Stress comes as a part of the package when doing a PhD. But creativity can help to ease some doubts that we might experience. Taking a leaf out of famed author Tolkien’s book, Jenny Mak offers some creative activities to relieve stress when the going gets tough.
Last year, I attended an exhibition on J.R.R. Tolkien, famed writer of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As I perused the displayed array of draft manuscripts, illustrations, and maps that Tolkien drew, reading the blurbs accompanying them, it struck me that there was a common, underlying pattern to his art-making. From the blurbs, Tolkien, who was also a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, seemed to produce much of his creative material particularly when he felt the acute stresses of academic life. In fact, he wrote the first line of The Hobbit while marking exam papers, telling a fellow teacher that “all teaching is exhausting and depressing” in a letter.
This got me thinking about the numerous stresses that come with doing a PhD and how engaging in creative activities might help us cope with them. We’ve all had stressful thoughts at one point or another during our PhDs. They might sound like these:
“Nothing I produce is ever good enough. My supervisor keeps criticising my work, no matter how much effort I’ve put into it.”
“It’s near the end of my third year and I haven’t finished writing all my chapters yet.”
“I have a conference paper and a chapter due in the same week!”
“Too much marking to be done, taking precious time away from my thesis!”
Coming up with strategies to relieve stress becomes an important form of self-care, and engaging in the creative activity of some kind can have benefits. In a recent study, researchers provided 39 adults of different ages with art tools such as markers, paper, clay, and collage materials to create whatever they wanted over 45 minutes. The researchers found that regardless of how experienced the participants were with art previously, about 75 per cent of the participants displayed lower levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress levels. The researchers describe the effects of the creative activity thus: “Art making is an enjoyable or relaxing experience for some, whereas for others it is associated with freedom of expression, evokes a flow experience, stimulates insight, and provides a way to learn about one’s self.”
In the spirit of Tolkien, then, I offer three creative activities for us PhDs to do to relieve stress.
Activity #1: Writing, Drawing, and Colouring
Take a leaf from Tolkien’s book – pick up pen and paper and start writing or drawing out those visions and dreams you have in your head bursting to come out. Or pick up one of many intricately illustrated adult colouring books widely available and some art supplies, and start bringing the pictures to vivid life. Here at Warwick, the PG Hub’s relaxation room offers these resources to get you started.
Mental health experts have found that cooking can help to relieve depression and anxiety, amongst others. Cooking fits a kind of therapy called “behavioural activation”—by being required to be engaged and present as you create a good meal, having to make quick decisions such as adjusting heat or making correct measurements during the process, you are participating in a positive, mindful, and goal-oriented activity that can help to improve your well-being. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Why not try your hand at whipping up some simple and healthy snacks that you can graze on during the day while doing your research?
#3: Improvisational Comedy
Laughter is the best medicine. While you can watch a comedy skit or read a funny book, why not try coming up with some of your own material? Improvisational comedy could be the thing for you. You’re given alternative scenarios to act as different characters and can let loose in a positive and nonjudgmental environment, with other people who are also there to have fun. If you’re a Warwick student, check out sessions run by Warwick’s Improvisation Theatre Society (WITS).
So if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately, give one of these creative activities a shot. The PhD journey takes endurance and self-care tends to be one of the first things we neglect. But it’s also one of the most important things we can do for ourselves. Letting yourself be creative might just inject you with that much-needed boost of positive energy to get you up and running again.
What are some activities – creative or otherwise – that you do to relieve stress during your PhD? What are some of the benefits you’ve gained from doing these activities? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at the embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training.