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Resilience, overwork and stress management in academia

This past week, I had anxiety attacks 3 nights in a row.

This is an extraordinarily rare occurrence, but one that I thought was worth bringing up as the semester ramps up (for us at CIDE, we are starting the 8th week of 16). I had never gotten an anxiety attack, because I am usually in control.

I am super organized, I thrive on having everything well planned, and I have a system that enables me to plan what I’m going to be doing (thank you, Everything Notebook!), when I am supposed to get things done, and stay in control. Being ultra-organized, a Type A kind of individual (as anybody who reads my Organization and Time Management posts can see) is part of who I am. Those who collaborate with me and work closely with me (both on campus and off campus) know that I love being in control of my workload.

When this happened, I remembered what I always tell my students: be like bamboo, flexible and resilient, not like an oak, whose branches can break under extreme pressure. This flexibility and adaptive capacity is what in the biological sciences is called resilience. Resilient organisms are able to quickly adapt to extreme stress and negative or adverse conditions, survive and thrive. I quote from the Resilience Alliance website:

Resilience is the capacity of a social-ecological system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions. It describes the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation (Holling 1973, Gunderson & Holling 2002, Walker et al. 2004). People are part of the natural world. We depend on ecosystems for our survival and we continuously impact the ecosystems in which we live from the local to global scale. Resilience is a property of these linked social-ecological systems (SES). When resilience is enhanced, a system is more likely to tolerate disturbance events without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. Furthermore, resilience in social-ecological systems has the added capacity of humans to anticipate change and influence future pathways.

Resilience theory has also been studied and widely adopted in psychology, not the least because it provides useful pointers as to how to recover when under extreme stress. The Canadian Mental Health Association has an interesting page on resilience. Coincidentally, one of my closest friends (Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley) studied stress and coping strategies for her doctoral dissertation with Dr. Anita DeLongis at The University of British Columbia, and I always found her research fascinating. I have to also thank Dayna for helping me cope with one of the toughest break-ups I ever had in my life. One of those amazing coincidences where what a close friend studies is actually helpful for your own life. I believe that having a broad range of coping strategies helps build up resilience.

Ironically enough, finishing a book chapter on resilience and polycentricity was exactly what had me stressed and what triggered my anxiety attacks. I say that this is ironic, because to finish the book chapter, I had to re-read what I had already studied during my PhD: adaptive strategies of resilient firms. Having to reflect on the need to be resilient while on the tenure-track, or during the PhD, and even post-tenure, was what drove me to write this blog post. I think one of the biggest challenges we face in academia, is to learn how to manage workloads and build resilience.

One way in which I do this is through sharing openly how I feel and the kinds of challenges I am currently facing. I also seek help and advice from counsellors, trusted friends, exercise and communicate with my coauthors and collaborators about how things are going. I don’t believe that academic life should be a source of constant pressure and therefore, I work hard at building resilience and learning how to cope with the challenges that my own work throws at me.

This is one of the reasons why I advocate for a more human and humane academia and for self-care in academic contexts. I don’t plan to stop doing so.

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