A conversation with Kate Thorpe
A conversation with Kate Thorpe
Jo: Welcome to another episode of Access 2 Perspectives Conversations. And welcome Kate Thorpe, today, a therapist and therapeutic coach. And today we will hear a lot about mental wellbeing and how to stay healthy and up and running in challenging or not so challenging working environments. Welcome, Kate. It’s a great pleasure having you here.
Kate: Thanks so much, Jo. It’s really great to be here and I’m really looking forward to talking about my favorite subjects in the world, so absolutely. Thank you.
Jo: Yeah. So some of our listeners who have listened to previous episodes might know that we’ve already covered a few around mental well being and stress and challenging situations, especially during the PhD or in academic life in general. You are not necessarily specialized for academics, but you work with professionals and individuals and corporations across not only disciplines, but across all professions. But from our understanding, it’s also that the issues that people run into when they’re under pressure are quite similar, not the same. And in academia, there’s not many relief stations or not many access points to be able to allow ourselves to seek help, which is why we’re very happy to hear from an expert now. What are Mitigation approaches, one we can take ourselves?
Kate: Yeah. And I think what I’ve learned is that yes, well, I’m not an expert in academics specifically. What I’ve learned with working from people, from a lot of different professions and situations in life is that whatever profession you’re in, whatever work it is that you’re doing and however you’re doing that, you are still the same, you are still human. And as a human being, we respond to stress, and there are many similarities in how we do that, even though our particular experience of stress or anxiety is of course unique to ourselves. And so in that sense, it’s not irrelevant where the stress comes from, but it’s more how we deal with it as a human being and recognize that in that way we are all connected with each other. And I think that’s really important. It’s a message that can often get lost as people think, oh, this is my profession, this is terrible, this is my profession, and nobody understands. Well, actually, we can all understand what stress feels like. We can all understand what anxiety and depression feels like and desperation and all of those horrible things. So it’s a human condition, I think, rather than a professional condition.
Jo: Yeah. Through my personal experience. Also by looking into the topic from more as an observer, but also as a patient or a person who’s struggling with Mackes was depressive episodes which might also recur in the future and never sure they gone for good or not, and also likely to recur, but that’s a different story for another time. But what I’ve learned is also I feel it’s like a handbrake or an emergency stop in our brain to just take not only a break from what’s stressing us but maybe also not to reset the system, but to allow us to breathe for a couple of weeks and reconsider our life structure, like with challenging ourselves too much. And then to assess and hopefully under guidance, some of us manage ourselves. But there’s no harm in finding guidance in a professional to help us find a balance again to where we don’t over challenge ourselves for the working environment.
Kate: Absolutely, I think that’s right. And when you’re saying that stress is sometimes a sign for us to take a break and take a step back, that’s right. It’s feeling stress or feeling anxiety or all of those things. It is a message. It’s a message from your brain and your body that something has to change because the pressure that is being applied is too much and you’re feeling it. If you can hear that message, then you can act on it, then you can do something. But so many of us are taught that phrases like diamonds are formed under pressure is one that I heard very recently. And that may be true, but we’re human beings. We’re not diamonds. We’re not meant to function under consistent, high, massive levels of stress and pressure. It’s not really how we’re made, a certain amount of stress and pressure is a good thing. Yes. And we can channel that. But it’s recognizing the difference between healthy motivation, excitement and stress and toxic negative burnout stress and recognizing which of those states that you are in. And then when you recognize the difference, then you can do something about it. Absolutely. Take the step back. And if you are finding that the toxic burnout stress is continuing and it never seems to go away, and it’s always the same despite the thoughts and feelings. When I finish this thing, I will be okay. When I finish that next project, I will do this next piece of work, then I’ll be okay. If that’s not happening and you’re finding that’s a repetitive thing, then the chances are that, yes, it will help to step back and seek some support and guidance, because none of us are meant to do this alone. As human beings, we are tribal creatures. We’ve evolved to be tribal. We need the tribe. We need other people. And sometimes we need people who are specialized in something. And that sounds oddly self serving because I’m a therapist, so of course I want everybody to have a therapist. But we go to the dentist when our teeth ache, and we go to the doctor when we’ve got an injury. And it’s just the same with mental health. But I think the stigma that exists with mental health and what will people think of me if I see my doctor about my stress or if I see a therapist about my stress? That can often hold us back so that there is a stigma, but it’s part of my goal and my passion to reduce that, to get rid of it. Because as I say, it all boils back down to us being human beings and recognizing our humanity and our frailty and that’s something that we can all share together. And in fact I would say that recognizing stress and recognizing when it’s positive, recognizing when it’s negative in the way that it impacts us, that’s not a frailty, that’s a real strength because then it gives us an opportunity to make a change. That’s right. And that’s healthy. And that means we can then avoid going down that burnout track. And I think that’s true for everyone.
