Tuesday 27 September 2016

Managing your health

Andy discusses how, during your PhD, you  may find yourself feeling under the weather and overwhelmed, and so offers tips on how to keep yourself feeling healthy and happy.

-Andy Rowe

Although the title of this blog might suggest that its content is a Gillian McKeith guide of how to improve your life through de-toxing, diet and herbal pills – it’s not, sadly. But, on a serious note, maintaining a healthy life is a very important part of your PhD journey. You just may not realise it. 

There are many PhD students who experience health problems at some point during their research and whilst the issues surrounding mental health and academia have been documented, albeit very briefly, health problems in general seem to have been under-discussed. Therefore, this blog is more of a personal account - I’m going to mention certain problems I have faced being ill at certain points during my PhD research, how I have coped and what I do to try and remain health both mentally and physically.

Way back in October 2012 when I took the first steps on my PhD journey I was not around to meet fellow peers, attend training sessions and meet other academic and support staff. Instead, I was recovering from surgery. Not major surgery, but surgery nonetheless. Surgery which meant I had to have six months off. I’m not going to go into gory details about what I had done as that’s not the purpose of this blog post but rather it’s a way of demonstrating that health problems can happen, so you’re not alone if it has/or is currently happening to you. 

I didn’t start going into the department until the end of January 2013 and by that time people had already acquainted themselves with one another meaning I felt somewhat isolated. And this was part of the reason why I decided to mostly work from home (working from home is covered in another blog post). 

I do find that an academics worst nightmare, “burnout,” exacerbates health issues. There was a point in my studies where I worked 14 hour days solidly for 6 weeks and by the end of it I was mentally and physically exhausted leading to a period of illness and time off. Afterwards I felt like I needed another break, not just from PhD work but to recover from the illness and it does lead to a period of low productivity and lack of motivation.  As doctoral researchers we are constantly trying to maintain a work-life balance, a situation that does plague us. But it is so important. What we shouldn’t do is compare ourselves to others, as everyone’s research is different – we will all go through periods of inactivity, at different times and go through different issues which affect productivity. 

Making a ‘God’ out of work (by that I mean putting your research above all else) is not healthy as it can affect your health, relationships and general well-being. Moreover, you are more likely to experience issues when you are run down so keeping healthy and taking exercise can boost mental well-being thus increasing overall productivity. 

Obviously finding a good work pattern which suits you is important, whether you treat it like a job and work 9-5 or you start later and work later or start earlier and finish earlier. There’s no right or wrong way and everyone is different. Personally, I find keeping fit helps my productivity. I do classes on a Monday and Tuesday evening and Thursday and Friday morning as well as going to the gym and swimming 3 times a week. I enjoy sport and it’s been well documented that exercise can increase your ‘feel good’ factor which in turn can have positive effects on your PhD work, even by going for a  20 minute walk when you experience that mid-afternoon dip can help. Keeping fit is an important part of how you feel about yourself, if you feel good about yourself then you will feel good about your work. 

I do two pilates classes a week. For those who aren’t aware of what pilates is, it’s a low impact way of strengthening the whole body (particularly core strength) to improve fitness and well-being. It can be done by all fitness levels – from absolute beginners to elite athletes. I’ve found that it has reduced my stress and tension levels and definitely helps me to feel more relaxed. Although genetics can play a significant part in the susceptibility to illness, exercise (whether low or high intensity) can play a part in reducing the frequency of illness.   
This isn’t a panacea and definitely not meant to be preachy but rather I’m just passing on what works for me and how I’ve overcome certain health setbacks. Niggling health problems have affected my productivity at certain stages, but your health comes first even above your research – you should have a period of time off to recuperate. It’s impossible to do work whilst ill or run-down. Also, keeping supervisors informed at all times is imperative, so that they’re aware and can provide support if needed. If necessary visit your GP to obtain a doctor’s note.      

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