PhD stress


This post is by Nele Pollatschek (@NRPollatschek), a DPhil (=PhD) candidate at Oxford. A life-long sceptic, Nele’s working on evil and the problem of God’s justice in Victorian literature. In this post, she sounds like a yogi; but in her heart Nele’s a rebel rousing rockstar. Check out her blog, the oxforddphile.

Four years ago, while I was writing a paper for my Master’s degree at Oxford, I came down with a stomach bug.

No, not a stomach bug, the mother of all stomach bugs. I had the worst stomach pain of my life; I had a fever; I couldn’t sleep, let alone eat. At one point it got so bad that I asked a neighbor to stand guard outside the toilet so I wouldn’t faint and suffocate on my own sick. Dignity be damned; that’s how bad it was.

After a week, it ended. Two months later, it returned.

Over the next three years, I would suffer from the mystery illness for roughly a week every other months. I did all the tests known to medicine and a few the doctors made up just to humor me. The conclusion: “it’s psychosomatic” or “it’s stress”.

But I wasn’t stressed. Once I started my PhD, I was mostly a shining ball of well-organized happiness – apart from those weeks were I was a searing ball of pain.

After three years, when I was just about to give up on ever having a normal, healthy life again, two things happened:

1) A friend convinced me to go running

2) Another friend made me try Mark Williams’s mindfulness meditation program

Initially, I hated both.

Mindfulness meditation is not, contrary to what my friend suggested, the solution to life, the universe, and everything. Neither is it, as I thought, attempting the impossible task to think nothing. It’s mostly lying around focusing on small things – breathing, the sensations of the body, the passage of thoughts.

All that annoying focusing made me notice a few things.

For one thing, the daily focus on how my abdomen feels while breathing made me realize that my stomach was not either fine or a burning ball of pain but that it was always in some degree of discomfort. And that I was really good at not noticing pain.

Then I discovered that when my stomach was worse, I’d usually also find a hand clenched without previously being aware of it.

How can you not be aware you’re clenching your fist? I don’t know; it’s possible.

Then, I realized that on some days, I would find focusing almost impossibly hard. Every time, I’d try focusing on my breathing, I’d remember that I needed to pay a bill, or I’d rerun disagreement I’d had in my mind, or I’d mentally write a paragraph.

I also seemed to notice a relationship between my inability to focus on the meditation and my stomach. The effect was not immediate but when I was unable to focus for a few days, I was sure to find my stomach increasingly painful.

While meditating you are encouraged to acknowledge your thoughts (“I’m worrying” or “I’m planning”) before you return to whatever you’re supposed to focus on.

This categorizing  acknowledgement made me realize that, sometimes, I’d be unable to focus on my meditation not because I was too worried but because I was too excited about my research to focus on anything else. At those times, I was ecstatic. I was definitely not stressed or anxious but I wasn’t calm either.

And here’s the shocker: My stomach does not care whether I am happy or sad.

It only cares whether I am calm.

This is why ‘psychosomatic’ never made sense to me. Yes, sometimes I got sick while I was stressed or anxious. But a lot of the time, I got sick after being happy about my work. A

better way of thinking about my stomach situation would be that it’s not only triggered by stress but when I am adrenalized or excited.

Finally, I noticed that whenever I meditated after going for a run, I would find it unusually easy to focus. I discovered that there were certain physical activities that do something to me akin to turning a computer off and on again.

So at the end of my three year odyssey, here is what I have learnt about managing physical and mental health in a high-stress environment:

1) If you suffer from physical symptoms, see a doctor.

Yes, most thought my symptoms were psychosomatic but one friend told me to seek a diagnosis. “I had similar symptoms and everyone thought it was psychosomatic,” she confided, “It was cancer”. Having a mystery illness checked out might make you a hypochondriac but it might just make you a cancer survivor.

2) If you’re sure you’re physically healthy, find a way to diagnose what precisely it is that triggers your symptoms.