Jo: Yeah, I think so, too. And in academia I always see the golden grail is for many of us the nobel prize. And that seems unreachable and everybody is working towards it and then you see those people who receive it, individuals and they must have gotten there with no help whatsoever. So researchers are presumably expected to just do the research on their own behalf and be successful. And yet it’s not only a team effort but there are hundreds and thousands of individuals involved. Not only the researchers, but if it’s bioscience, it’s the whole lab stuff, administration, the manufacture of the research equipment. There’s a whole league of individuals who contribute to the success of a research project and then one person gets the prize or maybe two or three for one bigger achievement. And also like many researchers, forget that. But there’s also the same thing standing on the shoulders of giants. So the success of one researcher, again, is hundreds and thousands of working hours in the laboratory of hundreds and thousands of other researchers in the past that we learn from and can then continue acquiring knowledge about natural systems or social systems or whatever discipline we are studying. So what you just said, we are social animals, we need each other. We work well in the community and work well meaning mentally but also actually working well because we collaborate. If you don’t mind, would you share with us how you got into the position and what made you so aware of the topic and for you to find an approach for you to help others pull through?
Kate: Yeah, sure, happy to. I’ve been a therapist for nearly six years now but before that I’d love to say I’m in my 20s but that would be a lie. I’m in my late forties and that’s all I’m saying about that. But for 20 years I was a solicitor, which in the UK is a word for a lawyer and that is a very high pressure, demanding job. And I went into that career because my well meaning parents said go and be a lawyer, Kate, because you’ll be rich and happy. Well, sadly, I was neither. It didn’t work out that way. It was very high pressure and ultimately I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole and I didn’t realize it took me a very long time to recognize that actually this isn’t very good for me. I suffered from anxiety from a very early age as well. But back in those days, it wasn’t named for what it was. It was named for being difficult or challenging or ‘just get over yourself’ or ‘work harder’ and that kind of thing. So I sort of took that childhood of anxiety and brought it into my legal career. And my mental health really, really suffered over those 20 years with a lot of anxiety and depression and then recovery and then being depressed again. It’s sort of a textbook cyclical nature of anxiety and depression, because what I didn’t do is I didn’t get to the root cause of what was behind it. I just took the antidepressants or took the anxiety pills, felt a little better, and thought, right, I’m okay now, came off them, and then the original issues came back. So that was a cycle of my life for many years, until one day I met a therapist. I finally realized after I’d hit rock bottom and thought, yeah, if I come back here again, I won’t be getting up. So it really brought it home to me that I needed to do something about this situation more than just take the pills. And that was a big thing because I was actually really scared about it. I was scared about what I might find, when I might discover what I might have to relive what I might have to feel. So finding the right therapist was of paramount importance, and I worked with two or three until I found the one that was right for me. And when that happened, it was hard, but it was incredible in terms of the transformation for me to be able to overcome some of the demons, some of the trauma that had occurred that had been affecting me all my life. But because I was so much older, I said, well, that was all in the past, so I’m over it now and actually recognizing that, no, I wasn’t, and there was still that to deal with in a healthy, emotional way. And working with my therapist allowed me to do that. When I had made that level of recovery, it really came home to me that I couldn’t stay in this profession any longer because I was living someone else’s dream, not my own dream. So there was no wonder that I had a lot of imposter syndrome. And so I woke up one morning after a couple of years of really thinking hard about it, I had a light bulb moment and thought, why am I not doing therapy? Because that’s what I wanted to do when I left school. And as I say, my wellbeing parents steered me away from that rocky path and said I should go and have a proper, stable, income generating profession. So I went back to school when I studied weekends and gained my therapy qualifications. And as soon as I was able to practice. I did. That’s a story in itself that I won’t bore you with, but I’ve never looked back since. And I am so happy that I was able to make that transition. But I couldn’t have done that and had all of those realizations had I not had the help and support of really amazing therapists and people. As a result of that, my life now is completely different. It’s alien in many ways compared to the life that I used to live, but it’s very much more authentic. And I feel like me, I feel like I am almost a whole person. And that before I was acting, I was playing a role that other people expected me to be. And the joy and the gratitude for being able to be real and authentic and now to help people in the way that I received help, well, there’s nothing like it. There really isn’t. It’s a joy, it’s a privilege. And it really is my passion because I’m living proof, living proof that these things work. I’m living proof that there is another side, that there is an end to it, that things can change for the better. And even though that might feel a bit scary, the rewards are absolutely worth it. So that’s why I do what I do. And the way that I practice is unique for the individual I’m working with. Because I’m a bit of a learning junkie. So I’m always liking, I’m loving to learn new things and new ways of doing things. And because everyone’s unique, then we all need a personal touch in the way that we work to heal ourselves. And that’s not going to be the same for everybody. What works for one person isn’t going to work for the next person terribly well. So it’s finding the right way for the individual. And that’s why I practice in a variety of different ways to reflect that, so my client can then benefit. But as I say, the joy for me to know that there is another side, there is a place of healing, has just brought me to the knowledge that everyone can heal. What that healing looks like may be different for each person, but it is my view that everyone can heal. It’s my belief and it’s that that guides me in the work that I do. And I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. It feels like it was meant to be and I love doing it. But I think it helps that I don’t share my story with all my clients, of course, because that’s not always appropriate. But sometimes I think it’s helpful for clients to see that story, say, on my website and think, well, perhaps she knows a little bit about it so I can understand what it feels like. And I think all of that experience I had just helped me in the work. So that’s sort of a long story of how I got here.
