Have your stress levels been at an all time high?

Five tips to keep your work on track and your sanity intact!

A career in science can be stressful. The pressures of finishing a PhD, starting your first post-doc or maintaining a laboratory can get on top of all of us. The pressures of life also compound these work anxieties and sometimes it all gets a bit much. We shut down and can no longer work effectively. For me, my moment was a couple of weeks before my return to work date following my second parental leave break.

Dr Simona Carbone [photo: Monash University]
I had the pressure of starting my first fellowship compounded by the restrictions imposed by the current pandemic, as well as childcare arrangements being thrown into disarray. Reading about the implications of COVID-19 for women in STEM, particularly mothers, did little to control my nerves (see report from the Rapid Research Information Forum). The combined weight of all these individual pressures was too much for me, and I lost it. I oscillated between ‘my crazy head’ frantically rushing around all over the place trying to achieve multiple activities at once, to ‘my funk’ not having the energy or drive to do anything at all. I understand now that I was moving between periods of hyper- versus hypo-arousal. My autonomic nervous system working against each other in the classic ‘fight or flight’ versus ‘rest and digest’ responses.

I recognised that I needed to change something to get me through it all. I needed a set of strategies to ready myself for my first day of work and to help prepare me for this very unusual and stressful period. So I started working on myself. In this article, I am sharing some of the techniques I used which got me through the initial lead up to the stressful event. These strategies are continuing to help me now as I navigate my day to day stresses.

1. Make a plan

I started with a 12-month plan and then broke this down into individual tasks. This helped me visualise my workload as digestible chunks of effort. I’ve since used this list to make a timeline that I can work from to form my schedule. Importantly, just because it is written down does not mean I have committed to this timeline and that it cannot change. Constantly reviewing this list and updating it helps me track my development and allows me the freedom to accept new opportunities and re-access my priorities. With this list of tasks, I have assigned duties to each week or month as required and then set the time to get the work done. (Plus, I love ticking things off- it is very satisfying.)

2. Ask for help

For me once I had this list I realised I would not be able to do it all. I needed to ask for help. At home, my partner and I have come up with a schedule that allows me the time to get work done, while also having the children around. Without verbalising what I needed to do, and how much time this all requires he had no idea what stress this was causing me. We found a way to make our life/work balances more effective for our family unit.

More relevant generally, was sharing my list of work tasks with my colleagues. I co-direct a laboratory with two very supportive individuals and it was important to share my list with them, so they were aware of what I am trying to achieve. They have helped me refine my list and to direct my focus on what needs my immediate attention, versus what I can ask others to help with. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed again, I check in with one of them, highlight what I plan to do for the day, and they help me re-focus on the priorities. This is very important as it helps me shift my attitude from being ‘very busy’ to being ‘very productive’.

The important thing to realise is that unless we tell them, our colleagues or supervisors don’t know how much we have to do or if we are struggling with our workload. Once they know they can help focus on what needs to be done and work on achieving outcomes.

3. Compartmentalise your time

This technique has been particularly useful for me while working from home during COVID-19 but also is great during grant and paper writing sessions. Divide the day up into sections of time and allocate appropriate tasks that reflect your productivity levels. Use your most productive time for tasks that require large mental commitment such as writing. For most of us, this is first thing in the morning. Try to avoid scheduling meetings during this session, or answering emails that do not require immediate attention. This will break up your flow and thus limit your productivity. Save these sorts of tasks for your least productive period- usually the late afternoon for most of us.

4. Set your intention

Before all this, I underestimated the importance of a great morning routine. I wake up a little earlier than I previously would and use a combination of methods that allow me to clear my mind and mentally prepare myself to tackle the day. This involves a combination of journaling, meditating, reading and exercising. I can’t always commit to these on any given day but even achieving some of these makes a real difference to my mindset. I particularly appreciate the benefits of these activities after consecutive missed days of this routine. For me, the added benefit of waking up early and treating this period as my special time also has an added mental health boost. I’ve become a much happier and more positive person by committing to myself with this routine.

5. Stop and reset

Some days no matter what we do, we can still get overwhelmed with the tasks at hand. When this does happen, I will step away and reset. I use an activity from my morning routine as an activity ‘wedge’ and I’m usually able to start again and tackle the task at hand.

Since regularly committing to these strategies my attitude towards working through stressful situations has changed completely. I have a far more positive outlook in general, and I’ve relished being back at work. Even during COVID-19! I hope they help you through your stressful time.

About the author:

Dr Simona Carbone is an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at Monash University (Melbourne, Victoria). She is a Co-Director of the Integrated Neurogenic Mechanisms Laboratory, in Drug Discovery Biology at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) and is part of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-Nano Science and Technology (CBNS). She is an expert on the ‘little brain in the gut’ called the Enteric Nervous System. Her research aims to identify new ways that the actions of the Enteric Nervous System can be modulated to change the functions of the gut. By changing these functions, she aims to identify new sites that can be targeted to treat a range of gut disorders. Dr Carbone’s research projects involve collaborations with a range of academics, clinicians and industry professionals. Dr Carbone is passionate about removing the perceived barriers academic scientists place on themselves, and changing the publics’ perception of what a scientist is. When she’s not in the lab, Dr Carbone is chasing after her energetic husband, two young sons and feisty little dog. She also has a passion for cooking pasta, partly to provide the energy to keep up!

Twitter: @sim_scientist

Instagram: @simthescientist

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