Working Out & Mental Health

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week in Canada so my timing with this post is a bit off…though, why should we only talk about mental health on “green light” occasions like MHAW and Bell Let’s Talk Day? Sure, they’re great events and I am thrilled to see more discussion about mental health but it’s not like mental health issues don’t happen all the time.

I don’t often talk about my own mental health challenges – partially because they don’t define who I am and partially because I don’t think what I’ve dealt with is particularly unusual. I was a shy kid with my nose always stuck in a book and thankfully, I also loved playing sports. I didn’t fit in socially very well and I wasn’t particularly girly (in fact, I was given the nickname “Butch” by the guys I played basketball with at lunch time). I have always kind of been a bit eccentric and although now I appreciate my creativity and different way of looking at things, back then, I just thought that there was something wrong with me. I thought that if I changed my body I would magically fix everything, fit in, and have everybody like me.

Long story short, I over trained and under ate and developed an eating disorder that went on for about 5 years of hell. I also started binge drinking to deal with my social anxiety and kill my feelings because I didn’t know how to deal with them. My weight went up and down, I was depressed and anxious, and not a very nice person to be around. Honestly, sometimes I think it’s a miracle that I got through high school (with a 91% average, nonetheless). Through it all, sports and fitness played an instrumental role in helping me not screw up my life completely. I wish I had done some things differently but I cared enough about my team to go to practice, eat, not drink the night before games and practices, and go to enough classes that I could still play.

Eventually in my third year of university I hit rock bottom and quit school. I stayed in London and worked at the city pool until the spring. My only reason for getting up in the morning was that I knew the aquafit ladies were counting on me to be there. I will spare the details of my eating disorder but suffice to say it was just miserable.

For me the journey to recovery started with a decision to move back to Nova Scotia to live with my parents in Wolfville. I made a pact with myself that I needed to get better and decided that trumped my fear of gaining weight. I gained a lot of weight very quickly which was really difficult to deal with because my body image was so bad. I didn’t have a job or school so for a couple of months I mostly stayed inside, afraid to go out in case “people” (who I didn’t know!) saw me. Writing this now it’s hard to believe that it literally took me 6 hours to get ready and have the courage to go outside and walk 2 blocks to the post office to pick up our mail!

That summer I worked at Camp Glenburn and met some of the most incredible fun people ever who loved nature and really didn’t care about superficial things. Despite being at my heaviest, it was one of the best summers of my life and made me realize that being happy and having fun isn’t about being a certain weight or size.

From there things kept getting better and in the fall of 2004 I went back to school at Acadia (super awesome choice!). I started going to the gym regularly and this helped my recovery in so many ways. First, it made me feel good about myself, mentally and physically. This is supported by lots of research too. When you exercise, your body produces chemicals that make you feel happy 🙂 Working out is also a terrific way to release stress and deal with feelings. Triple awesome. Second, working out helped me make supportive food choices. I realized that my workouts felt awful if I didn’t eat enough or too much. Since working out was something I like to do and look forward to, I was conscientious about eating regularly and not being extreme. It also made me care about getting enough sleep. Finally, working out helped me gain strength and muscle and take my power back. My goals shifted from “I want to be thin” to “I want to be strong and healthy”.

Of course, exercise and regulating my eating were not the only thing that helped my recovery. I also stopped polluting my brain with unhealthy ideals of beauty by not reading fashion magazines or watching TV. I went to counseling. I talked about my feelings and wrote poetry. I learned coping skills. I found things that were more important to focus on than how I looked. It’s a process and it’s different for everyone.

Today, 13 years later, exercise is still an essential part of my mental health and wellbeing.  I wake up at 5am to work out before my work day begins and it is my time to get focused and energized for the day.  My nutrition habits also play an important role in my mental health. I also eat mostly whole foods and gave up my food guilt when I eat something more rich. Being able to really enjoy and savour a delicious piece of cake (or a chocolate chip oat cake from the UNB library…) and not feel angry or guilty or want to eat the whole darn thing because I interpret a food choice as bad or making a mistake is HUGE.

