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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Some Pre-Adventure Thoughts

I’m currently sitting in Aberdeen airport waiting to board my 9th flight of 2019. This time I’m heading to Heathrow and then on to Singapore, where I’ll stay for a week before leaving for Hong Kong.

This travel thing has become almost second nature; I’ve got packing down to a fine art (if you don’t own packing cubes, then I suggest you buy some before your next trip), my travel outfit is now a signature combination of comfort, warmth and don’t-talk-to-me chic, and for the first time in my life my suitcase is 5kg under the baggage allowance.

I’m feeling good about this leg of my Fellowship adventures. I’m glad it’s only a two and a half week trip because the few days I’ve had at home disappeared way too quickly, and honestly, I spent a lot of time on the sofa doing accidental naps between the hours of 4pm and 9pm. The time I spent at home was a bit weird in terms of my thoughts too – I’ve had a lot of ~feelings~, including but not limited to: exhaustion, anticipation, surprise, dread, anxiety, pride, nostalgia, and excitement. At one point I was genuinely thinking about not going back to work in March – for no reason other than I didn’t think I’d be very good at it because I’ve been working on a different project for the last 6 weeks. HOW RIDICULOUS. Anyway, I’m pleased to report that my brain has calmed the F down, and I’m now excited for the 13 hour flight I have ahead of me (long haul flights are one of my favourite things), and I’m also excited to be getting back to real life on March 1st.

I do plan on making a few changes to things when I get back from my next adventure, but they’re little things that I want to allow myself time for. Things that got lost in the pre-Christmas rush, the pre-thesis hand-in rush, and the oh-my-God-it’s-2018 rush before that. 2018 was good, but I want my 2019 to be less frantic and more evenly paced.

I plan on implementing that even pacing into my Singapore/Hong Kong trip. There are a tonne of places I want to visit, people I want to speak to, and facets of my project that I want to explore further – but there is also a dog petting cafe 20 minutes from my hotel, and in the name of self-care, I will be visiting at least once.

If you have any recommendations for science, art, things to see, things to eat, or just places where I can interact with dogs without looking like a weirdo, please leave a comment below and let me know 🙂

Depression Doesn’t Just Go Away When You Go on an Adventure

This is a weird post to write, but I think it’s important so I’m sitting down to write it in the hope that it helps someone else.

I’ve lived with depression for a few years now. In reality it’s probably been more than a few years, but a few years ago a Doctor told me that I had depression, so that’s where the ‘official’ timeline started. I’ve spoken about having depression before, and I genuinely thought that I was ok with things, I thought that I understood my depression; how to manage it, how to spot the signs that I wasn’t doing too well and needed a break, etc.

Now, I’m in the USA on the trip of a lifetime, and it turns out I wasn’t actually ‘ok’ with the whole depression thing at all. The last few weeks have been incredible, mind-alteringly, life changingly brilliant, and I’ve felt like someone without depression. Even when I got snotty-gunky-gross sick, I was still pretty happy, just miffed that I was in New York being snotty-gunky-gross sick. There was a little part of me that thought, ‘Oh my God, maybe it wasn’t depression at all! It was stress, burnout, a series of unfortunate events that were making me sad – I probably don’t have this weird lifelong mental health thing at all, how brilliant!‘ That little part grew without me even realising it, until I woke up earlier this week with the familiar feeling of numbness. That heavy blanket feeling that makes getting out of bed too difficult.

Unsurprisingly to just about everyone else in the world, it turns out that just because you go on an adventure to explore a subject you’re passionate about, depression doesn’t just go away. Even when you’re not stressed, worried or under pressure, that whole depression thing – it’s still a thing. That realisation surprised me.

I’m aware this sounds really naive, but I think it’s important to talk about. The issue of burnout and stress in relation to the PhD process is talked about so much, but it’s not always stress that makes life difficult for people. Some of us are living with the knowledge that at some point we’ll be right in the middle of a brilliant week, and the heavy blanket feeling will return with little or no warning.

All of that said, I’m still feeling pretty lucky to be lugging my heavy blanket around Washington DC rather than Aberdeen. Travelling has always been something I’ve enjoyed, and so I’m going to spend my weekend exploring new places around DC. That is potentially the most privileged form of self-care I’ve ever planned, but I’m here and me and my heavy blanket are determined to make the most of it, gently.

Knowing When to Take a Break

If you’ve been following my Blogtober posts, you might have noticed that I missed a day yesterday. I just did not have the time to get a blog post written and uploaded.
I had planned to do it on Tuesday night, but I ended up getting caught up with some freelance work and then packaging and sorting my shop orders took way longer than I thought it would. Yesterday just seemed to go by in a blur; in the morning I was doing a viva for an MSci student that I’ve been supervising whilst she’s been away on placement all year. After that I had a Mandarin Chinese lesson (I’ll talk more about this in another blog post – it’s so much fun!), and then by the time I got back to my desk, sorted out my inbox, and did the urgent things on my to do list it was almost 6pm and my tummy was doing the ‘leave work now and feed me’ grumbles. Predictably, last night also went at super speed and before I knew it it was 11pm.

I had thought of staying up and working on getting a blog post up before midnight because the thought of missing 1 day in the middle of the month was driving me mad, but after more than 30 seconds’ thought and a yawn that was so big it probably could have broken my jaw, I decided against it.

Today has also gone by in a blur, so I’m here after 6pm thinking ‘oh crap, what do I blog about today?’ – and I think that in itself is interesting. I blog to share my research, to draw attention to subjects that I care about, and to try to encourage people to engage with health services research. If I’m exhausted and pushed for time, it’s very unlikely that I’ll achieve any of those things; knowing when to take a break is important.

