Stress is bad, folks. Like bad, bad.
"Okay," you're thinking, "I already know that." But do you really?
Are you aware that prolonged stress damages mind, body, and spirit? Sure does. I'm talking:
I could go on, but you get my point.
Stress, though, isn't an issue without stressors - i.e., the stuff in our lives we perceive as maxing out our resources. Unfortunately, there are lots of those around, according to a recent American Psychological Association survey (and anyone who's awake). The top five: future of our nation (63%); money (62%); work (61%); current political climate (57%); and violence and crime (51%).
Umm...yes, to all that.
For academics, add to the list deadlines, grading, finding time to write, demanding students, those demoralizing comments from reviewer two, and service overload.
That's the bad news. The good news: high stress and its negative consequences are NOT inevitable. There are tools - a.k.a. coping mechanisms - that when used correctly can reduce stress.
In fact, you have one of these stress-busting tools with you right now.
Yep, that thing your body does mostly outside of awareness to keep you alive can also provide much needed stress relief.
Consciously slowing and deepening your breath sends messages to the brain to relax which turns down the sympathetic nervous system's fight or flight response and turns up the parasympathetic nervous system's rest and digest response - exactly what's required to halt a stress spiral.
There are several deep breathing techniques to choose from. Whichever you try, stick with it. Regular practice equals better outcomes.
So let's all take a moment to inhale slowly for the count of five (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)...hold...exhale slowly for the count of five (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Now repeat for the next three minutes. Your body will thank you.
In peace and solidarity,
Welcome to August! The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and academics everywhere are freaking out.
In April, the three-month summer break seems like an endless expanse of time. You forget (again) how this break never ends up being as long or as leisurely as you expect. In this state of unfettered optimism, you plan an impossibly long summer to-do list.
Of course I can finish four articles, collect data from 1000 participants, and redo six classes. No probs.
In the stark light of August, those uncompleted (or even untouched) plans fill you with self-loathing and dread. Your stress level begins to rise higher and higher as the clock ticks louder and louder.
The thing about stress is it hijacks the ability to plan and make sound decisions. This hijacking might explain why, when faced with too little time and too much to do, many of us double down.
You know you’ve doubled down when you start convincing yourself you can still get everything done…in a quarter of the time. Like Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible, you figure there is some secret combination of moves that will save the day. And it usually goes something like this: I just need to work more, write faster, sleep less.
Doubling down is a horrible strategy. It never works...evah!
Okay, it might work for a bit. But, and this is important, it is NOT a sustainable strategy. Working at a frenetic pace without rest and recuperation reduces alertness, productivity, and performance. The exact opposite of what you want.
Breaking the end-of-summer stress cycle requires admitting you are human. You have limits. And to work healthily, not everything you planned to do will get done. Yes, you must let some things go.
This is hard...very, very hard.
BUT it's much better on your stress level and self-esteem to admit your humanness now and develop a realistic plan. Waiting will only make things worse.
I know what you're thinking: if I could plan realistically, I wouldn't be in this mess. No worries. I’m here to help. We can do this plan-making together. All you need to do is AIM.
AIM is a simple triage process I use with stressed clients who can’t figure out where to focus their time. It requires placing each item on your to-do list in one of three categories– Acute, Important, or Minor.
All the items that have to get done this summer go in this category. Be careful not to confuse have to get done with want to get done or should get done. Have-to items are required for your job security/success and have non-negotiable due dates. Examples are an R&R with a hard summer deadline, a tenure portfolio due the first day of fall semester, a fall course prep.
This category is for items that don’t have an immediate deadline but are important to your future goals. Examples are a major overhaul of a course you're not teaching in the fall, a grant proposal that you can submit in another cycle, almost-completed articles you can choose to work on now or later.
All leftover items go here – like those things you thought would be great to do this summer but can be done in the distant future, if at all (e.g., reading all the articles in your discipline’s main journal, organizing your file cabinets, starting a new research project when you already have several in various stages of completion).
Your mission - if you choose to accept it* - is to prioritize your time so you complete all the acute items (at least) while still taking breaks, sleeping at least 7 hours per night, and spending time with family and friends.
The trick here is focus. This means not working on anything in the important or minor categories until you've completed everything in the acute category. No matter how tempting. Stay strong.
If you’re lucky enough to have time left over after completing your acute items, move to the important category items. And so on.
If you aren’t so lucky, you will need to let the important and minor items go…at least for this summer. Again, this is not easy. It helps to have some self-compassion. Keep reminding yourself that you are only human, you are doing the best you can, and you are choosing to work in ways that maximize your productivity AND your health.
