04 May 2009


The life of a grad student is uniquely turbulent. The demands of each semester, combined with the self-promoted timelines of research, construct an interesting dynamic of rolling milestones that are often appointed by a university but are more often driven by self motivation. I admit that my personality does not lend itself well to prioritizing and scheduling in a manner that is manageable. I commit myself to too many activities and have an overwhelming sense of responsibility to fulfill the obligations these tasks entail. As a result, I have problems with muscle tension, mood swings, migraines, and a suite of other issues related to high stress levels. I find that fiber arts attenuates stress to a certain degree. Knitting during lunch breaks and spinning at night is very meditative and satisfying for me, but it is a catch-22...on the occassions I'd like to do something fun, I often don't have the time, so my stress management techniques fall short.

Here's another gratuitous pic of fiber, this time some of the unspun wool I've dyed myself.

I am a proud member of a Facebook group for science grad students struggling with depression. I don't think anyone in high-pressure situations like grad school benefit from pretending everything is peachy keen and hunky dory. You can't adapt to altering levels of stress without being able to roll with the punches, and I don't think you can brush things off without obtaining objective perspectives. I'm not sure that viewpoint is always readily obtainable from family, friends, and advisors; moreover, I don't think it is the responsibility of these people to constantly offer the mental and emotional support we need to persevere. Everyone has problems, and there are too many times when my interpersonal relationships take a hit because everyone else is stressed out and can't help me with my stress.

My solution for the problems I've outlined above: I see a psychologist for an hour once every other week. I have no shame in publicly admitting it and cannot think of anyone who could not benefit from having a regular relationship with a therapist. The details of the journey that led me to this psychologist (I'll call her "R" since I don't know how she would feel about me blogging about her) are a long and TMI story (suffice it to say that they are tied to continuing, long term health problems), but the relationship I have with her is valuable enough to me that I continued to meet with her even after her position on campus ended and she began working at another, off-campus group.

The extra time and expense I expend to meet with her twice a month is totally worth it. R is not the first psychologist with which I met when my doctor first directed me to therapy. I met with two other practitioners, both with very different approaches to listening and offering advice, but neither of them struck me as particularly useful or helpful. It took all of five minutes to decide that R suited my personality and could help me address my problems in a constructive manner.

No, I haven't been diagnosed outright with anxiety or depression related "disorders" (I subscribe to the viewpoint that if a person takes enough psychological tests, they will eventually be "diagnosed" with a mental disorder; in other words, there is no "normal" for every mental parameter). I don't always feel like I need to go see R, and if I've been traveling, fitting an appointment in is kind of difficult. But I still make it a priority to go. I appreciate having a sounding board and checkpoint for times when I need to make decisions, resolve conflict, or just re-evaluate my life. I trust R's opinions, and believe we get along so well because we're similar enough to understand and relate to each other. I think I'm fortunate to have found a psychologist of whom I am fond, because I don't see it as a burden to talk to her. 

All in all, it makes sense to sit down every few weeks to just think about how I'm really doing.

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