I also realized that there is not enough cake or pizza or alcohol or anything else in the world that will really make me feel better or take away the feelings I don’t want to feel so my emotional eating has decreased a lot (though not entirely).  I think being a nurse has helped me with emotional regulation too because dealing with the depth and breadth of emotions of the human experience is unavoidable in our profession and self-reflection and awareness is something that we actively work on developing.

These days my mental health is very good, though I find the Canadian winter can get a little bit depressing (who doesn’t!?) and sometimes I still get a bit anxious about social situations and going to Costco (again, not all that unusual). I think because it’s not a problem anymore I tend not to talk about my mental health too much – I have so many other things to focus on instead! However, I do think that it’s important to share my experiences so that people know that they are not alone and that it’s okay to ask for help – EVEN if you are a health care professional or an academic. Stigma shmigma! Despite the silly pretenses that a lot of people put on, nobody is perfect – heck, what does that even mean anyway?!


On Being an Academic Nurse

When I began my PhD I felt the need to be cautious about telling people that I was doing it. Luckily I worked with super supportive colleagues and they never made me feel like I was weird or not a “real” nurse because of my interest in research. In fact, many of them were more than willing to share their experience, wisdom, and insights with me when we worked together. I may not have 20 years of nursing experience but I am a hard worker and a caring nurse who is willing to help others and pull my share. I absolutely loved my time working in geriatric rehab as a staff nurse. There were times when I considered quitting the PhD and staying on there instead. I didn’t leave direct care nursing because I didn’t like it. I didn’t leave because I’m afraid of hard work. Or shift work. Or working holidays.

I’m not quite sure what people think academic nurses do but I honestly cannot remember the last time I took an entire 24 hours off from work. I think it was in May? In addition to teaching, research, and service requirements of most faculty, nursing faculty at many schools (mine included) also teach clinical nursing courses. This term I’m teaching second year students in the hospital which means not only 2-3 full shifts in the hospital every week but tons and tons of prep, organizing, evaluation, and follow-up with students. This is not like a lab where they are practicing on mannequins; they are working with real-life patients who are sick. They are interacting with nurses and physicians. Expectations and anxiety are high. I feel like a mother hen trying to protect them while at the same time give them learning opportunities and reasonable autonomy. Teaching clinical is rewarding in many ways but it is one of the most stressful things I have ever done.

I am also a course assistant for the nursing research course and need to prepare to teach a new-to-me course next semester. On top of this I have also been trying to establish my program of research, attend the meetings I need to go to, and get to a stack of article revisions and new submissions. I took a day trip to Ottawa for a conference between clinical days and it was awesome but also exhausting. Somehow I have managed to still spend quality time with my son, work out at least 3 times/week (although Thursday’s “workout” mostly involved staring blankly at the barbell trying to convince myself that it was workout time), and always have some (mostly) healthy food and clean laundry. It’s the small wins, right?

This is not the life I envisioned 11 months ago when I accepted this job. After working and going to school for a million years I thought it would finally be different. I thought I’d have time to have a life but the reality is that I am working constantly. I thought I’d love being closer to home but it’s not really close enough that I can see my family and friends very often. It’s not super helpful when I want to go do something either (“Hey, dad, can you drive 5 hours and babysit while I go to a movie?”).

It’s not all bad of course; I really love a lot of things about my job. I’m just not sure that I want my life to be my job. I realize that the transition to new job in a new province and a new city is a huge adjustment and that it will get easier as time goes on. My first term has been full of many wonderful things and a couple of not-so-awesome things. Highlights include the joy of seeing nursing students grow and learn, interacting with patients and their families and the staff on the unit, and being part of some inspiring research projects. The best thing of all has been looking at the stars with my son on those early mornings before clinical. In the quiet darkness before sunrise we get to share the awe and peace of the night sky together before the busyness of the day begins. These are the moments I cherish most.