Good luck! This tape will self-destruct in five seconds*.
*For you millennials out there, these references are from the Mission Impossible TV show that aired a long, long, long time ago when tapes were still in existence.
[A previous version of this post was published on this cite in 2017.]
Feeling especially overwhelmed? More exhausted than normal by unfinished grading and writing? Wondering why spring break wasn't refreshing? You’re not alone.
Spring semester is a major slog. Even worse than fall. No, really. Here’s why:
Spring comes after the holiday season, which for some means depletion from travel, forced cheer, and overspending worries. For those who don’t celebrate Christmas, there’s the extra stress of dealing with even more Christian privilege than usual. How many times could you hear Merry Christmas as a non-Christian without wanting to scream?
Some parts of the U.S. experience little sunlight and lots of cold during most of spring semester, particularly the start. This can have emotional consequences that range from malaise to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Even if shorter, darker, chillier days don’t get you down, they may negatively affect your friends, family, students, and colleagues. And their down mood can impact yours, a phenomenon called emotional contagion.
Taxes are due! Need I say more?
Then there are faculty annual reviews that typically occur in the spring. Ideally, professional reviews are a time for thoughtful reflection with chairs who: value all that we do; make space for the ways positionality influences how we are perceived, treated, and evaluated*; acknowledge that we operate within an education system that increasingly gives too little and takes too much; recognize their power in the process even if they feel powerless in their roles otherwise; and understand that those reading their reviews are people with feelings and vulnerabilities and hopes, even if some of us protect those parts of our humanity behind heavy armor.
But as many of you already know, annual reviews regularly fall short of this ideal. So far short, in fact, that I’ve had a steady stream of painful phone calls and meetings with faculty from all kinds of institutions demoralized by their review process. These are exceptional faculty who work tirelessly for their students, colleagues, and colleges. Yet shifting standards, the application of previously unmentioned expectations, and the minimization, or even outright dismissal, of considerable intellectual, physical, and, oftentimes, invisible emotional labor marked their interactions.
There is no clear win among the fallacious choices available to those faced with this situation. They can:
And these costs are not equally distributed. Those who are junior, belong to historically marginalized groups, challenge injustice on or off campus, have chronic health challenges, are without strong supportive networks, occupy vulnerable emotional spaces, or sit at the intersection of these factors are poised to suffer more regardless of “choice.” All from one process that has the potential to be affirming, healing, and motivating.
My intention is not to depress. It’s to shed light on the ways environmental, systemic, and institutional agents can influence our spring semesters, and lives in general, sometimes outside of our awareness. And I mean to challenge flawed cultural narratives that link success (and failure) solely to individual, personal efforts. If only life were so simple and magical that we really did have full control over our destiny.
It isn’t. We don’t. And buying into this belief can seriously hamper well-being.
A healthier alternative is to acknowledge the agents at play. Accept that they have the strength to impact our lives…that they can show up like hurricane force winds pushing us off course or like an almost imperceptible but relentless headwind that slows us down or makes keeping pace exhausting.
Surrounding yourself with those who truly see you, hear you, and value you for all that you are is necessary shelter when winds are raging and can shield a headwind’s full impact. Finding those communities in systems that instill distrust among and within us is not easy. But know that it’s possible. [For more strategies, see Nichole Guillory's Surviving The Annual Review Process post.]
Awkward plug: Adding to these rare compassionate spaces is why Joycelyn and I created our wellness retreat for women of color faculty. The need for replenishment at spring’s end prompted us to offer a retreat in May as well as November.
Let me close by saying that acknowledging the external forces that might be making your spring semester hellish is not an invitation to give up on the semester or lose sight of your own power. It is an invitation for radical self-care. And seeing what society is adept at invisiblizing is pretty damn radical.
In peace and solidarity,
*If you need evidence to support that positionality matters in teaching evaluations, see here and here.
By Roxanne Donovan - Wellness
January is the start of a new calendar year, a new semester, and, for me, a new year of life (my birthday is January 20th). Those are a lot of rebirths packed into just 31 days. That's probably why reflection comes naturally this month. I start with all the things I'm grateful for. The list is long. Along with the big things, I include everyday things that can easily be missed, such as seeing the sunrise when I drive my kids to school way too early in the morning.
Yet, even with this long list, I know more can be done to slow down and appreciate life as it comes. The need to do so is becoming more and more urgent as I get older and realize the fragility of time. Each day is a gift with no guarantee of another. A sobering thought to be sure, but also one that frees me to think more about how I want to live the days I'm lucky enough to have.
