When I was little I remember being enthralled with an episode of Sesame Street, where Elmo talked about the wonders of having an imagination. At the time I marvelled at the fact you can create all kinds of amazing worlds with your mind alone. But as I’ve aged, I’ve also discovered that having a powerful imagination combined with anxiety means your mind can jump to all kinds of unpleasant fictions.
For example, I have this amazing ability to catastrophise to the extreme in any given situation. It ranges from the absolutely minute – Got somewhere to go today? Better wake up early and set two alarms just incase one doesn’t work. To the moderate – Got to get to the airport? Better leave four hours ahead of time in case there’s an unforeseen accident along the way. To the absurd - Slight turbulence? Better figure out which God to pray to because I am now facing certain death.
Unfortunately my proclivity for fanciful worries is not limited to stressful situations like travelling, but is instead an everyday part of life - Going for a short walk? Better put my valuables out of sight in the house in case I get robbed in the next 20 minutes. Or - Going to bed? Better check the stovetop to prevent the fire that will inevitably happen while I’m sleeping. And my favourite - Home alone on a sunny day? Better lock the doors incase a murderer comes to visit. Sometimes having a catastrophising mind can be exhausting.
Living with worry can be pretty tricky, and becomes exaggerated when things get hectic, morphing from simple stress to full blown anxiety. Anxiety is a real condition that is more than just normal worries and stresses – it’s something that stays with you and is often triggered by ongoing pressures. Unfortunately doing a PhD involves a constant and very low burning level of stress, which tends to exacerbate my anxious tendencies. If you’re like me and suffer the occasional panic attack, you’ll know that having strategies for calming yourself is super important. Given that I’m in the third year of my PhD, and (according to everyone I speak to) am now “in the final stretch”, I’ve had to come up with some coping strategies to get me through the everyday. So, here are my top five tips for keeping calm, and carrying on:
1. Eat well, exercise and breath
This one is pretty fundamental, and something I struggle with sometimes when things get sticky. If you have a tricky relationship with food, sometimes anxiety can result in things like binge eating junk food, or not eating much at all. Both things can really tip anxiety over the edge, so it’s super important to try and get yourself into healthy eating habits (and get help with this if you need it). I absolutely don’t mean diets (or calorie counters – the guaranteed way to develop an obsession with food), it just means making sure you have lots of fruit, vegies and protein every day. Nutritional deficits can put your body way out of whack and can seriously affect your mood on a very real bodily level. Exercising is also notoriously helpful for staying grounded, and when I’m feeling really overwhelmed a bike ride or a walk helps so much. I am the opposite of sporty, so I have to force myself to get regular exercise, but just making sure that I walk to and from uni for instance, can really help. My mum also always texts me “remember to breath”. And she’s right – taking a few deep breaths when you’re feeling overwhelmed can really help.
2. Surround yourself with supportive people
My tendency when I get very anxious is to be extremely socially avoidant, which can be quite debilitating. Sometimes it’s good to make sure that you schedule regular catch ups with someone you can rely on, and that way you know you’ll have at least one person you’ll have to chat to during the week, who can keep an eye on you if things get tricky. For example, I see my grandma once a week and she keeps an eye on me, always making sure I’m well fed and have all the things I need. It’s also really good to have someone you know you can rely on – that will believe you when you saying you are having a hard time, and will help you get the assistance you need.
3. Have mental health and Hannah days
My mum was always very insistent when I was a child that I should have “mental health days” when stressed. Sometimes I’d have massive fights with her about it because I felt so guilty about missing school, but she was always right – sometimes I just needed a rest. Another great initiative by my mum was the “Hannah day” experience, which was pretty much the same as a mental heath day, but with more pizazz. Once a year or so, I would get to skip a day of school and go to the movies and buy a bookmark. It was a simple treat, but it made me so happy. My mum’s theory was that it was empowering. I still do Hannah days sometimes, go to the movies and buy a bookmark. It’s a great way to relax, and by naming the day it feels like it has more meaning and legitimacy (by all means, I encourage you to take a Hannah day too!).
4. Try not to worry about being worried
This is a tough one, but key. Worrying about worry is one of the main things that keeps you in a destructive cycle – so being able to name and then acknowledge that you have worries and that that’s okay is important. If you’re struggling, one thing that can help is either keeping a list of worries and designating a time to worry about them, or dedicating a whole day to worrying. On a worry day, when a worry comes up you can just say “it’s okay, it’s a worry day!” It is surprisingly helpful.
5. Remember it’s okay to relax
I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like to nap, because I get stressed that I’m losing time where I could be productive. Basically, I have trouble relaxing. And the thing is, if you’re trying to be constantly active, sometimes you can actually be less productive because you burn out more quickly. Giving yourself permission to do nothing at all can be very helpful. Reading magazines, watching crappy TV, lying down or taking a bath, can all be great for keeping calm. While you might be able to “legitimise” watching trashy TV because you can critique it academically, it’s also important to remember that it’s okay to enjoy watching trashy TV! You don’t always have to have your brain on.
I’m certainly not a mental health professional, and the ideas listed are just things that help keep me on track generally. But it’s also really important to seek professional help when you’re finding it difficult to cope. Ironically, I always worry that I’m not truly anxious enough to see a counsellor or psychologist. But really, if you’re wondering whether you should go and talk to someone, you probably should. They’ll certainly tell you how you’re tracking. If you’re in Australia you can visit your GP and get them to do a mental health care plan, which means you can access visits to a psychologist via Medicare (which makes it much more affordable, or if you find someone who bulk-bills = free!). Plus if you’re under 25 you can access Headspace, which doesn’t cost anything.
You can also access the Beyond Blue website, which has lots of helpful resources. Or if you are in Australia, in times of crisis you can call Lifeline on 131114. I once called them up because I had lunch with a friend who was having suicidal thoughts. I got help for my friend and made sure they were okay, but was feeling very distressed afterwards. I called Lifeline and they talked me through things, which made me feel much calmer.
Mental health is a difficult thing, because not everyone you will encounter in life will take it seriously. It can be really hard if you have a colleague or a friend who doesn’t “believe” in mental health issues. The most important thing is that you take your own mental health seriously – and when things are feeling off, remember that it is totally legitimate to seek help.
If you have any coping strategies that you would suggest, feel free to share them in the comments below! :)