Practicing Self-Care in Grad School (+ Beyond)
lessons learned through my unique self-care journey
Let me start with a confession: self-care does not come first nature to me—as it probably does not for most people. Self-care activities inherently feel like unnatural, forced aspects of my daily life. I have no trouble admitting to my bad habits—staying up too late, sleeping through my alarms, forgetting to drink water, and drinking way too much coffee—and my chosen lifestyle of being “forever a student” (currently a fourth year Neuroscience PhD candidate) has both worsened my battle against anxiety and depression as well as made me hyper-aware of the importance of taking better care of myself mentally and physically.
That being said, it still took my therapist’s convincing to get me to prioritize my self-care and write a blog about it. Prior to this journey, I had no concept of what self-care actually was. I would picture the stereotypical bubble baths with wine and an extra slice of cake, but I never fathomed that self-care, when purposeful, can be a life-changing tool for improving one’s mental health and quality of life. I started my blog with the goal of educating fellow students on how to use self-care as a life improvement tool, and I have become passionate about sharing my story. And sharing how I am overcoming my anxiety and depression, succeeding as an academic, and just generally living my life.
As this project has gained momentum, I have learned many lessons about myself and my self-care journey in graduate school. Here are five main lessons I hope will guide you through your own exploration.
sleep, above all else, is the most important priority
As someone who researches sleep, this would be the most obvious place to start, but honestly, when I’m balancing all that life throws my way and I’m left wishing there were more than 24 hours in a day, sleep is unfortunately one of the last things on my list to get prioritized.
Research suggests that sleep disruptions are detrimental to your mental and physical health. Above all, sleep is essential for maintaining attention and optimal cognitive ability. When you do not sleep well or get enough sleep, you may lack motivation and the ability to pay attention to tasks that may require more resilience. Of course, sustained attention and determination is required for grad school life, which involves a lot of time spent reading papers and writing, or sitting through hour-long seminars on a regular basis.
So yes, as a senior-level graduate student I know sleep is important and that I could always use more of it. But how can we ensure that we get enough, while still trying to attain (or maintain) #boss status?
First of all, find a time management strategy that works for you. This will allow you to get as much done during the day as you want. In order to make time for sleep, remember to actually schedule it into your day and honor that commitment to self-care like you would any other task or meeting, regardless of how many other things you do (or do not) get done during the day.
Also, be sure to schedule in “you time” before bed so that you have a chance to wind down. This may look different depending on the type of person you are, but some great suggestions are: unplugging electronics, reading, listening to music or podcasts, showering, meditation or yoga.
Lastly, practice good sleep hygiene. This involves maintaining a pleasant sleeping environment and reserving the bedroom for sleeping only (and sometimes another ‘s’ word that is not “snacking... :))
a morning ritual (i.e. coffee) is necessary
Because I do not always get to sleep as much as I want to, coffee is a necessity for me. I think many can agree that a good morning coffee is satisfying for more reasons than the chemical addiction—it is a ritual and it is relaxing. Every morning when I get up, I try to give myself at least 30 minutes of “me time;” I’ll sip on my coffee and, if time warrants, I’ll make my bed, meditate, set intentions for the day, tidy my apartment, or even work on personal passion projects.
Having this time every day has done wonders for my mental health. By waking up earlier and allowing myself the luxury of time to reflect, relax and breath a little before heading out the door to school or work, I no longer dread getting up. It not only settles my anxiety, but also helps my attention and motivation once I finally sit down at my desk!
Find time for your ritual, even if it doesn’t include coffee. You can sit by a window, take a walk to get some fresh air if the weather allows, or do something else that makes mornings more peaceful.
vulnerability is invaluable
It can seem tough at first to talk about your struggles with others—no matter if it is a friend, family member, a professional, or even on social media. However, when you do open up it can feel liberating. You’ll also probably find that people you talk to will share their own story with you too. We are social animals, so a connection with people, even if it is virtual, allows us to feel less alone. In graduate school or a tiring job, having that sense of community and comradery helps us get through some of the most difficult days.
