Buffering Your Life with Wellness

I don’t think I need to say that life as a grad student is hard… but I did anyway.

When you’re in grad school there are many demands on your time and energy. Although research productivity is generally the main interest of PIs and grad students, it only relates to one, albeit major, area of life. However, the demands of grad school take a toll on not just your scientific self; they also take a toll on your holistic self.

I want to introduce you to a perspective that can help you make sure ALL of you, not just the science-y parts of you, is able to grow and flourish while in grad school. I want to introduce you to wellness.

What is Wellness?

Simply put, wellness is a conscious, active, positive striving toward being your best self. If you think of life as a biological experiment, then wellness is your buffer. There are multiple parts to it and each component is important for the overall success. How much of each component is required depends on the specific experiment.

Holistic wellness is comprised of eight parts: physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual, occupational, environmental, and financial. As grad students, it’s easy to focus on one or maybe a few areas and ignore the others. You may not even realize something is missing! So let’s take a closer look at each component of a “wellness buffer”

Physical

Physical wellness is being in a state of good health and function. Things like diet and exercise obviously are important for this, but so is proper management of chronic conditions and taking care of yourself when sick. Ask yourself if your physical state positively or negatively impacts your daily life.

For example, if allergies make it difficult for you to focus, consult your doctor to come up with a treatment plan. The biggest physical stressor in my lab is lugging a liquid nitrogen dewer around (it’s about 10L). To address this I could (and should!) start regular weight training to make the task less strenuous.

Emotional

Emotional wellness is your ability to identify your feelings and express them, while also dealing with the challenges of life. Emotional wellness and science have the same starting point: you make an observation. A good place to start with observation is to think about how events physically make you feel.

Do you feel crushed after a failed experiment? That’s a good signal to work on your emotional wellness. I find practicing mindfulness and meditation help me maintain a healthy level of detachment from what happens in the lab. Remember, there’s more to your life than the bench!

Mental

If you’re in grad school, this dimension is hopefully thriving. Acquiring new skills, knowledge, and expanding your horizons are all part of mental wellness and (hopefully!) life as a graduate student. If you feel like you’re not growing in this area it may be helpful to reach out to a mentor you trust. Alternatively, learning something new outside of your research is a great way to develop this area!

Social

Social wellness is a feeling of connectedness to, and support from, friends and family. Social connectedness is important for surviving grad school. A strong social network can help motivate you and keep you sane when experiments aren’t working or things get rough. Social networks are also great to help you celebrate when you finally get that publication out or get a difficult experiment to work. I think the best way to build a social network is to do something outside of the lab. Do something you love to do and meet people while doing it!

Spiritual

Spiritual wellness is all about feeling a greater sense of purpose in life. You may find that working as a researcher fulfills this for you, especially if you work in the clinical side of things. Or maybe you find volunteer work or a regular spiritual practice helps you develop a greater sense of belonging. Just remember that you still have value when you leave the lab!

Occupational

Occupational wellness can be described by feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment from your work. To work toward this I think it’s important to know what actually makes you satisfied with your work. There will always be rough patches at work. It may be more useful to think about occupational wellness in the longer-term. What do you want to do when you graduate? If you are one of those people who is suffering through grad school maybe now is the time to consider a change?

Environmental

Some think of “green” things when they think of environmental wellness. Environmental wellness also refers to the physical environment you operate in. Ask yourself if you are having a positive effect on your environment and if your environment is having a positive effect on you. If you’re answer is no, think about little changes you can make to improve the situation. You may be surprised how much stress you can relieve by organizing your lab bench!

Financial

Financial wellness is having enough money to live comfortably and manage your financial responsibilities. Financial stress can make it incredibly difficult to focus on your research and stay motivated. If you find that your stipend or student loans cause you a large amount of stress, it may be time to develop a budget. If you’re not sure what to do then get help. Your university may have a financial counselor that can help you get your finances in shape.

I hope my explanation of wellness provides a framework you can use to think about how your holistic life influences your life as a scientist!

What areas are you interested in developing? How are you working toward wellness now?

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