Life’s Got You Down?  Staying Strong and Resilient in the Midst of Disappointment

November 21, 2016

Life can be challenging at times, as scientists in training you know this all too well.  When daily life doesn’t go as planned it can lead to lack of motivation, frustration, and sadness. Stress and strain can be draining, leaving you with less than 100% of yourself to put into your work, relationships, and pleasurable activities.  How do you make it through?  Resilience—it can help you manage the tough times allowing you to persist and persevere in whatever the challenge may be.

Resilience refers to our ability to bounce back, learn from our mistakes and come out of the challenge stronger.  Years ago, in graduate school, myself and my fellow trainees experienced a very challenging work situation.  It was physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging, so much so that several staff members left, including a fellow trainee, opting not to complete her degree. We had to find ways to persevere in spite of the challenges we faced.  Although it was extremely difficult and far too tempting to give up and quit, we quickly identified aspects of the training experience that felt supportive, focusing on relationships and people who offered support and encouragement. We re-examined our priorities, and began to shift our thinking so that we could see an end to the experience and the rewards to follow. Perhaps some of your academic work or personal life situations feel similar.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist and researcher of positive psychology, has spent years researching resilience, hope and optimism.  He and his research team have identified characteristics that help to build resilience. When things get tough, consider these strategies:

Acceptance – Accept that setbacks and disappointments are a part of life.  As much as we wish things would always go our way they simply don’t.  Dealing with small everyday setbacks helps us development the resilience to handle larger challenges in life.

Stay Connected – Connect with others who are supportive and will encourage you. Spending time alone when you are feeling down can lead to isolation, loneliness, sadness, and pessimism.  Find others in the lab, in your families, or among your friends who affirm you and acknowledge your strengths.

Keep Perspective –  Keeping things in perspective helps us see things as they are.  Having perspective allows us to see the broader picture which can offer us a more realistic view of the experiences we face in the moment.

Opportunity – Consider the setback or challenge as an opportunity for new learning.  Seligman’s research suggests that individuals who bounce back more quickly often see their failures as opportunities as opposed to those who struggle from the same experiences.

Optimism – An optimistic attitude allows us to view disappointments as temporary, isolated experiences that are brought on by external factors.  Individuals who are optimistic appreciate their experiences, value their relationships, and are encouraged by the future.

So the next time you find yourself faced with a significant setback, resist the temptation to give up.  Engage in the above strategies and look for the positive things around you.  If you are intentional about looking for them you will find them.

Other resources from the OITE on resilience:

  1. Join our Mindfulness Meditation group on Thursdays: https://www.training.nih.gov/mindfulness_meditation_group
  1. Need help now?? Check out resources for NIH intramural trainees: https://www.training.nih.gov/get_help_now
  1. Watch out for our next Tune In and Take Care workshop held each semester
  1. Check out our YouTube video: Resilience in the Job Searchresilienceresilience
  1. Related blog posts:
    1. Enhancing Optimism and Resilience in Your Job Search & Beyond
    2. Job Stress, Resilience and Support
    3. Is Grit the Key to Success?

 

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Want to be 10% Happier?

October 10, 2016

Front image of the book by Dan Harris "10% Happier"Dan Harris is a correspondent for ABC News, an anchor for the show Nightline, a meditation skeptic turned believer, and the author of the book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works – a True Story.

After an on-air panic attack in 2004, Harris went on a journey to figure out why he had been experiencing panic attacks.  Part of this journey led him to discover the benefits of meditation and he now wants to spread the word.

His promise is not grand. He doesn’t claim meditation will solve all of your problems, but he does believe it will make you 10% happier. 

In this video, Harris talks about how he started small with just five minutes of meditation a day and he is really honest about his experience with it.  He notes that in the beginning it didn’t seem awesome and actually felt like a waste of time.

Are you interested in exploring meditation?

At OITE, we are no strangers to this topic. We have written about the benefits of incorporating mindfulness into your day here on this blog, and we even have a weekly meditation group which meets every Thursday.

