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For the past four years before going to bed I have set my alarm for some time between 4:30am and 5:30am. My intentions are well meaning: to get in a good workout, eat a healthy breakfast, have time to shower and look presentable before heading out the door. Yet every morning as soon as my alarm goes off my immediate instinct is to hit the snooze button and silence the sound that so abruptly interrupted my sleep; good intentions out the window. Luckily, over the course of my graduate career I have conditioned myself to wait a few moments before hitting snooze, and in the time it takes for me to process this disruption, the more rational part of my brain awakens and quells my impulsive desires to go back to sleep.
Instead of falling victim to the “just a few more minutes” trick, I grab the set of workout clothes that I pre-emptively lay out by my bed the night before, throw on my headphones, and workout (a short run, a HIIT routine, a quick yoga flow). All the while knowing that those few more minutes of sleep that I desperately desired in that moment would have just been an immediate source of gratification. However, the feeling I get from starting my day off on a positive note yield benefits (e.g., endorphins, less stress) that my bed (while I love it) could never provide. It was not always like this. In the past, the snooze button won every time. As a first year graduate student I often started my day in this half-awake and on-edge state, in anticipation of the anxiety that came with the daily grind. A trifecta of classes, research, and assistantships. Very quickly I felt overwhelmed and on the verge of a burn out, and it was only the first semester.
Luckily, over the course of my graduate career I have conditioned myself to wait a few moments before hitting snooze, and in the time it takes for me to process this disruption, the more rational part of my brain awakens and quells my impulsive desires to go back to sleep.
Graduate school is remarkable for the multitude of roles that students take on. It is a juggling act of responsibilities ranging from academic coursework, clinical experiences, research (e.g., dissertation), to teaching (Coleman et al., 2016; Rummell, 2015). For many, this results in intense feelings of stress that are commonly associated with the graduate school experience (Rummell, 2015). The effects of this stress can have profound consequences on the personal and professional lives of students. The presence of anxiety and depressive symptoms, health issues, poor sleeping habits, burnout, and decreased professional competency are all commonly experienced by graduate students (Ayala, Ellis, & Grudev, 2017).
In response to this trajectory, many graduate programs are beginning to actively promote students’ engagement in various healthy habits and techniques, also known as self-care practices. In my field of training, (school) psychology, our professional and ethnic standards explicitly highlight the importance of self-care for practitioners for both their personal and professional well-being. While self-care includes a variety of activities such as mindfulness and social support (Ayala, Ellis, & Grudev, 2017), exercise and nutrition are commonly advertised buffers against the numerous negative effects that stress can have on one’s positive physical and emotional well-being (Myers, et al., 2012). Collectively, engagement in self-care promotes better mental, physical, and spiritual well-being (Goncher, Sherman, Barnett, & Hastings, 2013). Regarding exercise specifically, in addition to various physical benefits such as weight management and improved cardiac health, engaging in a consistent exercise routine can help reduced stress and its suppression on our immune system (Myers et al., 2012).
While the intensity of one’s graduate program can sometimes ebb and flow, the underlying stress remains a constant.
However, the aforementioned abundance of responsibilities made it nearly impossible for me to keep any form of a health and fitness routine those first few months of graduate school. In my case, meals were regularly skipped and physical activity was confined to the walk from my car to my office (approximately .1 miles). While the intensity of one’s graduate program can sometimes ebb and flow, the underlying stress remains a constant. Instead of succumbing to the effects of an early burnout, I decided to fight against them and work toward managing my stress and prioritizing my own well-being through health and fitness. It was not easy. In the first few months I encountered numerous setbacks: I threw tantrums at the thought of waking up early, convinced myself to skip out on workouts, and experienced intense feelings of nostalgia reminiscing about snooze buttons and late night pizza deliveries. However, the longer I engaged in these self-care habits the more prevalent the benefits became and the more off-kilter I felt the few times when I strayed from my new routines. Overall, I started sleeping better, my skin cleared up, I began to feel less overwhelmed and more in control. The changes that I made during were difficult but proved vital in altering the narrative from just another overwhelmed graduate student to one with more stamina, more energy, and a greater sense of my own capabilities (pushing yourself to run 12 miles can make you feel like you can do anything… Even pass comps).
Overall, I started sleeping better, my skin cleared up, I began to feel less overwhelmed and more in control.
Below are a few of the strategies I have found to be incredibly beneficial for both establishing and sustaining self-care habits for health and fitness as a graduate student.
When starting any new initiative an important first step is to conduct an honest and comprehensive assessment. For me this involved a few simple questions:
Taking stock of this information was crucial for developing a routine that was both feasible and tailored to my preferences and abilities, increasing the likelihood of its success.