The answer this January was clear: less busyness, more nothing.
Let me explain. I'm a bit of an efficiency hack. I manage to squeeze as much out of my work hours as humanly possible so I can spend my personal time off-the-grid with family. That means I am on when working, moving from task to task with laser focus. You can even find me responding to emails as I wait in the kids' school carpool line or on a conference call as I drive home from work (using a hands-free device, of course).
The drawback is I'm never off during work hours, never doing nothing, which is horrible for creativity and health. As a psychologist, I know this, but I'm also a member of a culture that prizes busyness and that cultural pull is strong. Moreover, I'm a woman of color in unjust systems which creates a complicated individual and institutional/systemic interplay around perfectionism and overwork.
This year, though, I'm going to try hard to swim against this cultural tide. I have to. Time won't slow down for me, so I must slow down for it. To do that, I'm choosing to create space in my day and my life where I do absolutely nothing.
What does this nothingness look like?
As I boarded my flight to Denver for a psych conference in January, I was kicking myself for starting this do-nothing journey then. I'd be in the air for almost four hours with a pile of work on a plane that actually had functioning WiFi. It took all my willpower not to take my laptop out of the bag.
Then I sat down...next to the most amazing person. We talked the entire flight. I provided some advice to help with a painful family issue and received thoughtful guidance about a professional problem I was tackling. I even got a follow-up email about how my suggestions had worked to initiate the very beginnings of healing for the family. This deeply memorable encounter would have been impossible had my head been buried in a laptop. Thank you universe. I receive your gift.
Whatever your belief system, this is your one shot in this body on this planet in this moment. None of us will live forever. However, all of us can work in whatever ways we're able to cultivate lives of meaning. One small step toward that goal is to slow down and do a bit of nothing each day. I invite you to give it a try.
In peace and solidarity,
By Roxanne Donovan - Wellness, Holidays
In these last days until Christmas, many who celebrate are running around trying to find the perfect gift. Before you head to the mall one more time, take a moment to think about what you are giving. Not all gifts are created equal. Delete off that list the clothes, electronics, and toys you planned to buy, because…
MORE STUFF DOES NOT MAKE US HAPPIER
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little for effect. There are some caveats. First, this applies only to those who are financially secure, not to the financially vulnerable—like those who regularly experience food or housing insecurity. Second, we do experience a short blip in happiness when we get stuff we want. BUT it is temporary, and we quickly get back to baseline.
So if you really want to find a gift that is remembered and savored for more than a blink of the eye, research suggests giving experiences not things.
Not sure what would make a memorable experience gift. Here are five suggestions to get you started.
1. Weekend trip.
This is well-suited for couples, friends, and families—think a camping trip to a nearby park, a two-day hotel reservation in a close city, an all-inclusive spa getaway, whatever. You are only limited by your imagination (and budget).
2. Annual membership to a museum or science center.
Pick a place you know the recipient will be excited about. Consider a family membership for those with kids.
3. Tickets to a play, concert, or sporting event.
Just make sure the type of event suites the recipient’s taste, that you gift more than one ticket (no one wants to do this stuff alone), and the date will likely work for all involved.
4. Classes to learn a new skill or refine an existing one.
The categories here are endless—wine tasting, painting, photography, Tai-Chi, dancing, pottery-making, yoga, singing, piano, swimming…I could go on. Just make sure you gift more than one set so the person can bring a friend or two, which ups the joy and memorability factors.
5. Season passes to a nearby amusement park.
This is particularly great for families. What kid doesn’t like to splash around, eat junk food, and ride roller coasters.
In peace and solidarity,
I am ready for a real fall break. One where I choose NOT to do any academic work.
Yes, you read that right. No replying to (or even reading) work emails, no grading, no reviewing, no writing...nothing. A fall break where I choose to spend all my time (re)connecting with my family and myself.
Let me cut through the confusion and disbelief: a no-work fall break is not the academic equivalent of a unicorn. It’s real--and possible--and necessary.
That last point—breaks are necessary—is super important. Our bodies aren't made to just work, work, work. Don't believe me? See this research, or this, or this. Seriously, there's tons of evidence showing vacations increase productivity, happiness, and creativity while decreasing illness, burnout, and boredom. This means taking a real fall break is good for you AND your university.
But this break won’t just happen: planning and transparency are required. So here are six ways to set up an actual, honest-to-goodness break.
