Making Sure Depression Doesn’t Get in the Way of Life

It’s been over a week since I last posted. That’s partly because I wanted to take some time to step back and intentionally switch off from the extra things I do outside work (i.e. blogging), but also because I wasn’t sure how to follow up a post where I talked about depression in such a direct way. The last week has been better, I’ve spent lots of time with my boyfriend and we’ve helped each other through the emotional rollercoaster of grief. Before I start posting about public engagement, Fellowship adventures, and clinical trials, I wanted to acknowledge how I deal with depression on a daily basis, and how I make sure it doesn’t stop me from enjoying life.

Image credit: Ruby

I’m lucky that I’ve got to this point; as recent events have taught me, many don’t, but if you do live with depression these points might be good starting points to make sure you don’t get overwhelmed by the low points.

Finding joy in the little things

Every night since our friend died, my boyfriend and I have told each other two things that we’ve enjoyed that day. That first night was difficult, and I ended up saying something like ‘I had a really good cup of tea’ and ‘I listed to some fun music when I was driving home’, which felt pathetic and stupid because after those two good things we literally found our friend dead. That said, doing that made sure that I had reminded myself that the day wasn’t completely horrendous, even if the previous few hours had been. Now we do this every night before we go to sleep, and it reminds us that even though some days are thoroughly crap, there’s always something good in them. Some days it’s hard to limit those things to two, and those are extra good days, but on the days when it’s difficult to find good points in the day two is enough to remind you the life is actually alright most of the time.

Talking to someone impartial

A few weeks ago, I started going to see a therapist. I’ve been to a therapist once before and I didn’t click with her at all – the advice she was giving me didn’t sound constructive or like it would actually result in anything good, so I stopped going. I tried therapy through the NHS but had to wait for 18 months, and then again I didn’t click with the therapist. Since then I’ve been hesitant about going back because I wasn’t sure how to find someone I clicked with, and honestly, because it’s expensive. At upwards of £40 per session, as a PhD student I wasn’t keen on the trial and error approach to finding a therapist that I liked. Anyway, now I’m in a position to pay for therapy, I went online and did some research on therapists local to me. I visited each of their websites, read their ‘About Me’ sections, found out what areas of therapy they specialised in, and then emailed one. I told myself I’d do one session, and then reassess and figure out if they were the right fit – so I didn’t go in expecting to have found ‘the one’. Luckily, I felt like she was a very good fit, she didn’t recoil when I swore (I’m a pretty sweary person), laughed when I laughed, and seemed very in tune with my body language etc, noticing things that I hadn’t even realised I did. I’ve only been to 2 sessions so far, but it’s been really helpful. Even just two weeks in I’m finding myself stepping back and being able to reflect on things so that I can figure out how I can manage them.

Image credit: Ruby

10/10 would recommend speaking to someone that is completely impartial – the guilt I sometimes have when talking about heavy stuff with friends or family isn’t there, and it’s nice to be able to talk about my thoughts in a completely judgement free environment.

Letting myself be sad

Some days, it’s not possible to pick myself up and keep going. Sometimes, I wake up and know that I’m going to have a low day, and that’s totally ok. It’s fine to take some time out, but the last few times I’ve felt like that instead of laying in bed/migrating to the sofa at some point in the afternoon, I’ve really tried to do just one thing. I usually target one thing on my to do list and do that. That one thing might take me longer than usual, but it’s one more thing than I would have done otherwise. Usually, after doing one thing, I feel a bit better and try to tackle another, and that makes sure that I’m still feeling productive even though I might do doing the things whilst sat in my pyjamas.

Image credit: Ruby
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Self-Care Tips to Keep You Sane: Active Hobbies

Last January I wrote about the importance of academic self-care for PhD students; I didn’t delve too far into the specifics of what I do in my downtime and a lot of people asked. ‘It’s hard to switch off’ and ‘I find it hard to relax’ were the two phrases I encountered most frequently, so I began a series of posts to provide more information and recommendations on what to do to force yourself to relax. Other posts in this series cover podcasts, reading for pleasure, and I’ve discussed the importance of having a creative outlet too.

This is the third installment in this ‘self-care tips to keep you sane’ series, and this week I’m talking about being active. At the beginning of a new year everyone it’s difficult to avoid talk of diets and fitness, and gym memberships are suddenly used for the first time in months. That whole ‘new year, new me’ thing is not what I’m about, what I’m talking about here is finding hobbies that you enjoy, and that actively get you away from your desk and demand that you concentrate on something other than your PhD. The enjoyment bit is crucial – work to try and find an active hobby that you really look forward to, and your mental health will thank you for it, particularly during deadline season when you’ve been sat at your desk for longer than usual.

In this post I wanted to give you an idea of the active hobbies that I’ve started and maintained over the course of my PhD.

