The PhD experience often seems to lead to a combination of restlessness and guilt. We are consistently striving to carry out the best research we possibly can, whilst juggling conferences, the need to publish, admin, career progression, and (for the lucky few that have it) teaching. Faced with overarching and often overwhelming to do lists, the PhD experience is fraught with anxiety. Anxiety to do our best, anxiety to prove ourselves, anxiety to understand the ‘system’ and the boys’ club that academia sometimes seems. This anxiety induces a restlessness that is compounded by the hours spent at a desk pouring over texts and staring at screens. Indeed, the physical stress of an academic lifestyle alone is enough to give me a tight chest, hunched shoulders, a tense back, and itchy feet, not to mention RSI from typing with my wrists resting on the desk. With such physical and emotional energy surging through us, stepping away from work can seem impossible. Moreover, the guilt of not working is enough to chain us to our work – I’m in the habit of always having a pen and paper and trying to constantly force myself to produce something. Even in front of the TV. Even when I’m supposed to be ‘relaxing’. It’s enough to make me long for a 9-5 job that I can leave at the office. When I’m not jiggling my leg and drawing yet another mind map, that is.
Over the past six months my anxiety seemed to reach breaking point. I sat down to work, filled with fear. A fear that strangled me, that paralysed my, that made my mind go blank. I’d sit in front of my work avoiding it. Wriggling. That’s when I decided to get out and away from it. Do something physical with this fear that felt like it was slowly eating me, destroying me from inside. I’d always enjoyed cycling at weekends for leisure, but at this point I decided to use sport for my work and my wellbeing, as well as fun and fitness. So I took up running.
I pounded the canal tow-path 3 to 5 times a week, forcing myself out of bed to work up a sweat through sun, wind, and rain. At first I spent my runs ‘running over’ my feelings of anxiety – I’d end up running through tears. But I kept going, and normally, once I’d got home and set myself up to do some piece of work, no matter how small, I’d manage it. Then, as I began to improve productivity, I started turning over problems to do with my thesis and thinking about my latest chapter. My feet and heart beating to the rhythm of my research. Whilst this was better than crying, it did signal a constant obsession and fear with my work.
Gradually, however, I began to use the time running to step away from my thesis. I listened to podcasts to stop my mind wondering; I focused on the views, sights, sounds, smells, and feelings as my body treaded the now-familiar canal path; I counted to 500 then back down again; and I breathed – I mean really focused on slow breathing. Now I run to clear my mind, use my body, and set myself up for work. And it helps.
Yes, I still feel guilty about that hour away from my desk – think how much I could produce during this time?! And yes, I still get nauseating, paralysing anxiety. And yes, there are definitely days when I feel so awful I don’t want to go. Let’s face it, exercise is never going to completely put a stop to these feelings. But it can be a tool to deal with them. And now I know from experience that taking that hour out improves and aids my work. And I’m not going to feel guilty for it. With this view, who would be surprised?