How I did a PhD with a broken brain

Most of us are fortunate enough to remain reasonably healthy throughout our doctorate. For those that don’t, the ailment is commonly temporary, or something the individual has bravely learned to live with long before they reach their doctorate studies. But what happens when serious illness sprouts up in the middle of a PhD, completely out of the blue? How do you finish? In a personal piece, Alex writes how he did just this.

In 2015 I had a severe reaction to an antidepressant. Overnight I went from someone who had never experienced any physical anxiety symptoms to major panic attacks, agoraphobia, and constant general anxiety. I no longer had the capacity to do my PhD and took temporary withdrawal for a year where I had to learn how to function as a human being again. Upon returning to my PhD, a major achievement in itself, I realised the stress of even half an hour’s worth of work rendered me not only incapable of functioning for the rest of the day, but potentially the day after too. How was I supposed to do a PhD if I couldn’t even manage half an hour? If I was to complete my PhD, I needed to figure out how to work a stress-free day. Over the course of a couple of years I learnt and refined a routine that helped me to achieve this. It wasn’t much fun and I still struggle a lot of the time. I fall out of the routine and take shortcuts. I am human after all. But I sit here with a finished thesis and time to spare. This is how I did my PhD with a broken brain.

  1. Sleep, Sleep and more sleep.

I have found sleep to be the most influential factor in how stressed I am the next day. zoo-4508682_1920Research seems to suggest this too. Have you ever noticed how you can feel extremely agitated and stressed in the evening and the next day as fresh as a daisy? Sleep. I have yet to discover a process anywhere near as beneficial for an anxious, stressed mind.

 

Quality of sleep is just as important to me as its length. I have found 8-9 hours of bad sleep almost as detrimental as 6 hours of good sleep. I try to be in bed by around 8 – 9pm with the aim to get up from 6am-7am. A couple of hours before I will clip on my special blue-light filter lenses (I realised a blue light filter on your phone is useless if you spend your entire evening bathed in artificial lights!). Just before I set off to sleep, I will write and reflect on things that happened that day as well as any problems I needed to address the next day. I found a clear mind is essential to get to sleep promptly relaxed enough to get to sleep promptly.

To stay comfortable during sleep, I set up a fan next to my bed (which goes on most of the night to keep me cool), Earplugs to block out the noise of the fan, I play soothing music (high volume) with a sleep timer and I have blackout curtains and a plug-in air freshener on a timed schedule throughout the night. All these things are in place to associate the process of sleeping as a relaxing experience.

To wake up, I use a sleep tracking app which attempts to track when I am in my lightest sleep phase and slowly increases the brightness of my bedroom smart bulb to simulate a sunrise. It is a much more pleasant way to wake up to than a blaring alarm during an inappropriate sleep phase.

  1. Meditation

I think meditation is one of the most underrated skill sets to possess in the modern world. Meditation is an incredibly flexible skill. How I use it depends entirely on how I am feeling. For the most part it calms me down while at the same time providing me an avenue to explore current and future stressors.

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It can also be used an escape. We all come across unavoidable stressors in life. For me this was the bus ride into work. I had nothing to do, trapped with a bunch of stressed students. During this time, I listen to an audiobook while meditating (I just look like I am taking a nap), bringing it more to life on a bus ride, thus taking me out of the stressful environment.

I meditated frequently throughout the day. I did so underneath my desk with a pillow as there was nowhere really within the physics building to lie down without getting told off. It ahas been essential in improving the quality of my work. Meditation had some influence in every single idea or solution I came up with during my PhD.

  1. Love

I have saved the most important facet to last. I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who thinks about stress avoidance and management as much as I do. One of the many frustrations I have in life is others not realising just how much thought and care goes into the simplest of things, which then allows me to function. For me, there is no such thing as a holiday.

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Having the support of others is therefore invaluable. I went home every month to my mum to get the love and compassion which can sometimes go missing in an academic environment. During difficult moments, something as simple as a hand on a shoulder goes a long way to communicate another is there for you. Indeed, it may be the difference between someone continuing on in their studies, or leaving them.

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by Alex Hubert

I graduated from the University of Kent with an MPhys in 2014. I then decided to take on the challenge of a physics PhD at Warwick, which I successfully completed in September 2019. Currently, I am writing a series of articles on mental health and wellbeing within the academic community as well as in general. 
Tweet me @AJMHubert

One thought on “How I did a PhD with a broken brain

  1. Many congratulations are in order for you! What wonderful advice. Thank you. I’m in my write up year and finding it challenging as I work full time as a teacher too to pay for my fees. Your blog inspired me.

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