If these words have been escaping your mouth much-too-frequently these days, you’re not alone. It’s a tricky time, December — not only the end of the term, but also the end of the year. For those of us taking courses, it’s crunch-time now with final papers, projects and presentations. It’s also a popular period for conference submission deadlines (hence lots of data analyses, writing and then of course spending more time editing than writing in order to meet the impossibly low word-limit). It’s also a time for wrapping up all those things that you expected to be done with by now, things that you don’t want to roll over to the new year. Now begin the perhaps-satisfying, perhaps-stress-provoking “what have I done this year?” reflections, along with the “what are my priorities for the new year?” reflections. In sum: lots of things to do, lots of reflections, not lots of time.
All of this is made even more delightful with the exceedingly gloomy weather. The days are darker, colder, shorter and rainier (as it seemingly refuses to snow). Many people have colds, the libraries are packed and our labs suddenly become counterproductive spaces, for some reason. The city is trying to lift our spirits with its lights and beautiful decorations, but we are so tired and still have this final push to give to reach the finish-line, before we can even think of fun, rest, gifts, and scrumptious foods.
Two things sparked my writing this blog post. One is that so many of my friends are currently struggling with their energy and their motivation to finish off 2011. Stress and fatigue are starting to take over. I can see it on their faces, I can hear it in their voice, and I can read it on their Facebook statuses. The second is that I heard about a very interesting stress-relieving event taking place at the SSMU this week: they are partnering with Therapeutic Paws of Canada and bringing in a few healthy, vaccinated and happy dogs to the Ballroom for students to come in and play with for a few minutes, in order to cheer themselves up and feel less stressed-out! For those of us who have pets, we know that nothing feels better than losing ourselves in some quality-time with them. The SSMU event is free and it takes place this week until Wednesday, December 7th. They are open from noon until 3pm tomorrow (Tuesday December 6th), and Wednesday from 10am until noon.
Other than playing with puppies, there are other, relatively-simple things we could keep in mind to help alleviate stress and give us extra energy and motivation. Of course, by now it might be second nature to us to get caught up in our stress-bubble, work around the clock, stay cooped up indoors, forget to eat well and forgo sleep in order to meet deadlines. But it is definitely worth it to re-evaluate our strategies and try out new ones because, let’s face it: as ambitious and driven and successful as we are, too much stress is NEVER worth it. Let’s not have to learn that the hard way.
1. Eat well:
It’s not always easy to eat well when we’re overwhelmed with work. Some of us may skip meals, eat unhealthily because of a lack of time, and forget to drink enough water (opting for soft drinks, caffeine drinks or alcoholic drinks way more often). If you’re really low on energy and find getting to the end of the day without a mid-afternoon nap impossible, you may need to adjust your diet to fight off fatigue.
For one, skipping meals (especially breakfast) is a big no-no. Sometimes fatigue is simply a sign that we’re hungry and/or thirsty. Eating small meals throughout the day helps keep your blood sugar stable and fights off tiredness.
In terms of what to eat, there is a really good book called “Food Cures” that I have at home. It is basically a very user-friendly, colorful and informative hardcover book listing all sorts of medical (or psychological) conditions in alphabetical order (e.g. anemia, colds, food sensitivities, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, sinusitis) and goes through food prescriptions to naturally cure these issues. It not only tells you WHAT you should be eating, and what you should cut out of your diet, but also WHY (with interesting nutritional facts) and HOW (with easy recipes).
In a nutshell (synthesizing four pages of tips), the entry on “fatigue” suggests eating:
- Foods high in protein, such as fish, meat, dairy products and beans (to boost mood and alertness, and help ensure steady blood sugar levels, and steady energy)
- Foods high in iron, such as meat and molasses (to make hemoglobin and offer strength)
- Foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, peppers and broccoli (to absorb the iron)
- Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, brown rice, fruits and vegetables (to avoid simple carbs that are easy to digest and sap energy, to promote mental clarity and reduce emotional upset)
- Foods high in beta-carotene, such as sweet potatoes and carrots (to boost a weak immune system and promote healthy cell membranes, protecting from viruses and bacteria)
- Foods high in potassium, such as spinach, avocados and squash (to prevent muscle weakness and exhaustion)
- Foods high in magnesium, such as pumpkin seeds and spinach (to produce energy, relax muscles and aid sleep)
In addition, “off the menu” are:
- Excess sugar (only gives you a brief burst of energy; eventually blood sugar dips and makes you feel more drained than before)
- Caffeine (stimulates your central nervous system, increases your heart-rate and breathing rate)
- Alcohol (a depressant that puts you to sleep but later wakes you up as it withdraws from your system)
If you don’t feel like buying a whole book on nutritional tips, this website also gives some helpful tips for fighting fatigue: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Fatigue_fighting_tips
2. Limit caffeine:
Even though I put this as a separate point from “eat well”, this should NOT encourage you to skip over this point altogether. How do I know you were thinking of doing so? Because I do it all the time! I ignore this advice. I brush over it, avert my eyes, turn my head away from the words, even think: “yeah, yeah, avoid caffeine, sure”. I am THE epitome of “coffee-addict”. I’d like to think I’m somewhat better now (not that I had a problem), because I drink only four cups a day instead of six. But, let’s be fair, although some caffeine is good for us, too much of it increases our anxiety and irritability, and eventually hinders our performance rather than boosting it. If you love the taste of it as much as I do (and suffer from caffeine-withdrawal headaches), cutting it out will be impossible. Just reduce it. Your heart might appreciate it.
