There was a fun seminar with a guest speaker once upon a time when I was in graduate school where he put the physiological effects of stress into perspective. I can't remember his name now, but the gist was that if you imagine yourself as an animal fighting for survival, you are very likely to want to keep the body ramped up to run or fight rather than to fight infection, digest, or reproduce. In a human context, when the person is under pressure due to a huge work project or some other external force derived from a crushing mountain of responsibility, they are thrust into a situation where the body and mind think that they are in a "fight or flight" mode and that can lead to many physical and psychological detriments. Although what we do in science is important and requires lots of work, it is important to realize that good science is harder to do if we are overcome with stress, so let's find some ways to manage stress so we can be more productive and healthy.
Humans are incredibly diverse in their personal philosophies and therefore what stresses each person out can be wildly different, but the World Health Organization says this about stress:
Stress can be defined as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives. Everyone experiences stress to some degree. The way we respond to stress, however, makes a big difference to our overall well-being.
The interesting thing is that we do need a tiny bit of stress to motivate us to do everything we need to in order to succeed or help a team achieve a common goal. The trick is to change that motivating force's messaging from something like, "If I don't do this, I will get penalized somehow" into something more like "The results from my actions will be very rewarding." Other strategies in addition to this one little trick of the mind can help us control our emotions, improve concentration, and optimize our overall health. A little anxiety can be good to drive that sense of urgency to get the project in before the deadline, but too much can spoil the project as well as our appetites!
Being Aware of Your Stress
April is designated as National Stress Awareness Month, and when you have the tools to recognize when you are stressed, you can implement countermeasures to prevent that stress from becoming too excessive and overwhelm you. There are plenty of resources offered by WHO, which has a stress management guide, and the NIH, which helps with resilience training as well. Below, we list some resources of our own that can help you alleviate stress through preventative measures, constructive distractions, and finding time to take care of yourself first.
Putting Yourself First
It's no secret that you'll find it more difficult to complete a task when you are stressed out. To ensure your body and mind are optimized for the stressful tasks ahead (pun totally intended), it makes sense to eat right, get plenty of rest to regulate your circadian rhythm, and to build a support system to help you through times of stress and of course the consistent failures that all scientists go through. Of sound body, of sound mind, and vice versa!
Set a Routine That Includes Useful Distractions
In addition to eating right and getting proper exercise, it may help to get yourself organized and prioritize certain activities to enrich your body and spirit. The down time during assays and centrifuge runs is a good time to relieve stress by reading or planning ahead. Consider the time you have to use to commute or wait for something to run as time you can use to get better organized in lab or office, invent new fun ways to make your work easier, and perhaps learn something through watching educational videos or listening to excellent science podcasts, including the upcoming ABclonal BioChat series (more on that later, stay tuned!). Keeping your mind busy with fun things rather than dwelling on stressors is an effective strategy to keep you at peace.
The world can be a difficult place to navigate, but I hope that you can get into the habit of reframing your stress into something that is not so daunting. It is hard to stay positive all the time, but if you are better aware of when you are experiencing stress and now have some new methods to manage it, the journey can be so much smoother, and don't forget to reach out to good friends to help you along your path.