Jo: And I think also we dig deep enough or when people let down their armor, let their armor down, then everybody is carrying their baggage and their story and their trauma of some sort. I wanted to come back to three things that you said. When people think they got over it just because they are older and whatever they live through as children or adolescent people, it will never heal unless we work through them and we keep getting triggered. And sometimes it’s just a gesture, sometimes it’s a word somebody says and we’re triggered and we get startled and then freeze and can’t sometimes even understand the stuff that’s happening. So therefore it is necessary to find a way to overcome and actively work through these traumas, whatever the trauma might have been. My experience is also like it sounds a bit spiritual, but it’s also very much real because as a German, I think every nation has its trauma from history.
But my great grandmother was killed by the Nazi regime. So that was basically a recurring story and she was celebrated as a heroine. But also she gave her life for a bigger purpose and that he could say about us being proud of her. And that’s true. At the same time, it’s a trauma for the family and across generations because my aunt, like, she was decapitated, that’s the right term. Like her head was chopped up and my eyes whenever a doctor or somebody comes near her neck, she goes like, no, don’t touch me because of this. But it’s real and in us and her ancestors or in her offspring from her as an ancestor. So that’s a drama that I also had to think through. I had plenty of conversations with friends and also spoke with one of the other therapists about it. So that’s one thing also. The other thing is to have therapy as an opportunity to build trust for relationships over time. And it can sometimes be a one time consultation that already helps to loosen or not and allows us to continue without much to free up some space where otherwise we’re entrapped. But then for the real issue, the therapy approach makes a lot of sense because then we literally have somebody who can take our hands and guide us through.
Kate: I think that’s important is that not all therapists are the same. Far from it. So it is important to find the one that you click with. If you decide that you’re at a place where you think, actually I could do with a bit of support, it might not necessarily be the first one that you make contact with and that’s okay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You don’t marry the person that you go on the first date with. You have to get to know them a while. And it’s not dissimilar in working successfully with a therapist that you click with. But that is just so important to do that and I’m so sorry to hear about that. Your great grandmother.
Jo: I never knew her. I think it affected me so much because she’s family and she’s very sort of famous also in the Nazi community.
Kate: I imagine it would bring that whole trauma of that time. It makes it very personal. Even if you don’t know her, it makes it very personal to you and your family. And when we talk about trauma, we often think of something major, something big like that. Or we might think of trauma as being abused or living in a war zone. And of course there’s all of these traumas happening in the world at the moment. But trauma isn’t always a huge event like that. Sometimes it’s a series of ongoing situations. And trauma really when we talk about trauma, a good way of defining it is that it’s an injury, it’s an emotional injury or a mental injury and it’s usually brought about because of too much of something or too little of something. And there are some kinds of traumas that can be passed down generations and that’s generational trauma, as you’ve described. But trauma takes a lot of forms and the vast majority of it, to be fair, have experienced trauma of some kind. But we don’t recognize it as trauma because we can compare ourselves to other people and think, oh, well, their situation is worse than mine. Look at me. What have I got to be worried about? I’ve got a roof over my head, I’ve got a job, I’ve got a career, I’ve got a partner, I’ve got a dog, I’ve got children, I’ve got all of these things. That doesn’t take away from the fact that actually the way that you’re feeling might be might be well as the result of trauma that is perhaps unrecognized or put into the category of, oh, well, that was such a long time ago now and it didn’t really affect me and I’ve dealt with it and it’s fine.
