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Updated: Jun 21, 2020

Strategies for Thriving in Higher Education

Guest post by Karen Tang

I had a panic attack; with tears rolling uncontrollably down my face as I struggled to breathe, it was time to take a step-back and re-evaluate the decisions that had led me here. I had graduated in 4 years with honors in my undergraduate degree. This achievement included balancing a full course load, multiple volunteering positions, 1-3 part-time jobs at any given time, all on top of my various family commitments. By the end of these 4 years I was mentally and physically exhausted.

However, I had applied and gotten into graduate school, so off I went to another six years of this, with hopes of becoming a Clinical Psychologist. It was not until my first year of graduate school that I had an epiphany moment in the middle of class. During a role-playing game where I was the therapist and my peer was the client, he said, “I can’t do this anymore” and that is when it hit me like a ton of freaking bricks. He was right—I couldn’t do this anymore. I was experiencing burn out. After that moment of clarity, I decided to take a few days off to reassess my life.

Sadly, my experience with burnout is not unique. University students, undergraduate and graduate students alike are facing a ‘mental health crisis,’ which includes burnout. Between 2009 and 2015, mental health diagnoses and treatment increased dramatically for panic attacks, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and insomnia in undergraduate students. Similarly, in a survey of over 2,200 graduate students from 26 different countries and over 200 institutions, researchers found that graduate students were six times more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety than the general population, with 40% of graduate students experiencing moderate to severe anxiety and 39% of graduate students experiencing similar levels of depression. At these levels, students as a group are clearly surviving, and not thriving in higher education.

So, what is the difference between surviving and thriving?

Surviving is when you’re barely scraping by and each day drags on (see: burnout). All you’re doing is trying to survive each passing moment. Thriving, on the other hand, is when you look forward to each day and are living each day of your life with joy.

Therefore, you might ask: how can we then thrive?

First, consider using self-compassion. Self-compassion is simply compassion directed towards oneself. It is an inner compassion with the intention to alleviate self-suffering. I myself use the self-compassion break, which is a mantra with three components (mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness). When I feel panic and anxiety rising up, I close my eyes and say to myself “This is a moment of suffering,” acknowledging that my present situation is momentary and not forever; I am generating a balanced awareness of the painful thoughts and emotions, rather than over-identifying with them (a form of mindfulness). Next, I say “Suffering is a part of life,” which is expressing common humanity: everyone suffers and that this suffering is a part of our shared human experience. Finally, I say “May I be kind to myself” or whatever phrase speaks to my particular situation (e.g., “May I be strong," "May I be patient," May I be brave”)—this is self-kindness: this provides understanding and empathy to oneself during painful moments, as opposed to being self-critical.

Next, consider saying “No.” As students, we tend to overcommit, leaving ourselves physically and mentally exhausted, which can lead to burnout. Get yourself a “NO Committee.” A “NO Committee” is a small group of trusted people that you will listen to when they tell you ‘no’ to a new opportunity. The first step is forming the Committee.

Step 1, always choose an odd number of people. Three members is perfect; with five, you might be waiting a longer time to hear from everyone. An even number of members is risky—you always want a clear majority answer from your Committee and odd numbers deny the risk of a tied vote.

Step 2, select committee members with the following qualities:

(a) genuinely care deeply about you and your well-being,

(b) understand the twists and turns related to academia (especially if you plan to pursue academia as a career),

(c) know you well enough to know your limits (e.g., how much work is too much work for you?), and

(d) will respond to you (i.e., you do not want to wait two weeks for a response).

Step 3, to really ensure this NO Committee functions, you need to be completely honest about why you want to do or not do something. Remember, these individuals are assisting you in caring for your well-being. Be completely honest with them—they won’t judge you because they only care about what’s best for you.

Implementing the “NO Committee”:

When an opportunity presents itself, reach out to this committee for their advice. In your email/text/in-person conversation, you should describe the opportunity, information about what it is (including estimates of time commitment), list the reasons why you want to say yes, and any reasons why you want to say no. Hear out their responses, and then use them to better inform your choices.

For example, when a research opportunity presents itself, I email my supervisor and two other peers. I explain to them the pros and cons, my other commitments (e.g., courses, ongoing research projects, etc.), and the anticipated time commitment for this new opportunity. Whatever decision is reached by the committee, I go with. This is the power of the “NO Committee.”

Implementing the “NO Committee” can allow you to understand more about your personal limitations, while utilizing the self-compassion break provides a practice in self-kindness as opposed to self-criticism during life’s many challenges and opportunities. Take it from me: I’ve experienced intense panic attacks as a result of burn out and from minimizing the importance of my own mental and physical health. Therefore, building a self-care toolkit with strategies that work for you is vital for maintaining your overall well-being. Be healthy everyone.

KAREN TANG is currently a PhD Clinical Psychology student at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Canada) and a passionate mental health advocate.

Image credits: Unsplash

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