7 Ways Graduate Students Can Practice Self-Care
March 10, 2021
Clutter overstimulates the brain, and your brain can't handle that right now.
You didn't enroll in graduate school for your health. You enrolled in graduate school for the ecstasy of academia, the delight of reading 400 pages a night, the pure thrill of career-defining exams. Your passion drove you to this, not your will to live. But live you must, if you're to finish your program—and you're going to need to take care of yourself if you want to live a long, healthy life that enables you to continue learning about whatever you're passionate about. You may feel pressured to prioritize academia, but your mental and physical health come first.
Being a grad student is a constant grind, and it's important to practice self-care (that is, anything you do intentionally in order to maintain your mental, emotional, and physical health) in order to keep yourself in top form.
Yes, this is a tired one, but clichés are clichés for a reason—they work! Many studies show that gratitude can contribute to improved psychological health, self-esteem, and mental strength (and you need all the mental strength you can get). So how can you cultivate more gratitude in your exhausting, ink-stained, crying-undergrad-infested life? Keep it simple: for one week, try waking up every morning and listing three things you're grateful for.
Gratitude lists can include anything from finding a super-cheap used copy of a textbook you need to make it with flying colors through a topic you were nervous about, to getting an extension on a paper you're having a hard time focusing on. By Sunday you'll have a heap of 21 reasons to appreciate your life and the specific opportunities you're afforded; it's a little harder to feel down when you have a long list of such good things right in front of you.
Keep a mood/sleep log
Everyone has bad days. If you're feeling off, there's a reason for it. Start tracking your mood and the hours/quality of your sleep, and see how each affects the other.
Sleep is linked to brain functions such as productivity, concentration, and cognition, and it also improves the body's immune system, helping it to regenerate and recover from long days on hard library chairs, pushing your Sisyphean mind to take on boulder-like philosophical quandaries.
Being able to see, written down, how the length and quality of your sleep affect your moods will help you to prioritize getting enough rest.
Declutter your space
This one's especially important for graduate students, as clutter overstimulates the brain. And your brain canNOT handle that right now. Clutter actually depletes your energy: all that visual stimuli inundates your brain with a flood of potential decisions to make: should I clear this stuff away now, should I take care of this bill now, find the right cleaning supplies to scrap this scented candle wax off my desk, rip up this post-it note reminding me to send a thank-you card to my ailing great-uncle for the $5 he sent me on Saint Patrick's Day, or should I get to work on my incredibly complex and labor-intensive speech-language pathology thesis and attempt to reach an epiphany?
Once you've sorted through all the thoughts and decisions that the sight of that clutter forces upon you, you're too exhausted to sip your Pamplemousse La Croix, let alone study. Setting ten minutes aside every morning to organize and de-gross your living space will make you feel capable, comfortable, and ready for whatever tasks the day presents you with. A clean home is a clean mind.
Keep a journal
If you're in grad school, you probably like to write. Or, at least, you're willing to write. There are lots of ways that journaling can help you practice self-care. If you're someone who's always beating yourself up when you make mistakes, or if you tend to dwell on your imperfections, journaling can help you distance yourself from your feelings and view them objectively.
When you get that perspective, you're not going to feel like your whole world is crumbling because of a bad grade on a paper. There's also no right or wrong way to journal, which can feel like a relief when you're being graded on everything else. Carve out 15-20 minutes a day to write it out and find your clarity.
Unwind with friends who get it
Sure, you have a support system already, but your downstairs neighbor Humphrey who lets you feed his pomeranian carrots and your favorite fraternity brother, Brandon, who writes ad copy for a multinational tech conglomerate, don't exactly understand the trials and tribulations of your lifestyle, specifically.
Making friends with the people you meet in your grad courses can zap your brain with the pain-killing endorphins that larger social networks cultivate in your brain, and provide you with the validation and encouragement that both come from being around people doing the same difficult work as you: this is hard, but it is worth it. Plus, it's convenient: these days, you're always down to meet a pal at a library or coffee shop for a study session, and making flashcards is more fun when you can do it over a charcuterie board with other sorry scholars.
Eat brain food
Your brain is the control center of your body, which means that your brain needs a lot of fuel, and the quality of that fuel will determine your brain's functioning power. That fuel is food.
As a grad student (and, frankly, as a human being), your brain is your ticket to a successful dissertation and a thriving career. So what is the deal with the 50%-less-sugar Russel Stover chocolates you nabbed from the CVS near your seminar and washed down with a Diet Coke before 7 a.m.? Are you really expecting to experience original flashes of insight on empty calories and carbonation? Do some research on what foods will boost your brain—a good place to start is by cutting out processed foods and sugar, and adding fermented foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, or kimchi, which affect your gut health, mood, energy level, and the degree of inflammation throughout your body.
Read for pleasure
HA! No, we're not kidding. You surely did a lot of research on your chosen academic program or pursuit before you applied and enrolled, and it's a safe bet that you're up to your eyeballs in text these days.
It can be inspiring and exciting to throw your whole life into one passion for an extended period of time, but it can also result in a loss of perspective. You've been given this opportunity to study something that fascinates you, all day every day, and it's easy to bury yourself in work and forget the curiosity that drove you here. Try picking up a book on something other than your life's work, and getting invested in a story or subject. This can be done with audiobooks and podcasts too—you want to spark a flare of interest that reminds you that you have other interests outside of your program. I mean, not that many other interests, but some other interests.
Okay, the purpose of this tip is to gently suggest that you find some interests outside of your program. A distraction always helps when you have too much of a good thing (and grad school can feel like way, way too much of a good thing).
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