Welcome back to school! With a stimulating APA convention just behind us (is San Francisco a great city or what?), with fresh memories of a summer well spent and with a clear vision of the work before us, now is a time for us to feel invigorated and refreshed, ready to tackle the challenges of the coming year.
But is this really the case?
As graduate students, we face daunting responsibilities that often transcend the academic calendar. Whether it's in the laboratory, the clinic, the classroom, at home or elsewhere, we frequently sustain a level of stress that continues, unabated, all year. In this context, summer can seem merely like the brief and insignificant calm in the eye of the hurricane.
Some would say that this is the cost of a graduate education, the critical gauntlet that proves one's commitment to the work. I don't intend to argue this point here. What I do want to say is that, in the face of competing and compelling demands, we as psychologists are better equipped than anyone else to deal with the burden--we just don't always realize it. We're part of a profession that is based on helping others to be well, yet we're often too caught up in the work we're doing to focus on our own wellness. Since it's part of our training to identify the psychological cost of this in others, perhaps it's time we did something about it in ourselves. Some preventive maintenance, if you will.
Be good to yourself
So, you're probably wondering, how in the world is one to juggle the responsibilities of work, teaching, research, classwork, etc., and still find time for this high-minded self-care stuff? And isn't this focus on me a bit selfish, anyway? To answer, the key is to do small things in the face of very high stress. The idea is to reward yourself for moving forward and to reset your mind for the tasks ahead. And no, it's not selfish--if anything, you'll find yourself more agreeable and more focused on the work at hand, all because you took the important step of being good to yourself.
What follows is food for thought, some little ways to relieve the pressures of academic and professional life. Whether it's listed here or not, do whatever it is that clears your mind, but do something.
Mind your body. For myself as much as anyone else, when the workday gets long and hard, out comes the junk food. And who has time for exercise? Meanwhile, the literature is clear: Moderate exercise and a healthy diet foster a better mood and self-image, which in turn contribute to increased energy and productivity. So, go sweat off some of that pent-up aggression. Bear in mind, while using that gym membership more often might be nice, it's not always necessary. Take a walk. Swim at the local pool or beach. Just do something outside and take advantage of summer weather while it lasts.
Take a break. As students, we spend countless hours in front of computers, toiling over lab benches, talking shop with advisors and clients, and otherwise immersing ourselves in our work. Ever think about doing something different, whether for a few minutes or a stray afternoon? Go outside and get some sun (remember the sunscreen). Find an interesting place (say, a museum or park) and visit. Take in a movie. Volunteer at a hospital or community center (the time commitment need not be extreme). Take a day trip somewhere nearby that you've always wanted to see. For that matter, just go explore and find something new.
Communicate. Psychologists are always stressing the virtues of communication, but do we practice what we preach? When the going gets tough, do we bottle up our emotions as much as everyone else? Don't. Talk to someone, be it with a friend, family member, advisor, counselor, clergy member or professional. What's most important is that you articulate your concerns and frustrations to someone who will listen, someone whose opinions and feedback you value.
Above all, my goal here is to encourage you to explore your life and the world around you in ways that help to calm the stresses of graduate school. By doing so, I hope that you will find yourself ready to approach your work and training with renewed energy. On behalf of the APAGS Committee, best of luck in the year ahead!