Sunday, 29 January 2017

Eating Disorder Recovery and Doing a PhD.

Daniel ties his PhD Journey in with his recovery from an eating disorder.
- Daniel Rough

PhD research is often exciting, rewarding and genuinely enjoyable. You're given 4 years in which you dedicate your time to becoming the leading expert of a topic you are genuinely interested in! It's a wonderful opportunity, but one that at times can feel like a punishment. Nearly every PhD student I've spoke to has experienced times of tremendous stress, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy.

In this post, I want to offer my experience of balancing eating disorder recovery and my PhD.

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From www.wunderlist.com, a helpful online to-do list
Write things down
We can often become anxious when it feels like we're not making progress. Sometimes we find ourselves sat in the office chair in the late afternoon thinking "what did I actually do today?" Likewise, starting the day with no specific tasks in mind can leave us drifting and distracted. I actually wrote a blog post on writing while I was feeling particularly 'meta'.

"Write what you've done. Write what you want to do. Write notes on papers. Write notes on spontaneous thoughts that occur. Because thoughts are ephemeral, they disappear, never to be seen again. Words, written down, recorded, they stick."

I'm not just talking about PhD-related thoughts either. Starting a personal blog, even if you keep it private, can be tremendously helpful. During my recovery, I used my blog to vent frustrations and to chart personal successes.

Structure your day
Structuring what we do during our working hours can extend to organising what we do with all the hours of our day!
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Take time to relax and enjoy yourself
As PhD students, we have a lot of what I call 'unstructured time'. It's not exactly free time, as many of these hours have to be filled with work. However, if we don't organise our time properly, procrastinate, work ungodly hours, it can feel like all our time is spent working. This can affect both your physical and mental health.
  • Don't burn the midnight oil. I'm admittedly terrible for this one, but particularly in winter, daylight hours are scarce, and being up and awake for them has been proven to have a positive affect on our mood. 
  • Have a 'quitting time'. It's all too easy to say to yourself "I just need to get this little bit working" at 5pm, and still be chipping away four hours later in desperation. Be strict with yourself, whatever stage you're at with your work, stop. It'll still be there tomorrow! 
  • Have hobbies and interests outside of work. What do you enjoy doing in your free time? Playing an instrument, cooking, playing a sport, going for walks, tiddlywinks, whatever floats your boat! Have something you can look forward to at the end of the day or on weekends. It can be with others, or on your own. Just make sure to get some 'me' time. 
  • Talk to your peers. Sometimes it can feel like you're the only one struggling, like everyone else has their head screwed on. It's not true! It can be reassuring to find that others aren't coasting along with no difficulties. And of course, it can be nice to get out the office and talk about something other than research! I myself have spent days, often weeks avoiding people during phases of my anorexia. While being social felt like the last thing I wanted when I was stressed and upset, interacting with others distracted me from thoughts of work. It helped me realise that there is more to life than just the PhD.

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Taking a leave of absence
There's no doubt about it, focusing on recovery while focusing on a PhD is tough. Sometimes, it's simply necessary to stop. I remember sitting in the lab by myself at 3am. I had read the first sentence of a paper 10 times, and still failing to focus my weary eyes on it. My stomach was filled with nothing but cold coffee, and I clutched my hot water bottle despite the warmth of the room. It was then I stopped, put my head in my hands, and said aloud:

"I can't do this"

Right then and there, I had admitted to myself that I needed time off to focus on recovery. This is not a sign of weakness, inadequacy, or failure. To acknowledge that our health has to take priority, accepting that we need help, is a tremendous act of strength.

Taking time off to live at home and focus on getting back to health saved my life. I returned to university 6 months ago, happy, healthy, and focused. Work no longer affects my health, and health no longer affects my work.

Getting help
Your university will have services and people who understand mental health issues and can offer you help and support. I would also suggest talking to your supervisor, whether you decide to take time off or not. Supervisors' roles involve ensuring that their students are looked after and not suffering as a result of work.
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St Andrews has an Advice and Support Centre for students
You can find more information and support about Eating Disorders here

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