Jo: Yeah. And often it’s just bullying, but bullying is cruel. Like it’s four little children. I don’t know. So this is also where I wanted to go because now that we have established that scientists are also human beings, we are not robots. So we come with all the human baggage along the laboratories and offices and then I expect for the most part by ourselves to function and to be researchers who the society looks up to, when anything happens, like a pandemic, now tell us what are we going to do? And they were like, Well, I don’t know because we are literally at the brink of knowledge. So we need to figure it out slowly but steadily and we don’t know. Better be fast. So there’s a lot of pressure. Pandemic related research, just one example anyways. So we also established a few reasons where and how human beings can run into traumatic situations. Sometimes siblings who don’t get along so well and then carry on disadvantages of competition between them and the parents into adulthood. So, like I said, it can be seemingly small, but have a huge impact on our life, but now as professionals, and in our case, academics and scholars, but from your experience, really, any professional, because maybe the other thing is what differentiates between the professions? Do you think it’s important to identify the pressure points and the potential triggers? And the triggers can, of course, not necessarily have to do with the underlying trauma or they might not have to be a big traumatic event in the past, but the constant pressure is a traumatizing experience in itself.
Kate: Yes, that does make sense. And yes, it’s right. Trauma isn’t always needed to be fair, to create anxiety, but it often plays a part of it. And it’s often the case that the trauma happens when we’re young, because when we’re very young, under the age of seven or eight, we don’t have the resources to cope with it in the same way that we do as we grow into adulthood. But my mind is wandering now, so I’m veering off the question. Just remind me again what your question was.
Jo: No, I wasn’t really finished asking the question.
Kate: Oh, I’m sorry.
Jo: No, I was drifting in two or three directions. So the question would eventually be how, without trauma or stress in a working environment, how we can now build now that we realize, okay, the situation is not great, I need to know something about it. What can we do? When is the point where, like, from your experiences with your clients, it takes a while from realizing I’m not comfortable. I’m not as functional as I know I can be. But now things are going out of hand, and I feel like, what is it, perfection or whatever, and I just don’t know how to move on. And then to eventually seek help. I think in the previous episode, we established other studies that sometimes take 80 days or longer, eight months or eight years in some cases, for mental issues to be recognized by the work and then to actually seek help from an expert. But is there anything that any of us can do to rebuild and then maintain mental or work life balance, like they say, which I don’t necessarily believe in, but how do you get back to balance when you realize something is getting out of hand here?
Kate: Okay, well, I think that the first step to that is recognizing that something is out of balance. In my experience, there are five steps towards emotional healing, and the first one is accepting and acknowledging. Accepting that there is a thing that isn’t right. Accepting that this isn’t the way that you want to feel. Accepting that the feelings you have that are keeping you where you are, that are stressful or anxiety inducing or just plain horrible, except that that is a thing and it’s okay, rather than simply saying, well, I’m just a bit stressed today, and I’ll just carry on as normal. Accepting something generally leads to a position where you can start making changes. So the first stage is to accept that there is a thing and you’re not happy with it. The next stage is to understand it. Because as researchers know, you can’t answer a question unless you understand it fully. You can’t give a hypothesis unless you know all of the details about the thing you’re hypothesizing about. So you don’t have to prove that with evidence. And that’s where the understanding really comes in in terms of understanding your mind, understanding your body and your brain and understanding all of the other factors that are impacting you and a number of ways of doing that. I’ll come onto sort of a self help form of that in a moment. But understanding it’s absolutely key. The third stage is then recognizing when that is happening, recognizing when you are being triggered, even if you’re not entirely sure what the trigger is precisely or why it’s there. It’s recognizing when you are in a state of unhealthy stress, when you are in a state of anxiety or depression and knowing what that feels like so that you can say right, yes, I am feeling this way. That then leads into the fourth step, which is change. And the change bit is really challenging and some of us just want to get straight to the change because that’s what we’re after. But sometimes these other steps, or most often to be fair, these other steps have to come in before we can create meaningful change. I mean, you take an antidepressant and that will change things for you one way or another. But it’s not necessarily the whole answer. And so the change is based on your awareness that you’ve developed through your acceptance, your understanding and your recognition of what’s going on. Then you’re in a position to be able to do things differently. Whether that is simply calming down, calming down the stress reaction, whether that’s talking to yourself in a different way, whether that is the healing of whatever is creating the trigger. Lots of different ways of change, some of them we can do on our own, some of them we will need some support with. And then finally when you’re kind of on the other side, you’re not necessarily there at the finish line. The finish line doesn’t really happen until our time on this earth is up. So this is a lifelong thing and it takes constant checking in and reviewing with yourself even after the main healing has happened because there will always be layers, there will always be things coming up in the future. And just because we might heal a trauma or we might heal a situation doesn’t mean we’re never going to feel like that again. The truth is, as human beings we are always going to experience challenges and difficulties and sometimes life just happens and it’s really unfair. But what this can do is build our resilience. It’s like building our emotional resilience muscle so that when life happens again in the future, we