Write it Down
I love a good planner. The level of gratification that I experience when I complete a task and can cross that item off of my list is incomparable. For the first couple years of graduate school, I spent my Sunday afternoons with my planner open jotting down my weekly work, school, and practicum schedule. In addition to these duties, I also regularly scheduled in my self-care habits – everything from nights out with friends, Skype sessions with family members, workouts I would complete each day, and a menu of my meals. (Yes, I would actually write out what I would have for breakfast, lunch, dinner Sun-Sat.) While I no longer plan to this level, in the beginning having this schedule helped take the guess work out of everything and provided solutions during times when I was most vulnerable to make poor decisions with my health and fitness. That being said….
I love a good planner.
Know Your Pitfalls
Candy dishes, end of year celebrations, writing sessions late at night, emails indicating free food in the lounge are just a few instances in which my health and fitness persona is likely to go out the window. Acknowledging these moments has helped me be better prepare and plan for what do to when they do happen. This is not to say that I refuse to indulge in office treats or will force myself to workout in the face of exhaustion; such mindset is not sustainable. However, I know that just because there are donuts are in the office kitchen does not mean I need to eat them. I also know that I will not be as tempted to eat them if I already ate a hearty breakfast an hour before. Similarly, since I do most of my working out in the morning the list of excuses that my brain is likely to conjure up is much smaller, and less convincing, at 4:30 am compared to 8:00pm.
Don't Break the Bank
In addition to time, money is one of those things that graduate students do not ever have enough of. Even with a graduate assistantship, the money from my stipend barely covered my rent, bills, and gas. For something that should be so accessible to everyone, working out and eating healthy can be incredibly expensive. Paying for daily fitness classes or shopping exclusively at Whole Foods was just not in my budget. In order to keep my routine sustainable, I had to find ways to keep the cost to a minimum. Luckily I have discovered that there are many ways to make this lifestyle affordable.
In order to keep my routine sustainable, I had to find ways to keep the cost to a minimum.
My idea of a perfect morning is a nice hour long run in fall weather followed by a huge stack of pancakes. Everyone has their “thing” both in terms of food and fitness. From weightlifting to spin classes, smoothies to avocado toast. My thing has always been running and pancakes. They are two things that I love, so I make them regular parts of my routine. Specifically, I try to run at least 3 days a week and prep pancakes (I love Kodiak Cakes as a healthy-low sugar, high protein, low carb- alternative to the buttermilk stack) to eat as a quick breakfast. Getting up in the morning is made easier knowing that I am going to do something that I not only enjoy (a run), but that is going to start my day off on a positive note. Similarly, when it comes to prepping and planning my meals, making meals that enjoy and look forward to eating decrease my desire to engage in less nutritious options.
Being in an environment where everyone is working toward the same goal can be nix those feelings of apathy and help you find your groove again.
Find Your Tribe
There are always going to be times when you just feel unmotivated. Sometimes this feeling can be remediated by taking a few rest days or by mixing things up within your routine, trying new recipes and different classes. Other times getting out of a rut may require the support of others. For me periods of motivation often stop when I schedule something to do with someone else, whether it be meal prepping with a friend, joining a fitness challenge online, or running as part of a running group. Being in an environment where everyone is working toward the same goal can be nix those feelings of apathy and help you find your groove again. Additionally, if you do not have anyone to be that source of motivation, as was my case when I first moved for internship, going to a group class can be a great way meet others similar interests (at the very least, an interest in working out).
Bottom line: Self-care is important. While finding the time, motivation, and energy to invest in it can be difficult, the benefits of taking time to yourself to do something positive for yourself is incredibly rewarding both personally and professionally.
Ayala, E.E., Ellis, M. V., Grudev, N., & Cole, J. (2017). Women in health service psychology programs: Stress, self-care, and quality of life. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 1, 18-25.
Colman, D.E., Echon, R., Lemay, M.S., McDonald, J., Smith, K.R., Spencer, J., & Swift, J.K. (2016). The efficacy of self-care for graduate students in professional psychology: A meta-analysis. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 10, 188-197.
Goncher, I.D., Sherman, M.F., Barnett, J.E., & Haskins, D. (2013). Programmatic perceptions of self-care emphasis and quality of life among graduate trainees in clinical psychology: The mediational role of self-care utilization. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 7(1), 51-60.
Myers, S. B., Sweeney, A.C., Popick, V., Wesley, K., Bordfeld, A., & Fingerhut, R. (2012). Self-care practices and perceived stress levels among psychology graduate students. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 6, 55-66.
Richards, K.C., & Campenni, C.E., & Muse-Burke, J.L. (2010). Self-care and well-being in mental health professionals: The mediating effects of self-awareness and mindfulness. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 32, 247-264.
Rummell, C. M. (2015). An exploratory study of psychology gradute student workload, health, and program satisfaction. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46, 391-399.