“It’s psychosomatic” or “it’s stress” is hardly actionable. What exactly do your thoughts run to when you’re jittery? What exactly is it that you keep worrying about?

A lot of the time when you think you are anxious about everything, you are actually worried about a curiously specific thing (a paragraph, an unpaid bill). Once you know the specific problem, it becomes much easier to solve. Given the repetitive and specific focus, I think mindfulness meditation works as a diagnostic tool for different kinds of people and stress-related problems.

3) Find a way to deal with whatever is causing your symptoms.

This might be the specific problem but, sometimes, the overworked brain simply needs a reboot. For me the reboot is intense physical activity, preferably on my own, with music in nature.

The crucial thing is that you have to be honest with yourself. As much as I’d like the solution to be junkfood and netflix, these things (fantastic as they are) don’t do anything for my stomach or my stress-level.

4) Once you understand the problem and the solution, make a plan and stick to it.

Mostly, I don’t want to run. But knowing that running will make me relaxed and pain free and staying will make me hurt is infinitely more motivating than dreams of a “bikini body” ever could be. Once you really know what works, discipline becomes easier.

5) Don’t punish yourself for what your body does.

By far the biggest obstacle on my way to well-being was the word “psychosomatic” and my natural tendency to react to lagging productivity by pushing myself harder.

I would often stretch my unproductive, tired, pained days to the agonizing limit because I had not “deserved” a rest. If you do this, stop it. If you feel tired, or overworked, or in pain, take a break, treat yourself, and be kind to your body. If you’re feeling awesome, go work. Use the energy you have; running on empty does more harm than good.

My stomach and I have been fab friends for 6 months and counting.

Do you have physical stress symptoms? What are your tricks to staying healthy and happy in the PhD? What do you do to reboot?

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24 thoughts on “PhD stress

  1. Thank you for this important post. I too use running to de-stress. I also find I’m more inclined to eat well and drink more water post-run (hurrah!). I’m taking my running gear to my next two conferences!

  2. That was a fantastic post! I also started running, and migrated to lifting weights and regular training. It was the only way for me to manage my anxiety, and I found that sugar in my diet is a major trigger for anxiety which is important as I tend to eat chocolate and/or drink wine on “those days” which was a negative feedback loop.

  3. Very timely for me. Although my phd has been wonderful in so many ways, it has also exacerbated my anxiety – to such an extent that I lost my appetite and lost quite a bit of weight (that I didn’t really need to lose). I’m in my third year and have so much work to do, but I went for a walk/jog this morning and feel fantastic!

  4. There is actually a physiological explanation for why running works. Stress is something that prepares our bodies to act. It can be bad stress that prompts us to run away or fight, or good stress that prepares us to do something we enjoy, but it’s still stress. In response, we produce adrenaline, which prepares us to take physical action – whether or not the thing that we need to do requires physical action. If it doesn’t (eg paying a bill, writing a paragraph), then the adrenaline just circulates in our bodies, making us jumpy, edgy etc – and can cause gastro-intestinal upset. This is why doing exercise helps, because it uses up the adrenaline we didn’t need to do the writing or bill paying or whatever.

    The good news for people who are not keen on running or not physically capable of it is that any kind of exercise that increases your heart rate and breathing levels to the point where you haven’t enough breath to sing while doing it, sustained for some time (I find 20 mins works) is adequate. You don’t have to run. You can walk briskly or ride an exercise bike, dance. Just find something you can do and program it into your day on a regular basis.

  5. This is EXACTLY what I experience. I always thought I was not stressed, but have terrible frequent nausea and stomach upsets. Then in therapy (see a psychologist if you need help with all this) the penny dropped – I was so stressed that I didn’t know what not-stressed even felt like. My stress and anxiety is a major contributor to my gastrointestinal issues. Now I dance, hard and fast hip hop style, four times a week, and have taken up yoga and meditation. It’s not a quick fix but I’m managing better, which is nice given I’m now well into my third year and want to submit in the next 18 months. The third last paragraph is something so many more people need to hear. PhD = marathon, you just can’t push through indefinitely, so train your habits to pace yourself and respond to yourself. Thanks for a great article.