I HIGHLY recommend you listen to the new Brene Brown special on Netflix. She talks about the importance of being vulnerable, among many other lovely little tidbits.
practicing the mini stuff helps conquer the big stuff
Self-care does not have to always be elaborate purchases, tropical vacations, spa treatments, or other time- and money-consuming gimmicks.
Showering, brushing your teeth, and washing your face count as self-care. Taking an extra 15 minutes to lay in bed in the morning is self-care. Having coffee with a friend is self-care. Reading your book is self-care. Grocery shopping is self-care. Sex is self-care. Meal prepping, cleaning your bathroom, unloading the dishwasher? You guessed it. Self-care.
Self-care has no formal definition. I like to describe self-care as the process of being mindful of your needs and purposefully taking actions to satisfy those needs. Having a formal self-care practice can involve a bunch of “miniature” self-care routines that are easier to maintain even when you are at your busiest. My mini routines are what have gotten me through graduate school and some of the toughest situations in my adult life. Realizing this has changed my viewpoint of how I take care of myself and how I pivot the discussion of “I do not have time for self-care” to something more productive. We all have time for self-care. However, the extent of what self-care looks like to you (big or small) depends on your needs and your workload.
The self-care that comes in smaller batches is, in my opinion, the most important type. These are essential habits that keep our mental and physical space “tidy” and our life more manageable. For instance, I have to grocery shop and meal prep for the week, otherwise I spend way too much money on food that does not fit my lifestyle (or budget… #studentloans). Similarly, if I do not practice personal hygiene regularly or get myself to the gym once or twice a week minimum, I feel uncomfortable in my skin, which perpetuates my anxiety. And if I do not do laundry every week, I run out of my favorite, go-to clothes to wear, which also helps boost my confidence.
While all of these actions are little things that many might not even think of as self-care, they keep my mental health in check, and in turn help me conquer more in my personal and professional life. I feel happier. I can engage in my social relationships with more presence. I can tackle personal projects and hobbies with so much more gusto. Once you start partaking in such purposeful self-care, you will feel better than you ever have and you will never want to look back.
self-care, self-love, and self-compassion are muscles
When we want to build skeletal muscle, we know the steps: eat a balanced diet, drink more water, get to the gym, “practice makes perfect,” yada, yada. If you are anything like me, you get frustrated when you cannot practice self-care, self-love, or self-compassion with equally straightforward steps; you wish that you could wake up one day and have a self-care routine that feels like second nature. Unfortunately, that is often not the case.
While I may have been engaging in acts that can count toward self-care most of my adult life, I have not been doing them purposefully until a little less than a year ago. I was mindlessly doing acts of self-care as a reaction to a mental state, instead of preventatively practicing self-care by building up the necessary “muscles” to make me stronger in my daily actions. Even on days that I do not do my basic routines, I try not beat myself up over it because I know that I am in a much better space than a year ago. This means I am growing and learning!
The same goes for self-love and self-compassion, two things I am ready to start tackling now that I feel like my self-care is more consistent. I know you may want to strive for perfection in these practices too, but try to remember that, like self-care, these things will take time to strengthen too.
So, if you are feeling at all overwhelmed by grad school or other challenges life throws your way, try to take a step back, evaluate your situation, and implement a few of these lessons one day at a time. It may take a while to figure out what works best for you but, soon enough, you’ll have a great self-care routine that works for you and your personal journey.
Even if you already practice self-care, I want to encourage you to take an inventory of your current habits and rituals. What does it look like? What happens when you are not busy? What happens to your practice when you are? Do you feel like your self-care is on point? How else can you continue to develop your self-care, as well as your relationship with yourself?
As one of my favorite authors, Gretchen Rubin, has said “When we give more to ourselves, we can ask more from ourselves.” I hope that these lessons help you in your own deep dive into self-care like they have for me. If you’re interested in learning more tips you can check out my blog gradselfcare.com and Instagram.