1. Tell EVERYONE your plan to take a no-work fall break. This includes colleagues, students, administrators, chairs, etc. If there's push-back, share the research above. You might inspire a few of them to take their own no-work breaks.
2. Be specific about when you will have things completed after your return to minimize questions or confusion. Careful not to let guilt and optimism cloud your judgment. Best to add at least a few days to the time you think you will have something done.
3. At least a week before your break starts, request extensions for those deadlines you just realized occur during fall break or right after you return. Next year you can make sure this step isn’t necessary.
4. Say no to all new requests that come along with a November or December due date. Any new commitments will infringe on your ability to prepare for, enjoy, and maintain the benefits of your break.
5. Don't forget to turn on your automatic out-of-office email reply. Don't hedge here. You want to clearly state you are unavailable. Feel free to use this template: Thank you for contacting me. [Name of university] is on fall break. I return to the office when classes resume on [date] and will read and respond to emails at that time. If I receive a large number of messages while away (which is likely), it will take me several days to process them all. Your patience is appreciated.
6. Finally, savor your time away. You deserve an enriching revivifying fall break. And your body, mind, and spirit need it.
In peace and solidarity,
In need of some serious self-care? Participate in WellAcademic's radical self-care challenge. All it takes is a commitment to do one stress-busting and/or mood-boosting activity each day for the next 28 days.
I have made it super easy by listing 28 activities below. I've even included links to demonstration videos, articles, and supporting evidence. What could be simpler?
Sticking with this challenge to the end is the key to maximizing the benefits. So gift yourself with daily self-care. You deserve it!
If you need motivation, do the challenge with a friend and/or post your progress to me @ProfRox. I'll be sure to cheer you on.
Let's get started...
DAY 1: Spend 2 minutes diaphragm breathing. Relaxes the body and clears the mind.
DAY 2: Flipping the scarcity script today. Write 5 things you are grateful for.
DAY 3: Stretch for 5 mins to release stress from the body. Can even do this at your desk.
DAY 4: Soothe muscles and mind with warm bath or hot shower. For extra relaxation, add lavender to the water.
DAY 5: Dance like no one's watching to favorite old school hits. Don't stop til you get enough (or at least two songs).
DAY 6: Do two small acts of kindness today. Altruism reduces stress and raises happiness.
DAY 7: Face procrastination. Complete one thing you've been putting off. Reward yourself after the task is done.
DAY 8: Delegate a task from to-do list that doesn't really have to be done by YOU. Savor having one less thing to complete.
DAY 9: Spend 30 minutes outside. Soak in the sights and sounds.
DAY 10: Disorganization is stressful. Declutter your work space today.
DAY 11: Challenge perfectionism. Strive for "good enough" in all things you do today.
DAY 12: Catch-up day. Do one self-care activity from the last 11 days. Pick one you missed or one you'd love to do again.
DAY 13: Take an actual lunch break (>30 minutes). No work allowed!
DAY 14: Get 8 hours of quality sleep tonight. To help, try these tips.
DAY 15: Choose forgiveness - it reduces stress. Forgive someone who has hurt you or forgive yourself.
DAY 16: Stop multitasking. Do one thing at a time instead. Lowers stress AND increases efficiency.
DAY 17: Unplug from technology for at least one hour. Bonus - do something that nourishes you during that time.
DAY 18: Practice courage. Ask for what you need today.
DAY 19: Listen, really listen, to a loved one. Empathic listening is a secret stress buster.
DAY 20: Connecting socially helps us de-stress. Call or visit a good friend today.
DAY 21: Limit your intake of added sugar. Consume no more than 6 tsp (25 grams). Challenge - abstain from ALL sugar today.
DAY 22: Practice self-compassion ALL day. Here's what self-compassion is and isn't.
DAY 23: Schedule a date...with yourself. Do something fun, even if it's for 30 minutes. No errands allowed.
DAY 24: Laugh out loud today. Call a friend, watch a funny movie, whatever it takes. Laughter is a major mood booster.
DAY 25: Gift your body with 20 minutes of exercise. Feel your stress melt away.
DAY 26: Take small breaks throughout the day. Not sure how to schedule them? Try the Pomodoro technique.
DAY 27: Hug/cuddle someone you love (that loves you back). Affectionate touch has tons of health benefits.
DAY 28: Last day! Boost your mood by recalling (and savoring) a happy memory. Here's how.
Done with the 28 days? Congratulations! Don't stop now. Choose to re-do the entire challenge or pick the activities you like the most and incorporate them in your daily life. Your body and mind will thank you.
In peace and solidarity,