Sitting is the New Smoking…


So apparently, sitting is the new smoking…and therefore, I am probably going to die.  Not really (I hope), but there has been a whole lot of attention to the “sitting epidemic” recently, highlighting how much time most of us spend sitting during a regular work day.  (Clearly, they have not spent any time with a staff nurse lately!).  The solution? A standing desk, of course.  Or a treadmill desk. Or taking frequent breaks. Making sure that you have an ergonomically designed work station….

On perhaps, we need to start asking different questions about how our work is designed. For example, in academe, we do spend a lot of time sitting at our computer working on all kinds of things from research grants to articles, powerpoints, data analysis, etc.  Some of this work is unavoidable I think but I also wonder if some of this time could be used more effectively. For example, do we really need to write 20 research articles using one dataset?  Do we really need another book chapter on such and such that a handful of people will read?  What if we publish one really strong paper and then talk to people about our ideas instead?  How much more fun (and time effective) is it to interview people, record a podcast, or share a conference presentation on YouTube?  Obviously, none of these things completely eliminates computer time but I am guessing that the impact of one really great Ted Talk is much broader and valuable than a research article buried in an academic journal that mostly only other researchers are going to read.  Unless of course, more research articles = more tenure points.

Sometimes collecting tenure points feels a bit like being Mario trying to get all the gold coins within reach (and apparently research activities that require copious sitting are as likely to kill you as sitting on your butt playing too many video games).

mario coins.jpg

So let’s assume that you just have to accept that your job requires some sitting.  What can you do to make it less bad?

  1. Take care of your body. Exercise. Eat nutrition food. Go easy-ish on the coffee (mostly). Get enough sleep.
  2. Plan ahead for the ebbs and flows of the school year. Midterms? Exam period? Research grant deadlines?  These are busy times, but they are not unexpected!  Get a calendar and plan ahead. I like to make extra healthy meals and stick them in the freezer to reduce cooking time. Having some exercise equipment in the basement is also really awesome for saving time when I am busy.  There have also been times when I have had to hire my babysitter to give me an extra morning or afternoon to do work on the weekend. (Fingers crossed that being a professor is more awesome than being a grad student working full time!).  Do I always get to do a full workout? No. But sometimes 10 minutes of exercise is better than nothing 😉
  3. Be super organized. You can waste a lot of time trying to simply locate documents, references, and sort through different versions of things.  Having a logical way to organize files and name documents will save you a ton of time. I even get my students to name their documents in specific ways so that I don’t end up with 25 versions of “Assignment 1”.  Using a reference management software program is also a really great way to save time with citing and reference lists, especially when you need to use different referencing styles for different journals. No more wasted time seeking and downloading the same reference articles over and over!  Lastly, using tags and folders in your email inbox is another strategy that saves oodles of time. If you can use the same main categories as your main files on your computer, that is even better!  I like to use gmail and get all of my other emails forwarded to that one account.
  4. Be reasonable. Sometimes I struggle with this. (e.g. “Of course I can have a baby and do my PhD and publish and compete in powerlifting and work at the hospital and teach, etc. at the same time…).  I like to set big goals and have a tendency to say yes to everything but I have learned that this usually leads to burnout. A better strategy is to take on a few things that you can really focus on. Reading (and re-reading) the Power of Less  is a helpful place to start.  Academia seems to reward people who work hard and do a lot but I think another point to consider is that learning and teaching is exciting!  Research and teaching are (should be) both about learning new things and understanding more about the world around us, as well as sharing that knowledge and excitement about learning.  It is hard to say no when you are excited about learning and sharing ideas!   Is it reasonable to spend 20 hours a week preparing for a class you are teaching for the first time?  Maybe not if you are teaching 3 courses and have other things on your plate.
  5. Aim for excellence, rather than perfection. I don’t think there is such a thing as “perfect”. The pareto principle, or 80:20 rule comes in handy here too. It states that 80% of your outcomes/effects will come from 20% of your work. Do you really need to make 50 slides for a 10 minute presentation?  Or, would 10-12 slides, well-designed, be more captivating and effective in getting your point across?  How much time are you spending sitting, working on things that have little to no impact?  After all, sitting is the new smoking….