So, with that in mind, I am going to take tonight easy. I am going to read my book (I’m currently reading Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and really enjoying it so far), I might write a blog post later on, and I’m going to get an early night.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a blog post that I haven’t felt pressured or felt rushed to write. I’m planning on doing a ‘publication explainer’ post talking about embedded studies, what they are and why we need more of them.

Have a lovely evening 🙂

Self-Care Tips to Keep You Sane: Exploring (the Portland edition)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been in Portland, Oregon, for work recently. I was there to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Clinical Trials (there are blog posts coming on the talks I attended, workshops I helped to facilitate, and the posters I presented!). The conference ran between Monday 21st May to Wednesday 23rd May, but I chose to fly out the week before on Wednesday 16th. Whenever there is a conference somewhere outside of the UK, I really try to build in time before or after work commitments to explore. I love to travel, and I feel incredibly lucky that my job at the moment allows me to trot around the globe speaking to people, learning, and developing my skills; it’d be a huge shame to fly in and back out without any time to explore.

For me, exploring is one of the best ways for me to decompress and force myself to relax. I figured there are probably lots of people that feel the same – I know that Soph from Soph Talks Science has discussed her passion for travel lots previously, and Lisa from In A Science World has just got back from her post-PhD adventures in Asia. Anyway, I wanted to continue adding to my ‘self-care tips to keep you sane’ series, by giving you an idea of what I got up to in my down time in Portland. Hopefully it’ll encourage my fellow PhD students, academics and people who travel for work to take some time for themselves.

Powell’s book shop

After I landed in Portland on Wednesday, I had dinner and then went to bed. When I woke up on Thursday the first thing on my exploration list was Powell’s book shop. Powell’s is a chain of book shops based across Oregon, but the Portland City of Books store on W Burnside Street is the biggest independent book shop in the world. This is no exaggeration; I spent 8 hours in Powell’s on Thursday. I got lost wandering around each level, even though I had a store map (yes, the store is big enough to have its own map), and I could have very easily spent another 8 hours in there the following day. I knew that whatever I bought in Powell’s needed to be transported the 5,000 miles back to Aberdeen in my suitcase, and that it would be stupid to buy tonnes of heavy books to then have to pay for additional baggage allowances. That said, in those 8 hours I still managed to find and purchase 6 books that I absolutely, definitely could not live without. I know, ridiculous. Even more ridiculous was that I went back on Sunday with a few colleagues and ended up buying 2 more books. I’m sure that I’ll end up reviewing a few of them in blog posts in the future, but mainly I just wanted them for when my thesis is handed in. I love reading, and a visit to Powell’s was my chance to pick up a few books that have not yet been released in the UK yet.

Farm Spirit

If you follow me on Instagram (@heidirgardner if you don’t already!), you’ll already have heard me sing the praises of Farm Spirit. If you’ve seen me in person since last Saturday, you’ll have likely heard the same thing verbally. Now, I’m going to mention it here – my experience at Farm Spirit was so good that I genuinely just want to shout about it so that if anyone is in Portland they can go and visit for themselves.

Farm Spirit is a fine dining restaurant that serves local, seasonal and completely vegan food. The menu is preset, and you need to book tickets in advance – I booked the same week that I booked my flights to Oregon because I was so keen to get a seat. Speaking of seats, at Farm Spirit diners sit communally and dinner is served at set times (usually 6.30pm and 8.30pm). I went for the 8.30pm sitting, and the communal dining thing was perfect for me because I was there alone – colleagues from the UK and Australia weren’t arriving in Portland until the next day. I’m not going to waffle on too much about how good the food was here, I’ll just post a collage of the photographs I took and let you judge for yourself. If you are ever in Portland, you have to visit Farm Spirit; it has been my personal highlight of the trip.

Mother’s Bistro and The Water Front

On Sunday when colleagues had started to arrive in Portland, I was eager to catch up with people I hadn’t seen in ages. Dr Kirsty Loudon (my PhD Supervisors last PhD student) and Karen Bracken (fellow PhD student looking at participant recruitment to trials, but based at the University of Sydney, Australia), headed out for brunch at Mother’s Bistro. After a quick Google the night before, this seemed to be the most highly recommended brunch in Portland. I arrived about an hour before we’d agreed to meet so that I could baggsy a table (they only take limited bookings and the world wants to walk in at around 11am on a Sunday, but it was definitely worth the wait.

After we finished at brunch we went for a wander around the city, headed to the Saturday Market (which is still called the Saturday Market even when it takes place on a Sunday), and then sneaked in another sly visit to Powell’s.. I know, ridiculous. It was super warm on Sunday and my jet lag still hadn’t completely gone (let’s be real, it never really went – I was awake at 4am most days which was not ideal before a full day of conference presentations), so we decided that an early dinner was a good idea. Kirsty and I headed back to the hotel to meet up with another Karen (Innes – a Trial Manager based in Aberdeen), and we had a lovely walk along the waterfront, eventually stopping for dinner at a cute little Italian restaurant that was only 10 minutes walk back to my hotel.

Over the course of the rest of the trip I got the chance to explore more of the culinary delights of Portland, and I managed to resist the urge to head back to Powell’s for a third time.

I really enjoyed my time in Portland, the fact that I had built time in to explore made the late nights/early mornings and few days filled with thesis editing feel much more manageable. The only thing that did shock me though, was the sheer scale of homelessness in Portland. The city clearly has a big problem with homelessness, which I guess isn’t such a shock – every city has homeless people – but this was so much more visible than I had anticipated. I didn’t feel particularly unsafe at any point, but I did feel incredibly guilty that I had flown half way around the world to give a few presentations at significant expense (obviously not personal expense, but still), when there were people sleeping in the streets just metres away from the conference venue.

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!