Hot yoga

Winter Solstice candlelit yoga a few weeks ago.

If you’d told me 5 years ago that hot yoga would be something I look forward to every week, I’d have laughed in your face. Really though, this has become a central part of my routine, and I notice the difference in my productivity and motivation if I skip a week. For those of you that don’t know what hot yoga is, it’s basically yoga (I go to a vinyasa flow class) that’s in a room heated to 30-35 degrees Celsius. It’s hot. It’s particularly hot when contrasted with an Aberdonian winter. I’ve been going to Hot Yoga Aberdeen for about 18 months now, and I’m so excited to get back to it after the New Year break!

Kettlebells

This is a new one for me. I’ve done kettlebell classes through various gym memberships before, but never anything so focussed on technique and form. I have a gym membership but dread going because it’s really busy, and often the equipment I want to use is full. I’ve been looking for an alternative for a few months now, and earlier this week I found it – Kettlebells Aberdeen.

The Kettlebells Aberdeen studio.

KBA is a small, local gym focussing on kettlebell handling and training. I went along for a beginners workshop (which you need to attend before joining), and the owner, Ray, talked me through the benefits of kettlebell training, as well as showing me various lifts, and then correcting form etc when I gave them a go myself. I was there for 2 hours in total, and got a really detailed overview of the training structure that they use; I loved it. I’m going to ditch my traditional (and expensive!) gym membership in favour of regular training here, and I’m really excited to get started.

Walking

This sounds like a total cop out, but taking time out for walking is the one thing I make sure I do every day – no matter how busy I am. I walk the 1.5 miles to and from work most days and even though it’s not a huge distance, it sets up me for the day. It means I arrive at work ready to get started with a clear head. If I’m having a particularly stressful day I’ll try and make time for 15 or 20 minutes away from my desk to go for a wander too. I think this is a really important point for people that don’t live super close to their workplace and have to commute via public transport or by car – take half an hour out to go for a wander on your lunch break, it will change your mindset and make you feel much less stressed. If you don’t fancy walking about it silence, check out my podcast picks!

A few other ideas that you could look out for; Crossfit (I’ve never tried it but Lisa from In A Science World is a big fan!), home workouts (not really my thing but Andrea from PhD Fashionista is really into them), running, weightlifting, swimming, trampolining…
There are so many activities that you can get involved with during your PhD – look out for societies, local gyms etc, and really try to build some sort of active hobby into your routine. I’ve found the PhD a great time to try new hobbies because it also helps to refocus your mind on learning something with a quicker win than the PhD usually offers. It will not only help your physical health, but it’ll support your mental health too.

The Importance of Having a Creative Outlet

One of the most important things I’ve learned throughout the course of my PhD, is that having a creative outlet is a non-negotiable for me. I enjoy my PhD, so it’s not a rare occurrence for me to get lost in my to do list and even up working in the office during the day, and then from home at night. That isn’t an ideal situation. It’s important to take breaks, to step away from your work and to focus on something entirely unrelated.

Earlier this year I decided that I needed to make time to read – I don’t mean to read more scientific papers (though that was on my radar too); I wanted to find my love of reading for pleasure again. I made a point of buying new books, renewing my library card, and forcing myself to go to bed an extra half an hour earlier each day so that I could read and switch off before I went to sleep. That worked for a while, until it sort of became part of my day – I now read on average 1 book (not related to anything PhD) each week, but because it’s such a routine thing, I don’t find that I’m getting the same relaxation/reward from it. So I’ve started something new.

I started Science On A Postcard a few months ago, and I’m having so much fun with it! I’m giving myself an hour or so each week to doodle and draw, to think up products that I never would have thought of otherwise – and I love it. I’m not aiming to make any money from my little shop, it’s just an outlet to facilitate more creativity; the more products I sell, the more products I can then create.

As well as Science On A Postcard, I’ve started actively seeking out little creative activities that force me out of my comfort zone, or will introduce me to new people and/or new skills. One of the things I’m most excited about over the coming months is Say It Ain’t Sew. Say It Ain’t Sew run free hand sewing classes each week in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Ellon and Aberdeen. I haven’t been to an Aberdeen event yet but I’m really looking forward to attending one of the Christmas ones – basically, you turn up (the Aberdeen one is based on a Wednesday night in Brewdog), all materials etc are provided for free (such a winner for students!), and you sit and sew a little project with some cool people and a beer. 2 hours on a Wednesday night is not going to de-rail my PhD, and I think it’ll be a really good forced break. Taking a step back from work often means I’m super excited to get back to my desk too – and I’m in a much better place in terms of concentration, focus, and creativity in terms of my academic work.

What do you guys do to force yourself to have a break? Any weird and wonderful creative outlets I should be looking for? Leave a comment and give me some inspiration!