If you are not at the NIH, you might want to check out Dan’s book and podcast to help you get started with meditating.


FROM THE ARCHIVE – Get More Done: Take A Break

March 11, 2016

Image of four blue folder with one red folder slightly ajar from bookcaseFind yourself swamped with work but unable to focus?  Ever wonder how to quit procrastinating?  At OITE, we often get asked about strategies and tips on how to improve one’s time management and productivity. This From the Archive post offers unlikely advice on how to handle these work challenges.


The title seems a little contradictory.  How is it that you can get more work done, but spend less time working?  According to a New York Times article about a study from the University of Toronto Scarborough, it is because small breaks make you more efficient.  The study authors suggests that the brain “becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest period before it can recover, he explains — much as a weight lifter needs rest before doing a second round of repetitions at the gym.”

So here are a few of the tips from the article:

  • Symptoms of needing to take a break are drifting or day dreaming.
  • If you are in “the zone,” keep working.  It isn’t working hard that drains your brain, it’s when you are forcing yourself to go on when you really need a break.
  • Taking too many breaks leads to procrastination.  So, be smart about it.  Everything in moderation

Here are a few ideas for break:

  • Go for a walk – Even just doing laps on your floor gets you moving and gives you a break from your work.  If you are at the NIH and don’t want to melt in this heat wave, consider walking the track in the basement of building 10.
  • Go get a coffee (or something else) with a co-worker – After all, you have to walk to where the coffee is and having someone with you makes it less likely you will just sit and start thinking about work.  According scientists who have spent time in England, many labs there still take a break in the afternoon for tea (or other beverage) for about 30 minutes.  In fact, there is often a break in the morning as well for around the same amount of time.
  • Stand at your computer while you read the OITE Careers Blog – The article mentions that standing while doing your work can help relieve some of the brain drain.
  • Take a nap – We are aware this is not a culturally acceptable practice here in the USA, even if it is supported by science.  However, in other cultures a break in the afternoon to rest is quite common.  The Spanish Siesta is famous, and so I asked a visiting fellow and friend from Spain about how the “Siesta” works in the research community.  She pointed out the siesta is as much about food as it is about sleep.  The main goal is to sit down together around the table and have a meal as a family or group of friends.  If you can grab a siesta in that time, that’s even better.

Working hard is a hallmark of the research profession.  Most scientists I know take a lot of pride in putting in long hours.  We are certainly not suggesting that any of us not work hard.  However, research suggests that taking breaks can help us work smarter as we work hard.  And isn’t that what we all want to do?


Handling Holiday Stress

December 8, 2014

For many, the holiday season is joy-filled and terrific. Some of us however, experience the holiday blues as we feel loneliness, reflect on the past year, and possibly dread an upcoming and uncertain new year. Rates of depression and anxiety tend to spike during the holiday season. If you are already experiencing stress in other areas of your life, then you may be especially vulnerable to holiday stress this season.

The holiday season often brings twinkling lights, and at the same time long to-do lists and a variety of different stressors:

  • Family: managing family dynamics and expectations, having them over, being separated from them or traveling near or far to be with them can all be anxiety-causing events.
  • Money: financial demands like buying gifts for everybody or travel costs can dampen the holiday spirit tremendously.
  • Kids: how to teach them the true value of giving during the holidays when everything seems to revolve around receiving?

So here are a few tips to help you handle the holiday season this year:

  1. Prioritize. Setting clear expectations for what you want from this year’s holiday season is key. Knowing and managing these expectations will be your first line of defense against stress.
  2. Stick to your budget. If you are always stressed out about buying gifts, change the rules this year. Maybe just one gift per person? Maybe just a limited monetary amount? No gift at all – only the kids? Consider what you want and talk to your family to come to an agreement.
  3. Plan ahead. Make a list of things that need to be done and set aside specific times/days when to do it. Plan the menu and shop for it in one trip.
  4. Be willing to say no and/or ask for help. Do not overwhelm yourself with events and activities you won’t be able to enjoy because you are mentally already three steps ahead. Don’t hesitate to ask others for help!
  5. Don’t forget your own health. Overindulgence during the holidays usually adds to your own stress and guilt. Your immune system might also be lowered from added stress and the arrival of cold/flu season. Try to exercise, get plenty of sleep, listen to soothing music or even get a massage.

