PhD stress


Four years ago, while I was writing a paper for my Master’s degree at Oxford, I came down with a stomach bug.

No, not a stomach bug, the mother of all stomach bugs. I had the worst stomach pain of my life; I had a fever; I couldn’t sleep, let alone eat. At one point it got so bad that I asked a neighbor to stand guard outside the toilet so I wouldn’t faint and suffocate on my own sick. Dignity be damned; that’s how bad it was.

After a week, it ended. Two months later, it returned.

Over the next three years, I would suffer from the mystery illness for roughly a week every other months. I did all the tests known to medicine and a few the doctors made up just to humor me. The conclusion: “it’s psychosomatic” or “it’s stress”.

But I wasn’t stressed. Once I started my PhD, I was mostly a shining ball of well-organized happiness – apart from those weeks were I was a searing ball of pain.

After three years, when I was just about to give up on ever having a normal, healthy life again, two things happened:

1) A friend convinced me to go running

2) Another friend made me try Mark Williams’s mindfulness meditation program

Initially, I hated both.

Mindfulness meditation is not, contrary to what my friend suggested, the solution to life, the universe, and everything. Neither is it, as I thought, attempting the impossible task to think nothing. It’s mostly lying around focusing on small things – breathing, the sensations of the body, the passage of thoughts.

All that annoying focusing made me notice a few things.

For one thing, the daily focus on how my abdomen feels while breathing made me realize that my stomach was not either fine or a burning ball of pain but that it was always in some degree of discomfort. And that I was really good at not noticing pain.

Then I discovered that when my stomach was worse, I’d usually also find a hand clenched without previously being aware of it.

How can you not be aware you’re clenching your fist? I don’t know; it’s possible.

Then, I realized that on some days, I would find focusing almost impossibly hard. Every time, I’d try focusing on my breathing, I’d remember that I needed to pay a bill, or I’d rerun disagreement I’d had in my mind, or I’d mentally write a paragraph.

I also seemed to notice a relationship between my inability to focus on the meditation and my stomach. The effect was not immediate but when I was unable to focus for a few days, I was sure to find my stomach increasingly painful.

While meditating you are encouraged to acknowledge your thoughts (“I’m worrying” or “I’m planning”) before you return to whatever you’re supposed to focus on.

This categorizing  acknowledgement made me realize that, sometimes, I’d be unable to focus on my meditation not because I was too worried but because I was too excited about my research to focus on anything else. At those times, I was ecstatic. I was definitely not stressed or anxious but I wasn’t calm either.

And here’s the shocker: My stomach does not care whether I am happy or sad.

It only cares whether I am calm.

This is why ‘psychosomatic’ never made sense to me. Yes, sometimes I got sick while I was stressed or anxious. But a lot of the time, I got sick after being happy about my work. A

better way of thinking about my stomach situation would be that it’s not only triggered by stress but when I am adrenalized or excited.

Finally, I noticed that whenever I meditated after going for a run, I would find it unusually easy to focus. I discovered that there were certain physical activities that do something to me akin to turning a computer off and on again.

So at the end of my three year odyssey, here is what I have learnt about managing physical and mental health in a high-stress environment:

1) If you suffer from physical symptoms, see a doctor.

Yes, most thought my symptoms were psychosomatic but one friend told me to seek a diagnosis. “I had similar symptoms and everyone thought it was psychosomatic,” she confided, “It was cancer”. Having a mystery illness checked out might make you a hypochondriac but it might just make you a cancer survivor.

2) If you’re sure you’re physically healthy, find a way to diagnose what precisely it is that triggers your symptoms.

“It’s psychosomatic” or “it’s stress” is hardly actionable. What exactly do your thoughts run to when you’re jittery? What exactly is it that you keep worrying about?

A lot of the time when you think you are anxious about everything, you are actually worried about a curiously specific thing (a paragraph, an unpaid bill). Once you know the specific problem, it becomes much easier to solve. Given the repetitive and specific focus, I think mindfulness meditation works as a diagnostic tool for different kinds of people and stress-related problems.

3) Find a way to deal with whatever is causing your symptoms.

This might be the specific problem but, sometimes, the overworked brain simply needs a reboot. For me the reboot is intense physical activity, preferably on my own, with music in nature.

The crucial thing is that you have to be honest with yourself. As much as I’d like the solution to be junkfood and netflix, these things (fantastic as they are) don’t do anything for my stomach or my stress-level.

4) Once you understand the problem and the solution, make a plan and stick to it.

Mostly, I don’t want to run. But knowing that running will make me relaxed and pain free and staying will make me hurt is infinitely more motivating than dreams of a “bikini body” ever could be. Once you really know what works, discipline becomes easier.

5) Don’t punish yourself for what your body does.

By far the biggest obstacle on my way to well-being was the word “psychosomatic” and my natural tendency to react to lagging productivity by pushing myself harder.

I would often stretch my unproductive, tired, pained days to the agonizing limit because I had not “deserved” a rest. If you do this, stop it. If you feel tired, or overworked, or in pain, take a break, treat yourself, and be kind to your body. If you’re feeling awesome, go work. Use the energy you have; running on empty does more harm than good.

My stomach and I have been fab friends for 6 months and counting.

Do you have physical stress symptoms? What are your tricks to staying healthy and happy in the PhD? What do you do to reboot?

Author Bio: Nele Pollatschek (@NRPollatschek), a DPhil (=PhD) candidate at Oxford. A life-long sceptic, Nele’s working on evil and the problem of God’s justice in Victorian literature.