are better equipped because we’re not coping with all of the stuff that’s happened before. In some part we have been able to heal some of that and it just puts us in a much stronger position. When you are self aware and you are self knowing and you understand your brain and body and what’s really going on, that helps you then deal with whatever the future wants to throw at you. And that can feel very empowering. But it is a continual process of maintaining and continuing to develop your self awareness. And it’s that self awareness that is key. So I’m just going to come back to how to generate the understanding and the recognition of when it’s happening. And it does in part relate to the triggers that you were talking about, Jo, it’s very simply about checking in with yourself regularly, and by regularly, I mean several times a day. Try and develop a habit of doing that. Some people will put a little mark on the back of their hand to see it. Some people might wear a piece of jewelry or a rubber band around the wrist. Some people might set an alarm on their phone. Lots of ways of doing it to remind yourself to check in. And all you need to do when you check in is ask yourself, how am I doing? What am I feeling at this moment? And then to measure that on a scale of zero to ten, with zero being no feeling at all, everything’s fine, ten being the most intense you can possibly imagine that feeling to be. So if you’re feeling stressed, zero would be pina coladas on a beach without a care in the world and ten would be, you’re going nuclear, that volcano is going to explode if it hasn’t already. Where are you? And it’s purely a subjective scale, but it helps you get your own frame of reference to where you are. And the more you do this, the more you can recognize what level of intensity you are at some or most of the time when you do that, you can become aware that if you’re constantly at a seven or a six or an eight, maybe that’s not the best place to be. Because of course, when you’re at six, seven or eight and something happens that triggers you, you can only go up. Whereas if your baseline is more around the two, three or four mark, then you may be triggered by an event, but it won’t be quite as high, so it’s much more controllable. So developing your self awareness in this way by checking in with yourself is hugely valuable. And it’s one of the first things that I ask anybody that I’m working with to start doing and to keep a record of it, just so that you know, if. You want to expand that, you can then think of the situation that you’re in and try to identify what is it about this situation that I’m reacting to? But you may not know. In which case you can add to this by then understanding what are your thoughts in that moment. So when you’re checking in and let’s say you’re a seven or an eight, just have a think, what are the words in my mind? And it doesn’t matter if they’re full sentences, if they’re single words, if they’re four letter words, it doesn’t matter. Notice what the thoughts are. And again, you can make a little note of those. The next thing is to try and identify the emotions that you’re experiencing. Not everybody can get to grips with this. So if you’re not sure what the emotions are called, you can try giving them a color. If that emotion that you’re feeling were a color, what would it be and how do you feel about that color? But if you can name the emotion, it may be anxiety. But if you’re feeling anxiety, there are probably other emotions that are going on at the same time. Anxiety is a bit of an umbrella thing in some ways, and it often goes hand in hand with things like fear or anticipation or anger or nervousness, or frustration. There can be a lot of things all wrapped up in the word anxiety. So if you’re feeling anxiety, ask yourself, is it just that or are there other emotions there as well? And as I say, if you struggle with naming emotions and just try identifying the color of those feelings, if they had a color, it may sound strange, but it works. And then finally ask yourself what’s happening in your body? Close your eyes, take a deep breath and feel your feet on the floor and ask yourself, what’s my body telling me at this moment? And this is one of the most helpful things that you can do, because when you recognize and tune into what your body is telling you, then you’re really tuning in with yourself and your self awareness. And some people can feel sensation all over the skin. Body temperature can change. You can get very cold sweats or hot sweats. You might notice your heart rate, you might notice your stomach, you might notice heaviness somewhere. The list is endless in terms of what you can feel, but it’s really paying attention to what your body is telling you at that moment. So those are the five things. How are you doing? What number is it on your scale of zero to ten? What are your thoughts, what are your emotions, and what’s your body telling you? That level of self awareness on its own will really help you understand exactly where you’re at. So you can then decide whether that’s a good place to be or whether you’re there too often for comfort. And if you’re there too often for comfort, then you can take a step back, take some time out and make a decision as to what’s going to help you the most. So we can correct and decide is this something that I can deal with on my own? Is this something that I’m going to need some help with? Maybe I just need to connect with my community, maybe I just need my friends, maybe I just need to open up to somebody that I can trust and be with them. It’s not necessarily always about being deep and meaningful. Sometimes it’s just being with people in your life who are supportive. Because what happens with anxiety often makes us feel alone. Depression makes us feel alone. Stress and all of that pressure, it can feel very isolating even if you do have a whole team of people around you doing the work. And this is where the tribe comes in. This is where we really need people that we can connect with on a personal level, not just in a workspace and develop those friendships and relationships. And if they’re not there, if you find that you are quite an isolated person, that in itself is probably an indication that maybe there is something that you’re dealing with on your own and maybe now it’s time to think about not continuing. Is dealing with it on your own actually working for you? Is it bringing you the change that you want? And if it’s not, of course correct, do something different just as you would in your research project. If you’re finding you’re going down an avenue that’s not getting you anywhere, you will probably change and go down a different avenue just researching yourself.
