As I placed my 96-well plate in the plate reader, I could feel my peripheral vision fading, my heart racing, and my stomach flipping. It wasn’t the first time I’d had a panic attack, but it was the first time I realized it was happening. It hadn’t been a particularly stressful day by any means, and I was just measuring protein concentration. I couldn’t tell you what triggered it, but I can tell you that I started having panic attacks much more frequently in the first couple years of graduate school than in any other time of my life.
If you’ve found yourself unable to manage your anxiety and/or find yourself experiencing symptoms of depression, first and foremost, it’s good to know you aren’t alone. Several studies (for summaries see here and here) have highlighted the mental health crisis in graduate school. The biggest takeaway is that if you are in graduate school, you are three times more likely than any other American to suffer from depression, anxiety, or any other mental health disorder. In fact, in an online survey of 2279 PhD candidates, about 40% showed signs of moderate to severe anxiety or depression (Evans, T.M., et al. 2018). Graduate school is more than just stressful.
Second, I highly recommend seeking professional help. Medication management and regular talk therapy have been crucial for me during graduate school. Therapy is nothing but beneficial and is a free resource on most college campuses. It’s nice to have a person to talk to who is uninvolved in the everyday aspects of your life. It’s not the dramatic experience TV has made it out to be, it’s just you, and a concerned, trained professional talking about basically anything you want.
Outside of therapy, I’ve found it challenging to regulate my own emotions and even thoughts in graduate school. The hardest thing about graduate school is the lack of control we have over, well, almost everything. We don’t know if our Western blot will work, and if it does, we don’t know if the results will be meaningful. We all cringe when someone asks when we will graduate because the truth is, we don’t know for sure. Something I have found helpful is mindfulness. Disclaimer: I am not a mindfulness expert, but I’m learning. So, here are some of the ways I’m trying to be more “mindful.”
So, what’s mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simply being more aware and less judgmental of your own thoughts and feelings and focusing on the present. For example, everyone in graduate school has inevitably had to sit in a lecture or seminar they just weren’t interested in. Sometimes in this scenario, I won’t even realize I’ve stopped paying attention. By the time I realize it, it’s too late. I can’t jump back in anymore because I’m completely lost. If I had been more mindful, I may have been able to notice my mind’s focus shifting and been able to refocus and pay attention. Mindfulness is a form of control we can gain in graduate school. Think of it as brain empowerment. The tricky thing about mindfulness is that it just doesn’t come naturally to most people. Lucky for us, there are many tools readily available to train ourselves to be more aware of our own thoughts.
Practicing mindful meditation
One of the first things my therapist recommended to become more mindful was meditation. At first, the thought of meditating sounded like torture. I’ve never been able to silence my mind or focus enough to meditate and was wary about trying. However, I have tried several meditation apps, and with practice I’ve started to be able to focus during the meditations over time. So far, my favorite app is Calm. Calm contains guided meditations aimed at reducing anxiety and improving sleep. In Calm, you can find anything from bedtime stories read by Matthew McConaughey to a 21-day program aimed at teaching you how to meditate. I try to meditate for at least 10 minutes a day. Additionally, if I’m feeling particularly stressed by something at work or in my daily life, I try to step away, and do a 10-minute meditation. Recently, I don’t even need the app. Calm has taught me how to focus my mind by focusing on my breathing, how the air moves through my nose or feels on my upper lip. It sounds strange, but by just focusing on the pattern and path of the air I’m exhaling and inhaling, I can bring myself back to the present moment.
The biggest caveat of Calm is that it costs $59.99 to subscribe for a year, but I decided it was worth it. There are tons of excellent, free alternatives. Some other apps I recommend are Headspace and Serenity. For those old-schoolers who would rather practice meditation in person, try to find a yoga studio (not free) or a class on campus (free). Even better, find some goat yoga.
Sometimes in graduate school, it can be hard to focus on the positive things in our life. We don’t have complete control over how our project will take shape, and things can sometimes feel overwhelming. A mindfulness practice that has helped me a lot is called gratitude. To do this, I write things I am grateful for either at the beginning or end of my day. Often, when we become distracted by our thoughts, unable to sleep, and just generally incapable of being in the present, it’s because we are focused on negative thoughts and anxieties. Physically writing down things you are grateful for every day can remind you what’s important and help you to be more mindful. Personally, I like physically writing these things down in a journal, but I’m also a journaler. If you don’t want to keep a physical notebook for practicing gratitude, Headspace, mentioned above, includes gratitude exercises, and I’ve also heard good things about Track Your Happiness and My Gratitude Journal.
If you are someone struggling with mental health in graduate school, or just feel stressed, mindfulness can help you to focus on the present, remain positive, and feel in control. Downloading a mindfulness app or taking up yoga can help more than you may think. As a novice in mindfulness, I can tell you it takes a lot of practice, but I feel more in control of my own emotions than I was before meditation and practicing gratitude. In an environment where we can’t always control if our experiments will work or our graduation date, it’s comforting to know we can at least control our mind.
Evans, TM, Bira, L, Gastelum, JB, Weiss, LT, and Vanderford, NL (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat. Biotechnology 36 (3): 282-284.
About the Author:
Natalya Ortolano is a PhD candidate in Vivian Gama’s laboratory at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. The Gama lab seeks to identify the novel role of apoptotic proteins in stem cell maintenance and differentiation. Natalya’s project is focused on characterizing the function of an E3-ubiquitin ligase known as Cullin 9 in stem cell self-renewal and neural differentiation. Twitter: @NatOrtolano Email: firstname.lastname@example.org