Taking time off your PhD for recovery

At some point in our PhD lives, nearly all of us experience feelings of self-doubt. We may feel that we aren’t ‘good enough’ to be doing a PhD. We might feel like despite our best efforts, our progress has hit a standstill. The pressures of academic life can end up taking their toll on our mental health. Indeed, an article in The Guardian reported that there is a ‘culture of acceptance’ of mental health issues pervading academia (you can read this article here).

Cycle showing that lack of progress leads to stress and anxiety which in turn leads to lack of focus and a further lack of progress.

One part reads: “…I see students and academics who view the researcher development service as unnecessary. I see students who imagine using our services as an “admission of defeat”. To come to us, is to announce that you are not a perfect researcher.”
For too long, I felt this way. I felt that admitting I was struggling was to admit that I was incapable, that I was weak, that I wasn’t cut out for this. “Everyone else seems to be doing fine, what’s wrong with me!? I’m obviously not working hard enough” I’d tell myself again and again. I tried to ignore the fact that starving my body was starving my brain, but I knew I was caught in a vicious cycle where work was affecting my health, and health was affecting my work.
Taking a leave of absence was a lifesaving decision. Since returning to university, I’ve felt much happier, and able to manage my life better. I’d like to reflect a bit on the factors that helped my leave of absence to go well.

#1: Keeping busy

One thing that hit me when I went off on leave, is that I made the transition from overworking myself to suddenly dropping all work altogether. This took a lot of adjustment, and my anxiety shifted from “I’ve got too much work to do” to “I’m wasting my time being unproductive!” Despite being off to relax, it was having the opposite effect, aaaargh! I recommend setting yourself a project of some sort. It can be anything that has you put your mind to something. As humans, we naturally thrive on the satisfaction of work (admittedly some more than others) and have a need to feel useful. Using my example, I would strongly recommend starting a blog! Being able to chart my progress, while exercising my creativity, gave me a sense of purpose. Of course, don’t go starting your PhD work again while you’re off on leave. However, acquiring knowledge that could be helpful for your research and career is also a productive path to go down. Whether it be learning a new programming language, learning how to write in a certain style, or even learning how to organise your life goals.

#2: Staying connected

In the months leading up to my leave of absence, I became socially isolated. I worked hours that would minimise the chance of meeting anyone in the office. I would ignore any social opportunities, if anyone asked, I would reply “I have some work to finish off”. The PhD is generally a sole undertaking; you work on it yourself and are responsible for the outcomes. That means when we stop communicating with others, stop maintaining a social life, PhDs can be very lonely indeed.

When off on leave, I had my family there all the time, who I could talk to about anything, positive or negative. Eventually I made an effort to meet up with friends, too. In time I realised the importance of staying connected with people. I’m not suggesting for a minute that this is easy. Feelings of disconnectedness and anxiety can make social interaction terrifying.

Take it slow. Even just sharing a post on social media or having a chat about the weather with the cashier in Tesco, learning to socialise again was a big step in my recovery.

#3: Enjoying hobbies

I feel that it’s important to give yourself a sense of purpose while you’re off on leave. Remember though, you’re taking a break from work! One of the best opportunities that leave affords is time to pursue hobbies and interests. When you return from leave, maintaining a work-life balance is essential. Do you have anything you used to love doing that you’ve had to sacrifice? Or maybe it’s a good time to find a new passion!

When we focus on nothing but work, it can be like putting all our eggs in one basket. If work is going well, then it’s easy to be positive and motivated. However, when research hits a stumbling block, we all need something at the end of the day to make us feel better. Take your mind off work by going for a walk, reading a novel, baking a cake, whatever you enjoy! I wouldn’t discount Netflix and chill either.

Image containing the saying that “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new…”.

At university, I had a routine, which became somewhat of a ritual. I felt extreme discomfort and anxiety in deviating from this routine. In returning to live with my family, I was no longer a slave to this routine. This took some getting used to, and initially it was quite frightening to not have those daily rituals.

In time, however, I learnt that I could cope without them. Routines are great and can keep us focused, but when we get tied into ritualistic behaviours, they can be damaging. Taking time off on leave is an opportunity to test yourself. Do something a bit different, shake up your routine. Again this is something I would take slowly, but it can be as simple as taking a different walk or having something new for lunch!

All in all

Taking leave may seem like a ‘last resort’ but try not to see it that way. Looking after your health is your top priority. With time to dedicate to your mental health, you can come back stronger and more focused. If a football player breaks their leg, they don’t insist on playing as normal, they take time off to get better. Your mental health is no different!

About the Author

Daniel Rough

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