Out of Your Mind

A colleague and I chatted today, and it seems we each have a student with the following characteristics: very talented, very hard working — to the exclusion of all else, very sensitive to criticism, and extremely anxious about the external recognition of their work (e.g., constantly comparing self to peers in terms of the number of publications or frequently checking citation numbers and obsessing why the citations aren’t picking up even though the paper just came out).

I think every successful scientist has all of these traits to some degree, especially the first two. The question is whether too much work or too much reliance on external recognition make you so miserable that you can no longer do science or simply enjoy life.

The answer is to find a way to get out of your own head. With experience, people find ways to balance the crazy aspects of the career that can be all-consuming with being a whole human being with a complex web of dreams, needs, and desires.

How can you help someone who relies on you for advice to find a good outlet, a good way to relieve the pressure inside their own mind?

Most people will recommend exercise. I agree that exercise can be an excellent outlet, but not all exercise is for everyone; even activities that seem to be hailed as panacea, like running, are really not. People need to find something they really like to do, and I am not surprised that many people cannot. I, for example, really dislike running. Going to the gym to lift weights, run on the treadmill, or use the elliptical are not my cup of tea — I am going to cheat if I am left to my own devices, because I am actually lazy and don’t want to do the hard work and sweat. I would love to play volleyball, which is what I used to do when I was young, but given my age and the size of my posterior, I think that me playing volleyball right now would be a recipe for a serious injury. That’s an issue with many types of really fun exercise — you actually have to be in a pretty good shape to do it without hurting yourself. I am fortunate to have found kickboxing, which provides the social component that makes it fun, a coach to keep us all on track, and a glorious de-stressing aspect that comes from punching and kicking that bag. But I understand very well that it can be exceedingly hard to find a type of exercise that is both safe to do while you’re still out of shape and engrossing enough to provide a real outlet.

I have been blogging for years now, and it’s a valuable release valve for me, but I know it’s not for everyone. I also like to draw, but I am not good enough, nor do I have the command of various media that might make art a better outlet. Perhaps I should explore further.

I binge-watch TV and movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime, and it takes 2-3 days of binging to realize that my brain is completely blissfully empty of whatever was bothering me.

I love driving and do sometimes just drive around, but doing so for 5 hours would likely lead to my family worrying about what had happened to me, so I don’t really do it to the extent to which I think I would need to in order to make driving an effective de-stressor.

When I talked with my student last about how stressed out he was, I tried to probe what he liked to do when he was young in order to encourage him to take up those activities again. It turned out he had been in the programs for talented kids in his home country since such an early age that he’d basically had no free time or hobbies. He had played an instrument for years, which I suggested he pick up again. We also talked about sailing and fishing, which seemed appealing to him. Various additional recommendations of sports or art forms didn’t seem to click, and neither did suggestions of hanging out more with friends.

Dear readers, how do you get out of your own head? What would you suggest to someone who is clearly suffering both personally and professionally from a lack of an effective or enjoyable outlet?


  1. Music. I play piano (badly) but it certainly takes me out of my head while I practice. I like to crochet while watching tv (otherwise I fall asleep or find the experience of watching other people too excruciating to sit still, which annoys my husband). I binge read cozy mysteries or Ian Rankin style police novels. At the moment, I run. I don’t find running really gets me out of my own head unless it’s a really hard threshold type session. Long runs sometimes give me far too much time in my own head (which is why I listen to podcasts or audiobooks while doing long runs).

  2. Not really advice, but pertinent to the subject, check out this hot-off-the-presses survey of (self-reported) mental health among physics graduates at UMD: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0By5MO-rXAJLHbHBBcnYzcUNGREE/view

    I absolutely agree with you that a life outside of work is critical for mental health. In grad school it was exercise (I did a couple of triathlons with my college roommate who is at least as un-athletic as I am), weekly “geek nights” (movies/TV/hanging out) with grad school friends, and volunteering (mostly at a science museum).

    I think volunteering is a really healthy way to get out of your own head and feel like you are doing something useful with your life that actually helps other people. When I lost a daughter at 4.5 months pregnant during year 3 on the tenure track, part of my morass of desolation was feeling like my life had narrowed to two things: work, and (not) being pregnant. One of the things that really helped me get past the funk was volunteering at a therapeutic riding center in my city — I got to use the leftover horse skills from my childhood, spend time around animals (which I’ve always enjoyed), and help other people do something that was really enjoyable and empowering for them.

  3. I’m in the 18-month push before my tenure file goes in, and I was thinking your description of the grad student sounded an awful lot like me. I’m in little position to give more than lip service to balance when I’m with my trainees.

    It’s nice to read you binge-watch stuff to. I had just resolved last night… when I was home half-sick with a post-conference infection, and should’ve been preparing for my next conference… that I needed a dumb show to watch. I think I found one. I was feeling really guilty about it, though. Can’t I binge instead on articles in related subfields?

    Running is no antidote for me. I signed up for a half-marathon that’s within a week of my next R01 deadline. I will be compulsive, neurotic, and obsessive about both.

  4. This is something that has been on my mind recently. I think one thing for me is to try something completely or relatively new. Recently I tried a yoga class and a boxing class, and I felt great afterwards. It doesn’t need to be exercise, but something where I have no idea of what it will be like or what it ‘should’ be like helps me be more in the moment and clear headed.

  5. I think just giving PERMISSION to have a hobby or interest outside work may be all you can give. The student was clearly raised with the notion that there was no time for such frivolities, and to be success you must give 110% to work and only work. If you are open about the fact that you have cultivated outside interests, and it even helps you in your work by relieving stress and preventing burn-out, then maybe he’ll be motivated to try things? You can’t really pick a hobby for someone, I think there is a lot of “knowing yourself” and also trial and error until you find something that floats your boat.

  6. I read trashy novels and cook elaborate meals as stress relief. I also blog sometimes. I also commute by bike (weather permitting) and the 40ish minutes each way of being completely alone in the world is wonderful!

  7. For me, birdwatching is an important release valve and a form of meditation on work (I’m a zoologist). Having had work-induced mental health problems which came to a head a few years ago, I have also found talking therapy once a week enormously helpful for seeing events at work from a more healthy perspective.

  8. I sing in a choir, which makes me use my brain in a completely different way. I also read escapist books.

  9. Kickboxing!!! I love kickboxing!!! Reading, cooking and watching movies. Of course, I could not do any of those things on tenure track when my kids were small. But hanging out with my kids was relaxing.

  10. Currently, I’m involved in social justice organizing – though any sort of less political community volunteering (e.g. feeding the homeless) would fill the same niche. When my posterior was narrower I used to hike and climb. Ever since a stress-out phase long ago, early in my bachelor’s, I’ve tried to make a point of having a network of friends outside of school / work. It can seem hard to manage that when you’re busy, especially when you’ve had to move to a new country and are trying to deal with that change. But, better emotional health also leads to more grit (coping well with the inevitable manuscript & grant rejections), better intellectual health (smarter & more creative research ideas), and generally better productivity in the long term (I say this as a postdoc with >20 papers). I also occasionally binge-watch TV, so thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one. I think a lot of students derive support from clubs of other students from the same corner of the world, when those exist.

    You can’t do much beyond providing permission, because your stressed out trainee’s extracurricular doesn’t serve its purpose if it’s something done to satisfy you. It probably helps to list the range of things we other academics do, though. I can also attest to some senior hot-shot profs in my field having a rock band together. They’re not that good, but perform at conferences anyway. I’m not sure whether that counts as work-life balance, but it does demonstrate how the big-shots don’t take themselves too seriously.

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