PhDs and Depression: Searching for a Way Out

Breaking Point

I am a 3rd year PhD student with 5 months left to go.

5.

Months.

Left.

Until recently, my feelings were maximum stress, minimum time. The workload seemed impossible, there simply weren’t enough hours in the day. The more I continued to overwork, the more sacrifices I made in my personal life. Then, came the breaking point.

Three of my grandparents were diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses. However, I was still in PhD-mode, and so when my partner asked about how I was doing I said:

“Well, my grandparents are all quite old, this was bound to happen at some point…”

I thought I was handling things better than the rest of my family, but the truth was my PhD had completely consumed me. My obsession with my project was preventing me from processing the terrible news.

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I actually know people who have either done this or simply refused to leave the building in the middle of an experiment.

My stress continued to rise, my moods gradually became worse. Finally, I met with my supervisor to discuss taking a week off. I felt I needed to spend some more time with my grandparents. It’s funny how time only seems precious once you realise it’s limited. This meeting marked the first time I snapped out of PhD-mode.

To be more specific, I broke down crying in front of my supervisor.

Now fast forward to today. I am no longer stressed. My mental health has improved greatly. I’m spending more time with my family and the kicker is: I’ve accomplished all this and my work hasn’t suffered. In fact I feel it’s improved.

So how did I do it?

The answer is minimalism.


Minimalism

It’s amazing where you can end up when you spend hours jumping from video to video on youtube. You start by watching a video on how to write your PhD thesis, and 20 minutes later you’re watching a video titled “What if we detonated all nuclear bombs at once?”.

Well this is how I discovered minimalism. I’ve always sought a clutter-free home and mess stresses me out. I can’t focus, work, or – more importantly – relax if my house isn’t immaculately organised. Naturally, most of my youtube feed consists of videos from the likes of Marie Kondo (Check out her show “Tidying up” on Netflix) and other amateur youtubers. The common theme is how to organise and remove clutter from your home.

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Then one day I discovered Matt D’Avella on youtube. I watched his videos “My Minimalist Apartment” and “A Day in the Life of a Minimalist”. His apartment was exactly what I had envisioned for my own home. Through Matt I discovered the concept of Minimalism:

“Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom” – The Minimalists.com

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This idea truly resonated with me, it felt like the solution to a problem I’d always felt, but had never been able to articulate.


How Minimalism has Improved my Life

Over the past few months, minimalism has improved virtually every aspect of my life.

My apartment? A beautiful – almost self-sufficient – paradise. There’s no more clutter, everything has a place, and things get put back when they’re used. I immediately felt less stressed. I also dumped 80% of my wardrobe until I was left with only the items that I truly loved to wear. Now I’m always wearing my favourite outfit.

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Shout-out to my Cowboy boots from North Carolina (Complete with Bio-hazard symbol)

At work? I used to strive for efficiency. I would organise my day down to each second. My experiments overlapped, and I was constantly running around like a headless chicken, trying to complete as many tasks as possible each day.

Now I’m all about effectivity > efficiency.

I’ve learnt that within each work-day, there are usually a maximum of 2 critical tasks (see the 4-hour work week). These tasks are the ones that absolutely must be accomplished on that day, in order for your project to progress. I no longer get distracted by “busy-work”. I prioritise my work until I have identified my two critical tasks. Once they are complete, I can focus on less urgent tasks. Ask yourself, would you rather look busy for 8 hours, or complete your work in less than 4?

My free time? It used to feel non-existent. This was due to my biggest anchor. The one thing holding me back: my gaming addiction. Get home from work, go on Xbox, go to sleep. That was my evening routine. What a waste.

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Don’t get me wrong, gaming is a hobby of mine and I enjoyed it, but it had become something pathological.

 

Through minimalism (is this starting to sound like a cult?) I managed to overcome my gaming addiction and in the process I reclaimed my most important resource: my time.

Initially, I felt like a superhero. All of a sudden, I had so much time! At first I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself, but I soon got the hang of it.

Now I spend my evenings doing things I truly enjoy. I work on passion projects like my podcast or this blog. I rekindled my love of cooking and reading, and I feel like I’m spending more quality time with my partner and my family.

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My nights now end with a short period of meditation (something I used to openly mock) and then I’m off to sleep. Thanks to my simpler lifestyle I fall asleep much easier and I sleep better through the night.

So I offer my experience to anyone out there experiencing similar issues. Minimalism is certainly not guaranteed to cure depression, stress, or anxiety in everyone who tries it. But for me, it has dramatically improved how I feel both mentally and physically.

If anyone else is going through or has been through a similar situation, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what helped you get through it.

Drop me an email at dean.coey@gmail.com or tweet me @thescienceboii

 

4 thoughts on “PhDs and Depression: Searching for a Way Out

  1. Firstly. Three grandparents? That’s awful. Sorry to hear that.
    Glad to hear you’ve found a way to cope better and improve things for yourself. Whatever works!
    I don’t really care for the minimalist approach to where you live although for someone who doesn’t like mess I can see how that would appeal to you. I’ve a 10-year-old son. If I was overconcerned with mess he would have me ruined by now haha
    Prioritising I can appreciate. Doing it right can make a big difference.
    I agree with doing the things you love and think they can be very beneficial to your peace of mind.
    Unfortunately I agree with the old you in regards to meditation haha Don’t have the patience for it.
    Still, I enjoyed this post and your take on things.
    Best wishes to you and your family and good luck with your PhD!

    Like

  2. The Science Boi May 3, 2019 — 6:32 am

    Thanks CJ I appreciate that! 😀 It’s all about figuring out what works for you, but don’t knock mediation until you try it! I was very skeptical too! Best wishes.

    Like

  3. Ruth Moorhead May 5, 2019 — 11:37 am

    Well Sir, can’t looks be so deceiving. For anyone reading these comments, I am the partner of Dean,s Uncle. Every time I have been in your company, you have always came across, calm, organised, smart, relaxed etc ( I could go on) but it is true what they say “looks can be deceiving and we don’t know what go on behind closed doors”. I have issues Dean, you may or may not know, I am not studying like you and can’t begin to imagine how it can take over your brain, your well being, your day to day life but I do know how my thoughts, my anxiety, my depression and my ill health took over mine. I once was a healthy woman who worked full time and kept in touch with so many friends. Today, I am not that same woman and if you see me on family gatherings, I have made a very big effort. I get you regarding your three grandparents and it is very sad but as you have stared they have lived and we all are taken at some stage, some a lot sooner than others, I have experienced this and the heareached but I know these family members and friends are watching over me. I am going to take a “leaf out of your book” and review my day to day living and see what I can change for the better, the better for me. You are a very well educated young man and your life us very precious. I think of you, as the “quiet one”. I hope I haven’t embarrassed you by my post but after reading your advice I just had to respond!

    Like

    1. The Science Boi May 5, 2019 — 1:08 pm

      Thanks for sharing this with me Ruth, it is truly appreciated. I’m always happy to hear people resonating with this post. 🙂

      Like

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