3. Change settings when you’re stuck:
Working from the office or the library may not always work. Different locations and strategies work differently at different times. This last sentence may not seem very insightful, but it’s very true! At least for me and for some friends of mine. Working from a louder-and cozier-than-library café is ideal when I have lots to read, or lots of brainstorming to do. I love working from a café when I have to search for papers, make an outline, get my thoughts in order, or edit my writing. It feels much more inspiring and productive. (I agree with you, it may be difficult to balance tip # 2 with tip # 3, but note that you could also drink herbal tea or juice, or something.) Instead, I work from home when I have lots of writing to do with a tight deadline in sight, and I generally work from the office for everything else. Moving from one place to the other during the same day might also be a good idea, as it makes you GET UP from your seat. It’s never good to be sedentary for too long, sitting for hours and hours on end. This is how I justify my suddenly getting up to do non-urgent house-chores while I work from home, by the way.
Working away from your computer is also a very good idea, particularly if you are feeling stuck (or if you find yourself answering every single email that comes in, say, within 0.72 seconds of being notified of it). The old-fashioned pen and paper method is great for blurting your ideas out, for feeling fearless. Taking a step back and thinking in the shower or while washing dishes may also help you get unstuck. In short, try to give yourself a variety of settings to work from, so that you reduce boredom and stress, and in order to renew your energy and your outlook on tasks and ideas.
4. Make sure to get enough daylight:
We were lucky to have had such a gorgeous summer and fall with many, many sunny days in a row. That makes finding ourselves in this sudden gloomy greyness all the more difficult. Even though your mind is racing with things to do and you need to sit down and work productively all day long, try to get out to get some daylight, even if it’s a short walk just to get some lunch or run an errand. A sunlight deficiency can easily affect our mood and make us succumb to the “winter blues”. If you think you’re not getting enough daylight, consider taking Vitamin D supplements throughout the winter.
Sleep? What sleep? Who needs sleep? Oh, this used to be my way of life. I would sleep a maximum of five hours a night throughout my Bachelors and Masters degrees, and until I passed my Comprehensive Assessment Exam last year. Sometimes, I would sleep as little as two-three hours per night, which I considered more of a nap than a good night’s sleep. I used to think that sleep was the least crucial part of my day and that, in order to fit everything else in (work, writing, travel, photography, friends, family), I could skip sleep and just recover at a later point by sleeping for two-and-a-half days straight. It worked really well for many years. Until this year when I discovered that I simply didn’t want to do that anymore. Actually, my body just decided it for me. I’m getting older, I guess. But you’ll soon realize that you really can’t think straight when you’re low on sleep and that you absolutely need to call it a night for your mind and body to recover.
6. Take breaks and don’t feel guilty about it:
It’s really crucial to take breaks in order to refuel the brain and to feel like you actually want to get back to work. How could you possibly like your thesis when you force yourself to write it, all the time? There are lots of fun activities and events going on in Montreal right now — take time to get out, get some air and do some of them. And something that I am not particularly good at — don’t feel guilty about taking some hours away from your work, even in the busiest of times. If you hadn’t taken a break, you might have been unproductively and uninspiredly staring at your computer screen or Facebooking for hours anyway. Your time might actually be better spent changing gears and re-energizing, and you’ll work more efficiently and with a clearer mind once you sit back down. You might even learn that you get the same amount of work done in less time!
Sometimes “doing nothing” should go on the to-do list. Decompressing can feel as good – or better – than sleeping. I find that if I try to go straight to bed after an evening of work, I just lie there like a stress-ball. Especially when you find yourself overwhelmed and in a bad mood, decompressing becomes urgent! Have a hot drink, talk to a friend or family member you’re close to, listen to music you love, play with your pet, take a bath — do whatever it is that always cheers you up and completely relaxes you.
It’s really incredible how changing your reaction actually changes the situation. This is something I have started to realize more and more this year. It can be as simple as making a conscious effort to smile. Try waking up in the morning and smile as you stretch and as you head to the shower. While you’re heading to work or heading home, try to find something in front of you that makes you smile. If nothing inspires you on the scene, think of something that makes you smile — a funny anecdote, a hilarious moment between you and your close friends, an amazing memory, your favorite place in the whole world. It helps so much and, after a while, it becomes more and more natural to cheer yourself up this way.
9. See the positive side of the coin:
As overburdened, busy or down as we might feel, it’s important to try to keep positive. Try to see the silver lining in whatever happened to annoy you or set you back. Re-focus your perspective on the good things that are going on in your life rather than giving more attention to all the things that make you feel stressed, sad or worried. This is a true challenge, especially when we feel tired and stretched to our limit, but a life lesson that helps us get through any day and any situation. If we feel grateful about our good fortunes, big or small, I think we’ll realize that things are not nearly as bad as they may seem.
10. Actively work on coping with stress:
Stress management is really key to improve our quality of life, both in graduate school and in life in general. It’s often something we have to actively think about, ask ourselves questions about, and work to achieve. It requires some introspection, effort and patience. It’s impossible to never feel stressed or worried, but what is important is not to let this become your constant state of being. My favorite website about perceiving and coping with stress is this one: http://helpguide.org/mental/stress_management_relief_coping.htm. I find their advice rather insightful and helpful. If you tend to worry a lot (like me!), you could also check out this helpful site: http://helpguide.org/mental/anxiety_self_help.htm
I wish you all a productive and healthy end of the year. I hope that by the holiday break, we will have achieved all our goals without burning out, falling ill or wanting to disappear off the face of the planet. Stay strong and good luck!