  6. Vibrant post about a reality many of us are facing. I’m trying to stick to my plan, so I can develop not only better ideas and publish something worth reading and sharing, but I also want to keep my love for writing alive 🙂 thanks!

  7. Great post! As someone who has meditated for more than twenty years, I thoroughly recommend it… It not only brings a sense of calm, it also allows your answers and what you need to know/do next to bubble up… I also put art, music, anything creative in the same boat. They bring joy and utilise different parts of your brain. My supervisor suggested early on that I make sure I keep doing creative things as it has your brain working in different ways that really assists with your PhD (not to mention fun/stress release!). Now I just need to bring in the running, right! 😉 lol

  8. Brilliant post – thank you so much!
    I walk to work – and try to start the day with a watercolour (blind draw something – colour it on) – when I do this I feel joy and self-confidence.. when I don’t…
    If mindfulness does not appeal, get a friend to closely observe you when stressed or paralysed by negative feelings – they may be able to feed back: oh – did you know you are grinding your teeth or clenching your fists… Then you may be able to work on the physical manifestations that are increasing your stress.

  9. Great post, thank you. At risk of sounding like the health advice page in a fashion magazine, I’ve actually found it helpful to cut down on alcohol, caffeine and sugary snacks. I think it’s boosted my concentration and productivity. (Not that I don’t drink tea and coffee – I find these essential for a long day of writing – but I tend to drink decaf these days!)

    Like Nele, I don’t find the phrase ‘stress’ to be helpful either – I try to think of it as ‘feeling the pressure’ instead. At times like this I get through a fair bit of mint, ginger or green tea – great for a delicate digestive system too.

  10. This is pretty damn close to my own experiences. I don’t necessarily get GI problems, but I have this kind of grinding anxiety stomach (I wrote a short post about it here: https://mentalbits.co.uk/2016/06/22/when-it-comes/ ) It took me AGES to figure out it was related to vulnerability, first and foremost and then anxiety. I’ve had it since I was a young teenager.

    After I had a nervous breakdown and being diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder part way through my second year, I’ve been prioritising self care in an unprecedented way. I exercise regularly (biking to work FTW), I take care to eat healthily (plant-based diet FTW) and I now meditate daily and want to take up yoga again. When it’s not fire-y death heat outside (Texas summers not FTW) I sometimes go for a run when I’m feeling jittery, this can definitely help. When anxiety strikes and I feel lethargic and blanket fort-y, knitting is my bestest of chums. Meditative in it’s own fashion, creative and a total delight. I find a good creative outlet is extremely important. Loud experimental music can also be a good escape in a cinch.

    I’m also appreciative of your recognition of giving yourself a break. My advisor does not understand this concept and is “highly driven” (read: workaholic). It can be challenging to not have his demanding voice on repeat in my head when I’m having a hard time getting out of bed. Today for example, I managed to make it to the lab on time, but it’s just before 1pm and I’m already out of energy. However, instead of recognising that and doing something else, I’m sitting here beating myself up for having yet another non-perfect day and for feeling a bit bored. It’s hard trying to carve out your own working strategy when you live in a world that expects you to adhere to regular hours.

    Anyway, thanks for this, I needed it today!

    • Why does your lab require regular hours? If you’re allowed to choose your own schedule, like in many labs, do so and don’t let what anyone else says dissuade you from it. I get in most days at 11 am (and work most days till 1 am), and I’m not even the last in to my lab.

      If they really do require regular hours, then it’s just something you have to do, so damn well do it. You know the vast majority of workers in this world have to have regular hours whether they like it or not? I bet you can be like them. This is only one restriction, and your brain’s overstating its importance to you. You’re more flexible than that.

  11. Great post, it resembles my own experience. After a life crisis with burnout in my first year of my PhD, I started with daily work outs in running, and eventually came in contact with Yoga and meditation. I love and appreciate them in different ways. They help me to adapt to my daily level of energy and concentration, and find a healthy balance between these traits.

