Over the past year, I have experienced many transitions, both in a personal and professional sense, which I have written about previously. Professionally, this journey involved moving to a high-performance city, transitioning into another field, being in a new fellowship position, building a new network, finding a permanent job and learning the job duties on the go. It has been an exciting experience but also a mentally taxing one. I could feel the pressures that came with several of those transitions, and I learned a great deal in the process. In fact, I probably learned more about myself this year than ever before.
I had always been an overachiever, and this tendency manifested itself even more in the last few years as I figured out what my desired professional directions were and worked hard to achieve them. I was very motivated in this regard, and thus engaged in many activities to strengthen my science policy portfolio. Those activities allowed me to become competitive for various positions, including the one I currently hold at the University of California. Given my science background and interests in both research and higher education policy, this is a very exciting position for me at this time in my policy career.
However, going through such transitions made me realize several things. Being in a new environment, with many varied responsibilities, I didn’t have the skills to deal with everything at once. I made the mistake of thinking that I could manage it all on my own without help, as I had always done. Although the job-search process itself was difficult, I believe my qualifications helped in obtaining the position I currently hold. At the same time, I did the best I could to maintain all of my external professional obligations, as I had done over the last several years. Yet the pressure of all those transitions eventually took a toll on me.
As a result of the short timeline of my fellowship and the need to find a job in the process, I had to keep going. My schedule had become progressively busier, and my professional duties piled up -- both within and outside my daily job. While that fact did not affect my work, and I tried to maintain everything in parallel, I could feel that it had become too much. I had become quite overwhelmed and didn’t know how to deal with this new lifestyle. After some time, I knew that something was off, but didn’t exactly know how to label it. At first, I developed some form of depression, followed by anxiety. I still struggle with both those issues, yet more so with anxiety -- which I would argue is possibly the worst of the two evils, although they go hand in hand.
Due to those issues and a high level of stress that I was experiencing, I wasn’t always nice to people, nor did I have effective coping mechanisms to help with my mental health for some time. What’s worse, I assumed for a while that everything was going fine, when in fact my stress level was growing and I didn’t realize it. I’m still surprised on a daily basis about how my depression and anxiety are manifested, but I am now developing tools to handle such difficult moments, and I feel stronger every day. Opening up about those moments has been a better strategy than hiding my feelings as I did for some time, not wanting to be a burden to others.
Masking our problems and pretending that everything is going well for a time instead of being honest and dealing with those issues is one of the biggest problems in our society. This type of thinking is natural, yet it perpetuates a focus away from our mental health and makes us keep pushing forward in our careers and personal lives at the expense of it. To help other people avoid this situation, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned through my own experience.
Don’t do it alone. Trying to manage everything by myself for a few months was my first mistake. Had I talked to more people about what I was going through, it would have eased my burden in providing both a support system and useful resources at my disposal. As overachievers, we are taught that asking for help is a weakness and means that we are incapable of operating on our own. Now that I can be more open with people about the issues I’ve been experiencing, I have gained a lot more support from those around me who want to help and can do so by better understanding what I am going through.
Don’t overdo it. My second mistake was to continue all of my professional duties for as long as I could, which resulted in higher stress. Ultimately, I wasn’t taking enough breaks during which I could recharge, as I was always going from one thing to the next. I had been used to this lifestyle from academe, where work doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. but rather continues long into the night and on weekends. In this case, also, while I was already quite stressed, I made the situation worse to some extent by assuming negative outcomes and creating unnecessary drama. Somehow, when you are in a high-stress environment, you can tend to continue that way and keep pushing through, not realizing that you are heading down the wrong path and not having anyone to pull you out of that situation. This type of scenario may be especially common if you’ve always been an academic and thus are used to working and haven’t learned how to unplug and relax.
Stop and reflect. All these experiences made me realize that the lifestyle of an academic, and indeed the one I had been living during the past year, doesn’t teach people how to stop working. I learned that the only way I could survive this situation would be to stop, reflect on what I was doing and then do fewer things -- to say no to certain assignments, to delegate, to work on things on my own time instead of urgently doing everything as I had tried to do in the past and to just breathe. None of these were lessons I had learned or habits I had developed during my scholarly training or the years after leaving academe.
Find enjoyable hobbies. In a world where we are always on the go, just stopping to breathe is an important step. In addition to breathing techniques, I’m now learning more about other useful tools to deal with stress and anxiety, such as meditation and aromatherapy. I'm also reading self-discovery books, including spiritual ones. This experience has strengthened my faith and allowed me to become more involved in church. This community has been invaluable to me in providing opportunities to meet new people and participate in interesting activities, thereby also enabling my sense of belonging in a new city.
Given the nonstop working lifestyle of an academic, I never had many hobbies, so I am now discovering what I like to do in my free time -- another new experience. In addition to church activities, I’ve learned that I enjoy crafting and photography, as well as baking and spending time with my dogs. I anticipate the range of activities to expand over time, but I can feel that this is progress in the right direction for me.
Disconnect from technology. I’ve learned that less is more -- that you have to take care of your needs and say no when you need to. I also learned that a quiet day spent at home with the dogs can make a huge difference in improving my mental health, work and relationships long term. In my current journey of discovering myself outside work, I learned the importance of disconnecting from technology and having meaningful one-on-one connections with people instead of through social media. I also enjoy doing something with my hands -- such as taking care of plants or organizing my apartment. I also learned that just stopping everything and taking a nap can also be quite therapeutic.
This year taught me that the way I had been living my life up to this point no longer worked. I’m proud of myself for being aware of this fact and taking action to change it. At the same time, it made me realize -- although I wish that I’d done so sooner -- that the secret to success and happiness is not working all the time but rather knowing when the job is good enough -- and then stopping and taking care of yourself and your loved ones. Unplugging and doing less goes a long way when it comes to our lives, as well as the quality of our mental health. This practice is something we should encourage and teach more in our educational institutions and workplaces moving forward.
While this is a new experience for me -- and I will have to develop tools to deal with these issues probably for the rest of my life -- I am also planning to use my story to raise awareness of mental health topics among academics and those who have experienced challenging transitions, as well as to help others in the process through sharing my own experiences. If I can help someone else with my story, I know this experience will have had a greater purpose.
As I have noted in a previous post, these issues don’t have to stop you from moving forward; many people struggle with them and are able to maintain a successful career and personal life (including one of my personal heroes, Michael Phelps, whose experience is in some ways similar to my own). But we must also help those who are on this journey by providing them with necessary resources and tools for them to effectively deal with the difficult moments that will inevitably occur. I’m happy to be a resource and provide a listening ear to others.