Bad Astronomy

Advice for when life makes you a little - or a lot - stressed

I’ve written about Astrobites before: it’s a collective blog by astronomy grad students explaining recent papers and research in the field.

Besides the science, they have a category in the blog called “Career navigation”, which has advice on how to handle the practical aspects of a career in science and astronomy. All the entries are good, but I want to specifically point out this one by astronomer John Johnson, an exoplanet hunter at Caltech. I met John last year at a panel I hosted last year about the search for planets and life in space, and immediately liked him. He’s smart, funny, nice, and seemed like he had a pretty solid outlook on things.

The article he wrote for Astrobites is about how to retain your mental health while under the ridiculous amounts of stress induced by grad school. But some of what he says can be extrapolated to anything in life. For example,

For most of us, if we were to wake up five mornings in a row with excruciating pain in our right arm, we’d probably go see a doctor and get it checked out. So why is it that we don’t get our minds checked out if we, say, wake up five mornings in a row feeling stressed, burned-out, or otherwise unhappy?

THIS. Somehow, our society has assigned a stigma with mental illness that we don’t have for physical ones, and that really needs to stop. I’ve known so many people with some sort of mental issue, from relatively benign to serious disorder, and in many cases the key to survival was simply recognizing it. From there, seeking help becomes possible. And in a lot of cases, treatment can be very effective.

I’ve had the odd job or two that put me under stress, and from there started to affect my physical health. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able, after many years, to find a job – writing – that I love doing and which has put me in a position that stress is a rare (though by no means extinct) thing. I know not everyone has that option. But simply living with the stress and frustration isn’t viable either.

John’s advice is good for low-level stress, or even the kind of stress we lay on ourselves (because truly accepting it’s our choice makes it somewhat easier to deal with, in my experience). But if you can’t make a change to relieve stress, at least seek help. I’ve read a lot of personal stories on skeptic bulletin boards and elsewhere about people who changed their lives for the better because they took that first, big step. I’m not a doctor (well, not that kind of doctor), so I can’t tell you what to do or not. But I can tell you that if any of this sounds familiar, then seeking out the right kind of doctor can change your life, and you can hope it’s for the better. It turns out that way a lot.