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How To Improve Your Mental Health And Get Your Brain Beach Ready

Updated: Sep 5, 2021

Contributing Authors: Dr. Liz Faber and Dr. Tess Deyett

Raise your hand if you struggle with or would like to know how to improve your mental health. If we could be in a room right now you would see everyone's hand raised. Mental health is hard and we live in a society that is only just starting to realize how important mental health is. I struggled with mental health for years from middle school throughout college. And after more than a decade of stress, anxiety, depression, and self-doubt I made some changes. I learned how to improve my mental health with these tips and tricks.

Now, these changes nowhere near cured me of my anxiety and depression. I still have bad days but after taking up these daily habits I can honestly say my Ph.D. years were the happiest of my life.

If this shocks you, I'm not surprised, 36% of graduate students around the world report struggles with anxiety and depression. I would argue this percentage is likely much higher as the survey only collected just over 6,000 responses. Another survey conducted specifically in the United Kingdom obtained 50,000 responses from graduate students, of these, 86% reported feelings of anxiety during their graduate studies. A 2018 study of mostly PhDs, reported nearly 40% of respondents scored moderate-to-severe depression. This is astronomical when you look at the 6% of the general public who scored the same way. How to improve your mental health is a topic often seldom talked about but obviously needs a lot of attention.

PhDs, Master's students, and undergraduate students are a vulnerable population, bombarded by high stress and constantly being plowed down by an avalanche of expectations. And this is without the constant nagging of your family:

"When will you be done?"
"How can you be in school for so long and not have a 'real' job?"
"what can you even do with that degree?"

How To Improve Your Mental Health as A Ph.D. Or An Academic

Managing your mental health is a constant struggle but it's not impossible no matter who you are or where you are at. We want to help you get a mental health makeover and show you how you can improve your mental health with some tips and tricks that helped us! We want to share with you the top mental health tips you can use right now and every day to get your brain beach ready for the summer and beyond! Here are our top tips for mental health to make the Ph.D. you, the best version of yourself. We'd also like to stress how you improved your mental health is very much an individual journey. These ways worked for us but they may work for you. We hope this article, "How To Improve Your mental Health and Get Your Brain Beach Ready," will accomplish a few things: give you some new things to try that will bring balance to your life, let you know you are not alone, and help take away from the stigma of mental health.

Cover photo for the article How to Improve your mental healtha nd get you brain beach ready. The picture is of a brain wearing a bikini on the beach relaxing.

1. Seriously Schedule Social Time

Your work will easily consume your life if you let it. But it doesn’t have to! Schedule a recurring walking phone call with a friend, a weekly coffee social with a colleague, or even a monthly happy hour with your lab! Schedule social time not work time!

2. Shun Those That Do Not Serve You

On the other end of the spectrum of how to improve your mental health, always remember you do not and should not feel obligated to spend time with those that do not serve you. After a conversation ask yourself do you feel drained or energized? If you feel drained that relationship is not serving you and over time this can grind you down in all sorts of negative ways. If the relationship is energizing these are the relationships you should cultivate (see tip #1). If it is draining, don't be afraid to shun that person or limit the amount of time you see them. Academia is draining and there are certain anxiety-driving situations (i.e. presentations, lab meetings, one-one meetings with your boss) you just can't escape! When you can't escape, “shun.” Make boundaries with the “drainers.” This could be as simple as stating you are not available to work on Sundays, or you will not respond to emails after 9 pm.

3. Build a 15 min “It’s All About Me” Mental Health Routine

This is the best thing I ever did for myself! Wake up 15 minutes earlier and do this routine every morning! This can be anything that makes you happy. Go for a run, meditate, start a gratitude journal or do what PhDs think is nearly impossible, read a book for fun! Whatever it is do it every day and make it just for YOU!

4. Know Your Priorities

Our how to improve your mental health tip number four is to know your priorities. Life is distracting! And that’s ok. Write down your top three priorities and put

them someplace you’ll see every day! This can be a great ender to your "It's All About Me" routine. Just make sure you are making them realistic. If your goal is to submit a paper by the end of the month then maybe today your priority is to write the first draft of the introduction. Protip: don't make all your priorities about work!

5. Meet People outside Your Academic Circle

As a PhD the only thing we talked about more than how much we loved science is how much we hated it! Academic circles are great for networking but are exhausting, negative, and can be abusive. The constant talk about your project, your PI your friend's project can quickly lead to imposter syndrome. Find circles you don’t have to prove your worth all the time. Join a group, learn a new skill, or try intramural sports. Beat imposter syndrome!

6. Remember the Bigger Picture - put it on notecard/post it!

It’s easy to get lost in the nuances of your experiment/work and feel only failure.

Remember the bigger picture every day. It’s not just the broader impact of your work either it's also your WHY. WHY did you want a Ph.D.? Why did you choose this school? When we ask and answer 'Why' questions we gain a deeper understanding of who we are and what our motivations are. They can remind us what excites us and makes us happy. You can even do this for mental health! 'Why' do you want to improve your mental health? The believe it or not answering this question is another great trick on how you can improve your mental health!

7. How did you take care of your body today?

Always remember your body (and you trillion of microbes!) needs lots of love and you're the only person in the whole world that can give it! So how to improve your mental health can stem from how do you take care of your body. Find ways every day to thank and show gratitude to your body that provides so much for you.

8. Define Yourself Outside Of Work

This is the one I struggle the most with but it's very important! What are you passionate about, outside of work? Who are you in other areas of

your life? Take some time to write out your core values, interests, and passions, and return to them often to help keep you grounded.

9. Understand Your Motivations

When you feel burnt out, take a few minutes to reflect on the part of your work that energizes you. Why did you go into this discipline in the first place? What do you look forward to? What work are you most proud of?

10. How To Improve Your Mental Health: Delete It!

Every academic feels like an impostor at some point. When you have those

thoughts, imagine your brain is a computer and the impostor thoughts are files. Delete the file, close the program, and go back to being your awesome academic self!

11. Look forward

Pick something small that makes you happy that you can look forward to each week. It can be anything from an outfit you’re excited to wear, a day trip to the beach with your family, or spending a few hours this weekend on that hobby you love.

12. Create a Compliment file/jar

Think back to the last time you got a compliment, wasn't it wonderful! Did it just instantly boost your mood? We can sometimes forget all these compliments and focus only on the negative. Any time you receive a compliment from a supervisor, PI, student, or colleague, print it out and put it in a file folder or jar. When you’re feeling down, take out a compliment and remind yourself of the wonderful work you do!

13. Ask For Help!

Every one of us needs help sometimes. The bravest thing you can do is ask. Don’t forget to pay it forward, too--when others ask you for help, lend a hand! If you’re not sure where to start, there are so many resources for you!

14. Hold Yourself Accountable for Care!

Tell a friend, write in a journal, tweet it out! Whatever you choose, be consistent, and take a few minutes each day to reflect.

15. Forgive Yourself and let go of the guilt!

Don’t be afraid to tell yourself out loud that you messed up and will do better next

time, then let it go.

Well, my friends, those are our 15 tips on how to improve your mental health. Did you find them helpful? How will you improve your mental health this summer and beyond? Tell us in a comment below or send us a tweet @microbigals and @LizWFab!

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