    Well, I am dyslexic, and have had therefore my personal struggles with (academic) writing/reading skills my whole life so far. Running helps me to progressive fade out of my thinking to a trance-like rhythm. Yoga is nice to transcend control and letting go of things by finding my own peace between moving, breathing, and gazing. Meditation is a great way to learn to pay attention to do things mindfully in our so distracting, fast-paced, digital (academic) world.

  12. Your almost telling my story… I “only” needed 1 year to find the solution in running and meditation and my sickness was less severe but more frequent… Apart from that, our stories are frightening similar.

  13. This is so important, thank you. I searched for years for an answer to my symptoms. Many doctors dismissed me because they thought my pain was psychosomatic. Turns out it wasn’t, or wasn’t only, but that’s hardly the point–find a doctor who takes your complaints seriously, and helps you find solutions EVEN IF what you experience is psychosomatic.

  14. Hmmm, I have had a feeling for quite a while now that my steadily increasing intake of (any kind of) food and the appearance of hip, shoulder and back pains within minutes of sitting at my desk was possibly related to thesis stress and that there may be more productive ways to manage it than pantry surfing. Thank you for the nudge!

  15. I’ve just graduated with my PhD. It was in creative writing; I lost all joy in reading or writing. This was devastating, although I am now finding my way back to both.

    Taking on too much work as well as my PhD and going through my first experiences of grieving, I ended up with clinical depression, and now have TMJ (constant facial pain, probably from teeth grinding). Both things are complicated to treat, but self-care is going to be how I get myself back.

    Training hard (weights and HIIT), surfing and anything ocean-related, weaving, painting (badly) and guitar-playing (very badly) help. Yoga, as so many other people say – just give it a try and your body and mind will react with wonder.

    Acupuncture has also been recommended to me.

    No alcohol or smoking, proper nutrition, lots of sleep and giving myself time off from my next major project (restoring a house) are also essential. This is harder than it sounds, especially as I work in a pub at the moment.

    Seeing a doctor who actually listens is essential too. Mental health is as important as physical. I’ve had good and bad experiences, but I don’t think I’m a failure because I need medication (working for me) and maybe counselling (no good for me so far) or CBT. I am open to trying anything, from medication to meditation.

    The PhD journey can be all-consuming, but you gotta look after yourself too. Don’t let yourself constantly delay gratification – take a trip, a day off, a walk, a nap, cuddle a puppy, go out with friends, buy that thing you want…and make sure people know that your way of coping is just what has to be done.

    Thanks so much for this. I read a few similar things while immersed in the PhD, and thought, well, I’m strong, I’m going to power through this with no problems. Before I knew what was going on I couldn’t choose what socks to wear in the morning. I thought I was going crazy.

  16. This post really resonates with me! Especially since when I read it last night, I was preparing to go into a meeting I knew would be hell on earth, and I had the worst period pains I’d had in maybe a year. Of course, the pains went away straight after the meeting.

    In my first year, I had the most awful chest pains, and I started wondering whether there was something seriously wrong with my heart and I was seriously ill, especially as I had regular heart palpitations. As soon as I went to see the doctor and he told me nothing was medically wrong, the pains went away.

    I somehow didn’t put 2 and 2 together on that till I took a little break from my PhD and noticed the heart palpitations had gone, for the first time since high school. I was told I have anxiety problems that I somehow hadn’t recognised before, despite them severely affecting my life. Now I just have a definition for it and know why my heart acts this way, the physical symptoms happen a lot less frequently despite my stress level still being through the roof. That can only be a good thing for my heart! Plus, taking a beta-blocker every time I have a meeting with my supervisor probably helps…

  17. This is such a good post. Thank you. So true about finding the specific cause. And doing regular exercise! Jeez I’ve totally fallen off that wagon and my focus has definitely suffered.

  18. Pingback: PhD stress | Doctorat et doctorants, PhD and Ph...

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