Burnt out before I’ve even started? How I am putting myself before my work

After two and a half years of my PhD, my body feels depleted. Last semester, nothing went to plan, which has made January was one of the hardest months of my PhD this far. I didn’t feel like myself, my body gave up on me and my mind felt against me. How could this be? I have only just finished my course work, I haven’t even started my dissertation! Am I burnt out before I have even started? Today’s blog post will share how I am restoring my body and mind in order to hopefully continue on this PhD marathon.

The plan was; finish my qualifying exams in the summer 2019, finish a major Mitacs research project/grant October 2019 and start teaching January 2020. Not only did the SSHRC rejection hit my ego real hard (November 2019) but since then, I am still working on this research project (won’t be finished until April 2020), as well as my qualifying exams and not to mention, I have my work cut out for me in terms of teaching.

Now you might be thinking, nothing goes to plan Christine, how could I expect to stick to this said ‘plan’? And you are right. Overall I am okay with that fact that things are turning out differently than expected. However, what I am not okay with is feeling unsupported, let down, prolonging my PhD and therefore my insecure financial situation for longer than expected. It’s not the work that made me fall to my knees, it was the conditions that led to a new low in my anxiety and depression.

It’s not the work that made me fall to my knees, it was the conditions that led to a new low in my anxiety and depression.

In January 2020, on top of my precious plan going astray, I was dealing with heavy and sad family issues. One morning, my day started with my meditation hoping that it would steer me into a more positive mindset for the day. I sat on my yoga mat in a room with a closed door, with what felt like a tornado happening on the other side of it. Tears were continuously flowing out of my eyes but no noise was coming out of me. It was like someone came and took my breath right out of me. Panic attack. In this same moment, e-mails came pouring in, which only reinforced the lack of support and mountain of work. I didn’t know how to proceed. With my work, or my life. My body physically couldn’t take the unrealistic expectations, stress, competitive nature and insecure working conditions. In the past, my solution to this problem would be to work harder and work longer until the work got done. But my body physically wouldn’t allow me to continue.

Below are some things that are helping me restore and heal my body and my mind. It may sound simple but when you have a lack of hope and minimal energy, simple is exactly what I need at the moment.

1. Sleep > Coffee

I am sleeping a lot. Well trying to. Some nights I can’t sleep and some nights I don’t have the option to get as much sleep as I need. But the times when I can take 8 or 9 hours to sleep, I do. My body desperately needs it. It’s winter and I just bought a heating pad. When I am feeling overwhelmed, I crawl into bed for 5-10 minutes and lay, sometimes I don’t nap but it feels so good to be off a screen and putting my body first. Not everyone is going to have these luxuries or this flexibility but the point is; sleep, rest, restore.

2. Health > Speed

I am moving as slow as I can in my day to day activities. This means less work gets done but I am more mindful in my actions and feel better about the things I do get done. This include prioritizing eating healthy good and mindfully eating.

3. Water > Alcohol

Drinking water seems so simple but it has made a big difference for me. Every time I slow down and stop to hydrate, it is yet another reminder that I am fueling my body with what it needs. I wake up and I take 5 minutes to drink a big glass of water. I am avoiding alcohol as much as I can and limiting my caffeine intake. Of course I am not perfect and some days I need more coffee than I would like to admit. But limiting it as much as possible makes me feel more like myself. This helps my energy levels, makes me feel nourished and yet again, like I am putting myself first.

4. Exercise > Stress

You all know this one and I have certainly talked about it multiple times but exercise is my saviour right now. I don’t have the time, but I make the time. I need it to survive and therefore it is a priority. I ALWAYS feel better after some exercise.

5. Breathing > Fear

I have been trying to start my mornings with meditation. 30 minutes of time by myself, checking in on my thoughts, reminding myself of why I am on this PhD journey and reflecting on part of my life that are bringing me joy (and doing them more). Again, I don’t have the time, but I am making the time.

6. Loved ones > Social media

As most of you know, I took a 10 day social media break. It was one of the best things I could have done for myself at the time. Providing myself with more quality time, with my partner, over screen time has brought me a lot of joy. It reminded me how much time I waste on social media and how much it is influencing me – in good and bad ways – in order for me to be more intentional with what social media I choose to bring into my life.

Similar to this point, I am limiting emails. My aim is to check e-mails 2x a day – once at noon and once at the end of the day (around 7). Weekends it is off. I am still working on this one (boundaries are always a work in progress for me). It’s my goal but I am not quite there yet.

7. Community support > Doing this alone

Sharing what I am going through with my counsellor is always helpful. It is easy to avoid talking about these feelings but it is necessary in order to move through them. But you are not alone. Reach out to a counsellor, to your colleagues, or to this online community.  These three things have reminded me that I am not alone and that makes all the difference in this struggle.

You might be disappointed in hearing this advice. These are simple action items. These are not quick fixes. They take time. And they are not centred around work. But this isn’t about work. This is about you. That is the point. Put yourself before your work.

But this isn’t about work. This is about you. That is the point. Put yourself before your work.

Hour by hour. Day by day. We can do this. And we can do it together. You are not alone if you are feeling this way. When I went off social media, I have never felt so supported by this online community of grad students. And I can’t thank you enough.

Am I still behind in my work, yes. But guess what? Everything is still okay.

Learning is hard. And it takes a lot of time. Be kind to yourself in this process. Give yourself time and give yourself love. Put yourself before your work.

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Until next time,

Christine xo

P.S Don’t forget to use #ScholarCulture #ScholarSquad to keep me updated on your experiences as grad students.

P.P.S Applying to grad school for the 2020/21 school year? Check out this FREE eBook on 5 steps to a successful grad school application. Are you in grad school and struggling to find easy lunches to bring to campus? Check out three FREE recipes and full nutritional information here.

4 responses to “Burnt out before I’ve even started? How I am putting myself before my work”

  1. Rosalind

    I love this! Your best and perhaps mostetmoat raw post yet, and also the most relatable. I feel the same and have been connecting with many other fellow PhD students who are ALL feeling the same. Especially at the 2-3 year mark. It’s a marathon and some week, months and years are so hard! It’s not all about it the work and the work is predicated on your health. Good luck and more posts like this please 🔥🔥🔥

    1. Scholar Culture

      Awe! Thank you so much for the message, Rosalind. It’s always hard to be vulnerable so I appreciate the feedback and for sharing. All the best to you too and take care!

  2. Kristi

    Thank you for writing this blog, burn out can be such an isolating experience. Thank you.

    1. Scholar Culture

      Absolutely! You are not alone.

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