This article was submitted by Dianne Kirby of the UON Counselling Service.
As you well know, postgraduate work involves a marathon run not a sprint (and it’s so worth it when you reach the end!). Hence it’s vitally important to cultivate your psychological well-being – so you can feel good and function well.
Self-management is a skill set that lies at the core of psychological health and well-being. It encompasses self-awareness, self-regulation, self-care, self-reflection and awareness of others; these all make it possible learn independently, make good use of feedback and work effectively in teams.
Students who reflect on their experiences and proactively develop their self-management skills are likely to enjoy considerable advantage in their professional lives. Managing stress, building resilience and maintaining well-being are certainly some self-management capabilities worth cultivating.
Working at well-being
Professor Richard Davidson, a renowned neuroscientist, invites us to think of well-being as a skill we can ‘train for’ and practice. When it comes to well-being, there seems to be considerable agreement about what works. Based on their extensive review, The New Economics Foundation recommend building five actions into our daily lives to maximise mental capital and well-being: be active, keep learning, be aware, connect, and help others.
Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement, believes mental well-being and flourishing relies heavily on PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement in fulfilling work, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments. More about Seligman’s model is available here.
Richard Davidson identifies four well-being practices that contribute to brain and body health and higher level of well-being. These are: building resilience, holding a positive outlook, paying attention and practising generosity. You may like to check out Richard’s brief article or listen to this podcast.
Of great interest, postgraduate endeavours seem to fulfil many of the criteria that contribute to well-being. At the same time, postgraduate work can be very stressful and study-work-life interactions need to be re-evaluated at regular intervals. You may like to check out tips from Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner for ‘The Balanced Researcher’.
Resilience in the face of stress
Resilience involves adapting to challenge and change, and bouncing back in the face of pressure and adversity. Resilience changes over time depending on your interactions and environment.
University is an inherently stressful time. Luckily, many stress management and resilience building programs can improve your well-being. You may like to:
Recognise your sources of stress, signs of stress, preferred strategies and supports. What helps and hinders? Early intervention is best. In her popular TED Talk ‘How to make stress your friend’, Kelly McGonigal invites us to embrace challenge stress.
Build your physical hardiness. Consider your propensity for exercise, sleep, rest and eating well. Have you tried walking meetings, a 7-minute workout app, stretching or yoga at work? What about riding a bike, rock climbing or playing soccer to release endorphins?
Practice daily relaxation. A few minutes of calm breathing or progressive muscle relaxation will help you re-centre.
Play to your strengths and keep learning new skills. How would you describe ‘me at my best’? You may like to take this character strengths survey.
Revisit your sense of purpose, your values and goals, and recommit to realistic plans and rewards. Focus on what you can change and influence, and accept what’s beyond your control. What’s your favourite time and task management system? You may like to check out these free planners and guides from Hugh Kearns.
Regulate your emotions. You can practise self-soothing by becoming aware your five senses (e.g. listen to music or sounds in nature) or by grounding yourself by noticing your feet on the floor. Cultivate positive emotions (for example, recall a positive memory, a person who wishes you well, an achievement you’re proud of) and practise gratitude.
Develop your sense of belonging, networks and community. This isn’t necessarily easy, especially if you are far from home. Diversity is a learning asset so when an opportunity arises, go out of your way to communicate with colleagues from diverse backgrounds with different interests and expertise.
Ask for help! Shout out to NUPSA or Student Care and Equity for advice and support at any time. It’s resourceful to access the resources at hand.
Prioritising positive self-talk
Realistic, positive self-talk is a powerful tool when it comes to optimal performance and being at the top of your game. You can pause to observe your thinking whenever you wish. Check the facts. Are my thoughts realistic here? If your thoughts aren’t relevant or useful, let them go and refocus on your valued goals and next step.
Many postgraduate students can be hard on themselves and expect perfection at times. When ‘the inner critic’ shows up (metaphorically speaking), you may like to say, ‘Thanks for your opinion (with respect),’ and remind yourself, ‘What would I say to a friend? What would my ‘inner coach’ suggest here?’
It’s not uncommon for postgraduate students to report identifying with negative thoughts and beliefs about being an imposter among their colleagues. Hugh Kearns shares his ideas about tackling ‘the imposter syndrome’ here.
Practising self-compassion can reduce negative self-responding, and Kristen Neff has developed some useful exercises based on her research. Cultivating kindness and compassion towards others is also associated with a greater sense of well-being.
Finally, mindset matters. Professor Carol Dweck’s research on Growth Mindset suggests the quickest way to recover from setbacks and regain motivation is to think about what you’ve learnt from the experience rather than focus on previous mistakes.
Please feel welcome to contact us at Counselling for support and resources at any time.
We imagine you’ve developed a multitude of skills and strategies to maintain your well-being, manage stress and build resilience while studying. If you’d like to share any with other students, we’d love to hear them! Just email us at ORANA@newcastle.edu.au.