The Importance of Self-Care in Academia

There have been some excellent posts in the blogosphere recently that deal with aspects of physical and mental self-care including this excellent piece on Tenure She Wrote . This point was driven home for me during the holidays because I got sick with the flu bug from Hell. It started with chills and then a fever. Then the cough set in and I pulled some muscles due to the frequency and intensity of the coughing. And to top it all off was the violent expulsion of bodily fluids for several days that make that scene in The Exorcist look like a cake walk. It is the sickest I have been in a long time. I lost 10 pounds over 7 days that I couldn’t afford to lose. I think it was my body’s way of telling me to smarten up. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that my body got sick as soon as the stresses of the semester were over.

It’s served as a wake-up call by telling me that I need to make some big life changes. I need to really start using that YMCA membership. Unfortunately when things get really busy, physical exercise is one of the first things to go. This is a bad choice since it’s the physical exercise that helps me deal with stress and keeps me energized. I’m also spending way too much of my life sitting in my office and several recent studies have determined that it will take years off my life. I need to remember to take frequent breaks and go for some walks.

As academics we are busy people. There was a very funny piece about the busyness competition in academia a few days ago on the New Faculty blog that cracked me up. Like the author, I’ve decided to stop participating in that particular competition; it isn’t one I’d like to win. There are a lot of competing demands on our time and if you couple that with perfectionist tendencies it’s a recipe for disaster. Since starting on the tenure track 4.5 years ago it feels like I’ve been running on a treadmill where the speed is set a bit too fast. It’s felt like I’m always playing a game of catch up. Recently I have come to the stunning realization that I will never catch up. I’m not the only one who feels this way; the sensation is articulated very well in this piece on the Chronicle’s Vitae site by someone more experienced than I. I’ve decided that instead of the quick sprint that I’ve been doing, a more effective strategy would be to pace myself for a marathon. I think that it’s about realizing my limitations and accepting them and being kinder to myself. I’m stepping off the treadmill and I’m going to start doing things my way at a pace that is manageable and sustainable. I’d like to model a more realistic way of doing science for my students; I think that is a worthy goal.

Being sick also served to remind me of the many great things in my life that I take for granted. I live in a safe and comfortable home. I am fortunate to live in a democratic country with robust social and health support systems. I have a great and funny family who are there for me when I need them. I have a fantastic job with excellent colleagues and students. I have a great deal of self-agency and autonomy. I am relatively healthy and have a lot of personal privilege. Perspective is everything.

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