“Mens sana in corpore sano” (“a healthy mind in a healthy body”) is a quote from the poet Juvenal which highlights the importance of a healthy body in maintaining a high quality of mental health. However, I believe that the mind-body relationship is more symbiotic than this, and therefore the reverse should also be of fundamental importance: we should focus on taking care of our mental health in order to stay physically healthy and generally feeling good.
Mental health is a difficult subject to discuss openly, especially if you are not an expert. Unlike physical illnesses, which we can identify when something hurts or is generally not right, recognising poor mental health is not an easy task. Symptoms are not readily quantifiable, and often get confused or under-estimated.
As someone who has suffered from depression and anxiety during my PhD, I have learnt to treat my mind with the same importance and respect as I reserve for my body, knowing that both are interdependent and of equal importance. Based on my experiences, I would like to share my mental health to-do list (because as researchers we all are, or will be, overly familiar with to-dos soon enough!) describing what I do to care for my mental health whilst doing my PhD.
I understand that not everyone has the capacity for all of these tips, especially under the current circumstances. This has been an incredibly challenging year for PGR mental health and none of these ideas will fix systemic issues. However, I hope that by sharing some that I have found useful, there might be something that helps, even just a little.
1Keep going, even when you feel you are not enough
“A PhD is 10% intelligence and 90% persistence”. This doesn’t mean that you don’t know your stuff, but sometimes you need to have the resilience to keep trying even when your experiments fail and your thesis seems too huge to finish. I have felt stuck multiple times whilst writing, but focusing on completing each small step and having the finish line in mind is definitely helping.
When you are having a hectic day, finding it difficult to fall asleep, or you feel overwhelmed, slow down and cancel out your surroundings for five minutes. Step away from your laptop and take a break, focussing only on your breathing (try these techniques from the NHS), reassuring your mind and bringing it back on track.
3Do something every day that makes you happy
I love being inside, taking care of my plant babies and putting up artwork on the walls. I also enjoy baking, with much appreciation from my boyfriend and his waistline. Make sure to allow time every day to do things which make you smile, however small.
4Make your home workspace pretty and cosy
As an interior design addict, I cannot stress enough how much I am enjoying decorating my “studio”, which doubles as my thesis writing space. The room was initially meant to be my boyfriend’s games room, but oh well, the PhD comes first! I have filled the space with plants, candles, fairy lights, photos of my family, and illustrations with inspirational quotes. Remember though, it’s also ok if you can’t do this. Working from home for many is a balancing act, so your workspace doesn’t need to be Instagram worthy.
A long warm bubble bath (with candles, rubber ducks and rose petals, because why not!) whilst listening to an interesting podcast or ambience music is my favourite treat after a long day or a difficult week. Find your indulgence so you can unwind with some “me time”.
6Call your friends and family
Find some time to call your loved ones even when you are super busy. I always find that their voices lift up my mood. Just imagine how nice it will be for them too, especially if they live far away or if you cannot meet in person (which is particularly relevant this year!). I have regular afternoon coffee-breaks with my mum, who lives in Italy, and I organise online writing sessions with a couple of friends to give each other support. The UofG PhD Society organises regular social events, and check out this blog post on organising a virtual writing retreat (#RemoteRetreat) to help connect with other researchers.
7Share your thoughts
Write your feelings down, and search for help if you need it. Support can come from your friends, but don’t forget that your supervisors, mentors and colleagues can become great allies. The University also provides independent and personalised mental health support through different activities and I can recommend Togetherall as a safe online space to support your mental health.
8Don’t forget your body
Mental and physical health will always be two sides of the same coin, so maintaining a healthy lifestyle will always contribute to a more positive mood. Admittedly, it’s tricky to stay fit when you spend a lot of the day sitting at a desk but try to find a routine that works for you. I like to take walks in the park nearby and I fell in love with yoga during lockdown.
This list has been working for me, and I hope it can be of help to others as well. Remember to always take care of yourself, live well, and mind your mind.
About the author
Maria Clara Liuzzi is a final-year PhD student in Cancer Sciences, focusing on the discovery and development of new compounds as possible drug and tracer candidates for the treatment and management of glioblastoma brain tumours. She is passionate about science communication, and a creator of art illustrations to share positivity and awareness related to themes such as health and medicine, mindfulness, and mental health.
This post first appeared on The University of Glasgow PGR (Postgraduate) Blog here.