My journey to understanding the importance of self-care
So I am sure that everybody, no matter their situation (school, university, PhD or work) will feel stressed from time to time (or always?!) and if you are anything like me, you may actually be oblivious to exactly how much stress you are experiencing.
For me, It was not until the end of last year when I realised how stressed I was during my undergraduate degree (well, mainly my honours year). Since the start of this year, I have felt like a new version of myself (actually I feel like the version of myself that I was before I started uni). I am not saying I was unhappy throughout my undergraduate degree, I truly was not, I was just super busy. I went through my first three years of university juggling full-time study (where I needed to maintain a relatively high GPA), working 25+ hours a week, playing and coaching sport, volunteering and maintaining a social life. However, despite how busy I was I would not change my experience for anything. My hard work paid off, I went on holidays, bought a car, moved out of home, gained invaluable work/volunteer experience and maintained old relationships/friendships whilst also making new ones. I got through it (actually with probably the least amount of stress I could, considering).
Then honours year started. For those who do not know what a honours year is, it is (well at least mine was) like a mini PhD, you conduct your own research, whilst still completing course work, and having the pressure of wanting a good grade to get into whatever your next career step may be (a PhD for me). All of this has to be completed in 8 months, leaving little time for anything enjoyable (particularly when you throw working part-time into the mix)! It is a crazy task, which could never be completed without stress. It was during this time that I really began to understand the importance of self-care but ironically it was probably the first time in my life that I could not fit it in. Even when I tried, I always felt guilty because I was not working on my thesis, I would watch a movie, or be out at a social event and would feel the pressure of the world (well at least the thesis) on my shoulders. I did not comprehend how much pressure were on my two trusty shoulders until I received my grade (the true end of the year), when all the pressure lifted. Other people had noticed my stress too. At the end of the year family members starting telling me “you look so relaxed” or “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you so relaxed”. Wow, for them to notice I must have looked more stressed than I thought.
This is why when starting my PhD I made a promise to myself that I would not let myself get stressed like I did during honours year, for multiple reasons: I do not think my boyfriend/family would be able to put up with honours me again, I was getting sick (often), I was less happy, PhD is not an 8 month sprint- I would 100% burn out if I experienced that level of stress for 3-4 years, and I felt like I was missing out of life. Although I am only 6 months into my PhD I have kept this promise to myself. Do not get me wrong I still work long hours (8-5 most days) and will experience extremely stressful situations (presentations, deadlines etc.), however for me this is productive stress. To ensure my stress does not get to the level it did last year I make the most of my weekends, have fun whenever I can and I also complete a few self-care techniques regularly:
1) A good morning routine- I am an early bird, so mornings are my jam. I get up between 6:30-7am, get dressed, do general hair, make-up, teeth etc., watch a bit of a morning news show, clean up dishes or a little washing (only spend about 10 minutes on this) and get to uni around 7:30-8 (I live a minute away so no travel time, bonus!). I have my coffee and breakfast at my desk at uni. This routine works for me, it means I do not waste a lot of time at home and I ease into the working day.
2) Baths- What a great invention baths are. A house, is not a home without a big, deep bath that has a view overlooking rolling hills or a sandy beach (okay the latter is wishful thinking). Regardless of the view, when I am stressed a bath does wonders!
3) Exercise- I will be honest I am by no stretch of the imagination a #fitspo gal. I do not have a gym membership (I tell myself this is because I am saving for a house, but really it is because I do not love gyms!). However, I have come to the realisation that exercising is an important outlet for me. I know if I find myself cursing in my head because my boyfriend has made a joke that I would usually laugh at, it is time for me to put my headphones in a go for a jog. I have a lot of room for improvement with the whole fitspo thing though…
4) Nature- Being a conservation psychologist I obviously have a huge soft spot for nature (of all kinds, but especially the beach) and therefore exploring in nature is one of my best stress releases. There is also a huge body of research showing the benefits of getting out and about in nature, so it will do wonders for you too!
5) Early mornings- There is something magical about a city or town early in the morning, when only a few people are walking around, and the cafes are just turning on the coffee machine, and the sky is tinged with mist. Trust me, it is worth the early wake up call, I always feel overwhelmingly calm and content being out at this time.
6) Monthly Movie Mondays- My two office pals and I have decided we will go to watch a new movie every month (or twice a month if it is this month, how can we choose between Me Before You and Finding Dory?). It is a great event for us to look forward to, and movies have a way of allowing you to immerse yourself into a different world (where you do not have a thesis to write).
7) Photography- Photography is a favourite hobby of mine. I think because it requires concentration, and I am generally in beautiful surroundings, my stress can not been seen anywhere (not even through the viewfinder).
8) Loved ones- Never forget that your life is what it is because of the people in it. Your friends and family are so important. Factor in time to see them or talk to them. Write down important events that your friends/family are doing in your diary so you do not forget to send them a ‘happy birthday’ or ‘good luck on your important presentation’ text. Trust me they will be grateful (and may return the favor) . Never, ever be too busy for them.
9) Sleep- I have said it before, and I will no doubt say it again, sleep is important. Try to get your 6-8 hours (depending on your situation) a night. If you wake up one morning feeling like no amount of coffee could make you smile today, and you do not have any early morning commitments, give yourself that extra hour sleep in, you deserve it!
Stress is unavoidable, and actually important in many situations, but you must recognise when your stress is getting too much and use your self-care techniques to minimise it. Self-care is personal, it does not matter what you do for you, as long as you do it. You only have one you!