Jo: Yeah, unless you feel that there must be something I need to find something. Because we assume we will find something and now we’re not finding anything. Many people miss the point of cause correction and then find themselves digging into halls that are leading to nowhere. And then money is running out, time is running out. People need to defend the thesis and the PhD within a certain time frame and then there’s only so little for another project. One project turned out to be not so result-giving. Thanks for sharing this basic strategy and self assessment and then to assess from there. Do I want somebody to, as you said, can I course correct on my own or do I need guidance? And that’s perfectly fine to not only consider but to actually go and seek help with the understanding and recognizing aspect in the Five points list. Oftentimes in my experience and also what there’s multiple stressors in a working environment in academia. Oftentimes people complain about feeling lonely, they feel they don’t get the leadership and the guidance that they would meet. At the same time they feel they should already know enough to be able to perform to their own expectation. Of course, expectations are usually way too high to be humanly possible to accomplish. And then the publication pressure. Many universities require their students to publish papers before they can even think about handing in the thesis. Do you think all of these trusses need to be tackled at once or is it better to seek a holistic approach? It really depends on which. But I also think it’s important to identify what’s stressing me. Is that right? Like what is putting so much pressure into my brain? And is there a vent of some sort where I can release the pressure, where we can have a conversation with the P.I, the group leader and let her course correct for me. Yeah, I mean, it’s all about seeking a conversation with everyone involved or like the decision makers involved.
Kate: Yes, that could certainly be part of it. That can bring challenges in itself depending on the people that you’re working with. Because it may be that there are issues within the team that are creating some of the stress, so they can be very challenging to address. That’s a whole different conversation. But in terms of whether to tackle everything at once or do it one thing at a time and whether we do it holistically or otherwise. Well, yes, holistically. And by that I mean look at the three pillars of your life. And as I see them, the three pillars are lifestyle, mindset and physiology. So lifestyle is what it sounds like. It’s the way that you live your life, it’s what you put into your body, it’s where you put your body in commuting and working in home life. It’s the people around you and so on. Physiology is what it sounds like. It’s understanding your own biology and how your body works, how your brain and body works. And so when you get stressed, when you get the stress reaction coming on, knowing how you can overcome that and how you can calm things down to give you more empowerment in that moment. And mindset, which of course is key with everything. It’s how you’re thinking, why you’re thinking the way that you are, how that thinking makes you feel and ultimately behave. So it’s those three pillars. They’re all interconnected, of course, because lifestyle affects how you think, feel and behave and it affects your body and each of those other things affect everything else. So they’re all intertwined. But what I would say is if you do notice something in your checking in exercise with yourself and you’re thinking this isn’t right, this isn’t good, ask yourself how would you like it to be? If this could be different, what would be different? And how would that feel for you? That can give you an insight if you answer that question honestly into the thing that you may decide you want to tackle first. When I’m encouraging people to make changes, do not change your entire life all at once because it’s far too overwhelming and it’s not realistic and it’s not sustainable. I suggest picking one thing that feels doable. It may be that you have to commute to wherever it is that you’re working. And if the way that you’re commuting is just awful and it causes you a lot of stress before you even get to your place of work, then maybe think about that in and of itself, is there a way to reduce the commute? Is there a different way of doing things?
If it’s to do with where you’re situated? So if you’re working in a workplace and you’re not on your own and if it’s the people around you that you’re finding disturbing, then can you move? Can you change where you’re situated? To give yourself a bit more peace and quiet. One small thing that perhaps you can control, that you can ask for, that you may need to involve other people to change that one thing and see how that feels. Because when you change one thing it will have a ripple effect. One of the ripples is that it will increase your confidence to make positive changes for your own course correction. But trying to do it all at once, no, don’t even go there. Please do not have that expectation on yourself because it will all go horribly wrong and nothing will change. It’s really about baby small steps and noticing afterwards now I’ve done this thing, how have it changed things? And again you’re repeating the process of the five stages so that you can add this new insight into your own self awareness and go from there, change and so on. Does that make sense?
