knows. Doubt and negative self-talk happen during those times of stress, uncertainty and pressure. Reading a letter and getting a reality check from your past self can be the kind of support you need to get back up on your feet and try again.  

Making a plan for your mental health can seem daunting but can produce lasting results in your life by helping you manage your anxiety/depression. The plan is a great place to start but ultimately you have to actively maintain the new behaviors you’re learning and persevere through the hard times. PhDepression has great resources and encouragement on their Instagram page to help you as you begin your journey!

Peer edited by Kaylee Helfrich.

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About Emma Hinkle

Emma is a first-year graduate student in the Giudice Lab and the Genetics and Molecular Biology Department. Epigenetics is her passion and she is currently investigating the effect on mechanotransduction on alternative splicing. She is a lover of the God who set her free and the husband who makes her laugh. In her free time, she plays violin, reads as many books as possible and drinks many cups of tea and coffee.

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