Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Balance of the mind

I tend to think that I'm an efficient and well-functioning person who can push myself hard and get results. I'm generally healthy, care for what I eat, where I buy it and how it's produced and am in relatively OK shape despite my preference for the sedentary lifestyle. I get really stressed when needing to finish something, but on average I don't work extremely long hours and I do take time off at home and to travel to visit family and friends. So what's to worry about.

The other day we had a seminar at work about stress and how to deal with it. I almost didn't go because I had too much to do, but realized the irony and went anyway. As an introduction the presenter said that sometimes people who were in the middle of dealing with long term stress symptoms had been uncomfortable with attending the seminar or even started screaming. I was pretty sure that I'd be one of the people who would find it uncomfortable, but also hoped that I'd at least not act like a lunatic and start screaming. I didn't, but I found it downright terrifying when she talked about how stress leads to all sorts of physical reactions and diseases and how it could take years to recover from burn-out once it got that far.

I don't have a crazy day to day schedule. When I'm at home, going to the office every day, doing some research and some administration and replying to some emails it's not bad at all. But my work life is only like that for part of the year. From about May to September I rarely have weekends, I'm always on the move - preparing to go in the field, being in the field, working hard, sleeping in a tent, reorganizing equipment when I come back, preparing for the next trip, preparing field teaching, reorganizing, travelling etc. It's rarely under 14 hours work days, sleep is limited and the responsibility on the expedition leader when travelling with people in remote arctic regions is immense. It's tiring under the best conditions and it's exhausting when any sort of difficulties arise. This year I got sick while I was in the field. Not a cold or a flu but some seemingly more serious digestive problem that had lingered for a while and hasn't subsided yet (although it is much better now). I had a couple of warnings earlier in the summer with sudden problems with sleeping, outbreak of some already known skin problems, strange aches and just overall feeling tired and not being able to snap out of it.

When the stress-seminar lady showed a list of physical stress symptoms and asked us to write down how many we had experienced lately I was too embarrassed to actually put the number down on paper. I know I have been wearing myself out lately. The last year has been crazy. First with the visiting professor appointment that was supposed to be a 50 % appointment, but ended up being more like a 200% appointment with a 50% postdoc on top of it. Then the six month stint as department head, which was again a steep learning curve and a lot of work before being up to speed and then this crazy summer in the end. It's hardly rocket science to figure out why my body cried for a break.

I'm taking it easier now. I simply had to. Luckily the summer teaching is done and I'm not department head anymore and for the first time in more than a year I can actually just be a postdoc and nothing more. I get to keep reasonable hours, I've started biking to work, I've improved my diet and try to eat what seems to help and I've taken up yoga, which also really helps me to get out of my head a bit. So I'm probably getting there, but I still think I need rest. Actually I think the seminar presenter was onto something right when she said that people need to stay at home and relax when recovering from long term stress, but when will anyone in the research world ever get to do that unless they get really ill. I think that prospect is absolutely frightening. I have no idea how to deal with it in an environment where everybody being stressed all the time is the order of the day.

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