Jo: Totally. Yeah. And I think now that you explain that. Also in academia, many of the reasons that stress out is it’s the first time in a different country. Often when people pursue their PhD there’s a strange culture. It’s not necessarily the workplace because hopefully everybody speaks for the most part English or language we understand, sometimes the language we are about to learn but the cultural setting that we expose ourselves to can be exciting and make us curious about it. But it’s also scary to some extent. It’s foreign, there’s a lot of insecurities and unknowns and then the pressure at work on top of that. So it’s another thing for people as they grow up and explore the world. Yeah, and people in their early twenties and then moving forward. That’s also where other people are sort of academia. Also some academics start a family and then academics often have the luxury of taking the time to start a family. Some do. So there are all these normal things, not necessarily academic things that stress us out as academics. And then there are aforementioned academic stressors like publishing, pressure to publish, competition, leadership thereof. The feeling and notion of I should do all of this for myself, I should already know everything because now I’m here, I’m doing a PhD so people look up to me and I’m expected to be so knowledgeable. And I feel I’m not like imposter syndrome is everywhere, not only there. As we said in the beginning, academics are not so special with how they experience mental health issues. Also like looking at the time and coming towards an end, but not without. Maybe we could also have done this in the beginning, but it makes as much sense to also take this now. What is your understanding with your expertise, your experience of mental well being? How would you consider a healthy state of mind? Okay, that’s a little bit maybe too much to ask for, but considering we established the brain is just another organ and it’s difficult to study, and usually we study with the brain with all its complexity and limitations and biases that come along. And then also like, physical fitness is also very like there’s not one status. So just to take off that pressure, I’m not expecting it to say, okay, this is what it looks like, and then everybody’s happy like this. Probably not.
Kate: It’s exactly that. It’s unique to the individual what mental health looks like and feels like, or what good mental health looks like and feels like. But I’m often drawn to the World Health Organization defines mental health. It’s not an absence of mental disorder. So it’s not just not being depressed or not having anxiety or not having OCD or anything like that. It is a state of well being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential and can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. That’s the World Health Organization definition of mental wellness and good mental health. And I think what’s important to take from that is that it’s not the absence of disease or difficulty. It’s not the absence of challenge. It’s not the absence of sometimes, quite frankly, the shit that life throws at us. It is the presence of resilience, that emotional resilience muscle that we talked about. We need to work on that and to build that. It’s the presence of peace when we want it in ourselves. It’s the presence of our ability to grow. It’s the presence of harmony within ourselves and with others, harmony in our feelings and thoughts and harmony in our environment and our relationship. It’s a place of positive, positive, healthy peace and energy as opposed to just an absence of awful stuff. Sometimes we can feel, well, I’m okay. I haven’t got any problems at the moment, so I’m okay. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you are mentally well or emotionally well. It just means that you haven’t got a load of stuff to deal with right now. It might mean that should things get difficult and more challenging as you go, you won’t have that resilience. So it is definitely a presence of goodness, a presence of resilience, a presence of wellness, and that feeling of well, being that each of us can really only describe to ourselves what wellbeing feels like because it’s a very personal thing and well being for one person will feel very different to somebody else’s well being. And it’s important to find yours. But it’s just an absence of stuff. It’s an actual presence of something positive, something that lifts you, something that gives you peace and harmony with yourselves. And I think that’s what’s really important to take.
Jo: Yeah. Which has come to mind, as you said, that everybody is different. We all know that we work well. Like, each of us works well in a different working condition. And also like the workplace. Some people like it buzzing around. They like big offices with many people. Others need their quiet corner all by themselves. Some people like to listen to music as they work through tables and numbers. Others need absolute silence. So these are the variety of human nature, human characters, and each is very much needed and wanted in society and has a right to find conditions under which we all perform our best in.
Jo: And also from the World Health Organization’s definition. Isn’t it also that once we’ve been through anxiety or any mental health was considered a disorder or a crisis situation or where we were dysfunctional for some time, doesn’t that mean that we cannot be mentally well again? Kate: Absolutely.
Jo: I think some people I’ve also met, like people who went through depression, like myself, and then I feel now I’m sick for life, but I refuse to label myself as sick. I might have sick episodes. Like I sometimes get the flu. Like sometimes I have a depressive episode and I know I will pass because it is like a flu will pass and I know I can cope and look after myself to make it pass quicker, essentially. So it’s just a matter of learning, like the resilience that you make through experiences. Our systems collapse sometimes, but as long as it’s all alive and kicking, we’re good to go.
