Be kind to yourself!
One of the greatest challenges I have faced over the previous 12 months was finding a balance between teaching, studies, personal projects, and time for me. At times, it has felt like there haven’t been enough hours in day, days in week, weeks in a month, and months in the year. During my confirmation interview for my doctoral thesis, I was given the advice – be kind to yourself – unfortunately, I wasn’t able to heed this advice, and in the end it impacted on my health.
Like most teachers, I have a pretty busy schedule. When I’m not in class, I spend time during the day preparing and planning for classes or grading learners’ work. Also, over the last 12 months I have been working during the evenings on my website, http://dreamreader.net/. Then, on the weekends and holidays, I would work on my PhD thesis. I know many other teachers are in a similar situation. I have friends and colleagues who have completed a PhD whilst teaching and I have seen the stresses this can cause. Why take so much on? Well, for me there is the desire to improve my resume in order to have a chance of finding a secure position, a teaching job where I have time to pursue research and have time to plan good lessons.
As my self-imposed deadline for my thesis grew closer, the balance between work, study, and my time became more skewed. I started to push myself harder. I would stay up an hour or so later in the evenings. I would spend more of the weekend in my office working on the thesis. I could feel myself getting more tired and stressed. I squeezed in every moment I could to study and work. Without realising it, I had almost no time for myself. I stopped reading for pleasure, cut right back on exercise, didn’t watch any TV or listen to much music, and I would constantly find myself working through lunch.
With a few months to go before the submission date, I was spending approximately 12 to 14 hours a day in front of my computer. If I wasn’t studying, I was either planning lessons, or updating http://dreamreader.net/. My stress levels were extremely high and I wasn’t sleeping or eating as well as result. I started experiencing chest pains particularly after eating a heavy meal which the doctor told were caused by acid reflux. This was most likely caused by the stress and my lifestyle. In addition, I started experiencing shooting pains in both my arms. These weren’t so painful at first, but after a week they had become excruciating. In fact, they got so bad one evening that I found myself in the A&E of a local hospital to get pain relief. I was diagnosed with tennis elbow, a condition caused by my overuse of arm, forearm, and hand muscles when using a computer.
I was so close to finally completing the thesis after five years of hard work, but I knew I would need to make some changes to my lifestyle or risk damaging my health further. I am quite stubborn, so postponing the deadline was never an option, but I knew I would have to address this work, study, personal life balance issue I had. I decided that I would continue taking medication for the pains in my arms, but that I would take regular breaks from typing and only use the computer when absolutely necessary. For the stress and acid reflux, I did the following three things.
A change in diet
First, I cut coffee out of my diet completely. I had bought myself a nice espresso maker to help me get through the thesis, but realised that the caffeine was accentuating the stress and anxiety. I started to drink chamomile tea instead and I felt this helped to relax me more. I also started to eat regular smaller meals. I stopped working through lunch and gave myself plenty of time to have my meals away from my desk. I also switched to eating more fresh and raw vegetables. I think this helped my energy levels and became a healthy substitute for coffee.
In the evening, between working on the thesis and working on the website, I would go for a long walk. I couldn’t run or do any work in the gym because of the pain in my arms, but these long walks really helped. I would put on my headphones and set off. The music would also help to relax me. It is pretty hilly around where I live, so these got my heart pumping. They were also a great way to reflect on my studies and classes during the day.
I have never been able to meditate. I find it very difficult to empty my mind at the best of times, but around that time I thought this would be impossible. However, I found a form of mediation that worked for me. I would lie down in a dark room with my headphones on and listen to some relaxing sounds. I found some recordings of the sea washing up on the shore and these were great. The technique I tried was to tense a muscle for a couple of seconds and then relax. I would start with my feet and work my way up to my head. I would do this for 30 or 40 minutes. After this, I always felt more relaxed and actually felt more refreshed.
In the end, I managed to submit my thesis on time. The pain in my arms is still there, but not as extreme and I no longer need medication. The chest pains have subsided too. It was certainly a very challenging period, but I made it through…just. My one piece of advice to anyone who is busy working and studying is the advice I didn’t heed – be kind to yourself!