Kate: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s an unrealistic expectation that is unrealistic sometimes . Yes, even if we can get better from this thing, we expect life to be a bed of roses afterwards. And of course it’s not, because challenges still happen. And there will be times and periods in our life when we feel better than others and there’ll be times that are really challenging and can be really difficult to get through. Again, It’s kind of accepting that that’s a situation. Life isn’t going to be a Zen like state of bliss all the way through. Far from it. But the wellness factor comes from knowing that you can ride those waves, you can ride them and you can get to the other side. So if it’s a wave of positivity, it’s great. Love it while it lasts. That’s fantastic. If it’s a wave of depression coming back, then again, do all of the right things. Help yourself in the best way that you can and you will come out of it again. And it may be that the next time, if depression strikes again, if you have worked through a lot of those things, if it comes again, it may not last as long and it won’t be as deep. In all things, there is change. So it’s riding the wave of wherever you are that works both ends of the spectrum. Does that make sense?
Jo: It does. Thank you. And also, again, thanks for the crisis mode assessment strategy. But now for performing professionals and performing scholars, do you have as a farewell note and hopefully ‘a see you soon’ notes as we come to the end for this episode? Do you have, like, one to three tips on how to keep a balance with energy levels in high performance working environments like research teams? What’s a very quick assessment that you could leave us with to just assess the situation on an ongoing basis?
Kate: It’s the checking process that I mentioned earlier on that can be a difficult habit to get into, which is why you may need a bit of help with creating that habit, which is why some people wear a rubber band around their wrist or a piece of jewelry or set a phone alarm. But checking in with yourself is the first step to any of this self awareness, because if you’re not doing that, then you are not raising your head above the parapet to actually take a look at your circumstances and know how you’re feeling. And you can’t change anything unless you have an awareness that something needs to be changed. So that’s definitely the first step. When you notice that stress is too high or you’re feeling uncomfortable, then a very simple way of resolving that is to literally remove yourself in the situation. Go somewhere else, take a break. If you’re working at a computer, take a step back, go outside, breathe fresh air. If you’re working in a lab and there’s lots of hustle and bustle around, you go somewhere quiet, literally remove yourself, take a break. Take five, take ten, take however long you need, because we need to take breaks. We need to just allow our brains to reset and recharge even just a little bit throughout the day. Sometimes it can feel like five minutes isn’t enough, I’m not going to get any proper rest. But actually, it’s like a boiler being under really high pressure and all of the dials are over on the red and the boilers are raffling, and it’s about to explode because the temperature is too high and the water pressure is too high and so on. Taking a step back, taking a deep breath, going for a walk. What you’re doing is you’re releasing pressure from that boiler, you’re making it more stable. And it’s just the same with your own physiology. And if you continue to do that and get in the habit of checking in, and when you notice your anxiety or stress or whatever it is, is too much, take a small action to step away and change that state, then you will be doing really well. Jo: Yeah. Thank you. Brilliant. Okay, now we are all well equipped. So if you think this episode was not for you, yes, it was, because we all run into stressful situations rather often. And if you find that, yes, this was very much what I’m experiencing, then you can either reach out to us, also to Kate directly, so we’ll leave your contact details in the show notes and in the blog post related to this recording.
Kate: Happy to have a chat with anybody if they need it.
Jo: Yeah. And also for the crisis assessment call, thanks for offering that. If you want to explore the topic further, you can also email us. We have a series of podcasts on the topic and more are coming. And also in previous episodes we mentioned Remo, the Research and Mental Health Observatory, an Institutional group of researchers who have taken on mental health as a topic for academics and building research literature. How mental health issues affect academia, and how academia affects mental health, unfortunately, and also what we can do about it. My personal approach is that every practice, open science, is good scientific practice with digital truths that we have readily available nowadays, what we teach in our courses. We can avoid a lot of the stressors that we talked about here to preserve and maintain one’s mental well being, but still, we still might be triggered by certain situations, certain actions, certain words that are being said, and just know that it’s pretty much normal and part of life.
Kate: Absolutely. Thank you so much for allowing me to be here, Jo. I really enjoyed chatting about it. I know I have a tendency to waffle on sometimes, but I just love the subject so much and I wish they taught all of this in school, I really do. Thanks for the opportunity to be here.
Jo: It’s a great pleasure and great honor having you and I’m sure we hear more from you in this ecosystem called academia and also in this room or space called Access 2 Perspectives. Thanks for joining us again.
Kate: Thank you. Bye.