At the end, don’t forget what the holidays are about: spending time with loved ones, family or friends. Hope you have an enjoyable holiday season!


“There Aren’t Enough Hours in the Day” – Time Management Tips

November 25, 2014

Everybody seems busy today. In fact, according to an op-ed in the New York Times, many Americans are addicted to this ‘busy trap.’ Guilt and anxiety seem to arise if you aren’t managing multiple projects at once. Because of this daily grind – self-imposed or not – many aren’t able to find time to plan and strategize their career development. Most job seekers lament that there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

How then can you take back control and find the time that is needed in order to effectively accomplish your goals?

Keep a Time Journal
If you wonder at the end of your day why your ‘To Do’ list is not complete, then you should analyze your day. There are bound to be projects that take longer than expected and you will undoubtedly have demands placed upon you from others during your workday; however, these factors shouldn’t impact your ability to find time for your truly important tasks.   Being cognizant of how your time is spent is the first step in identifying potential areas for improvement.

Be Proactive, Not Reactive
Research from the University of California, Irvine showed that professional are interrupted every 11 minutes and on average it takes them 23 minutes to get back on task. One of, if not the biggest, interrupters at work is email. So, unless you want to spend your workday reacting to other people’s priorities, it will be important to implement some new time-saving strategies, including:

  • Start your day offline.
    For many, this will be a tough habit to break. Checking work email is often one of the first tasks in any given day; however, take ten minutes at the start of your day to check your daily goals and tasks in order to maximize your workday.
  • Check your email on a schedule.
    One email can pull you in; later, you find yourself two hours behind. Eliminate the distraction by shutting down your inbox entirely. It could help to silence the pings from your smartphone as well. The goal here is not an entire day of email radio silence, but a more systematic approach to the way you check email. Perhaps you only need to check it on the hour and allot yourself fifteen minutes to do so. Hopefully, implementing your own structure will help you feel more in control of your inbox and your time.

Take Time Off
It might seem counterintuitive, but taking time off to relax and recharge will actually help you to be more focused and productive when you are at work. The problem is that many employees don’t take advantage of paid time off. More than 40% of Americans who receive paid time off didn’t take advantage of their full benefits. Add this to the fact that about 1 in 4 Americans doesn’t have a job where they get paid time off. Whether self-imposed or employer-imposed, not taking enough time off has a direct impact on your time management and overall work performance. Bear this fact in mind as we approach the holiday season.

Effective time management is all about planning for the future, setting goals, prioritizing tasks and actually monitoring all of these factors. Time management skills need to be continually practiced so don’t waste any more time and start implementing some of your own strategies today. What has worked for you? Comment below with other tried and true time management tips.


How We Learn

June 27, 2013

Post written by Sharon Milgram, Director of The Office of Intramural Training & Education.

Science careers, at or away from the bench, require us to be life-long learners. To be successful, we are always learning – and teaching – new skills. While many of us enjoy this, it also comes with frustrations and challenges. In considering how we learn, I was struck by the excellent and concise explanation of the stages we typically go through as we learn and develop new skills. I found this in a short book entitled “Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager” written by Ken Blanchard. Intramural trainees can find the book in the OITE Career Library, and it is widely available in other libraries and on-line. In this book, Blanchard summarizes the four stages of learning: enthusiastic beginner, disillusioned learner, cautious performer, and high achiever. This summary is helpful to us as life-long learners and as colleagues, mentors and supervisors of others in our work groups.

At the outset, enthusiastic beginners are confident and excited. However, this confidence and the excitement of a new challenge can get in the way as enthusiastic beginners often forget how challenging a task might be. Enthusiastic beginners need a lot of supervision and direction so they stay focused on learning the fundamentals and solidifying the basics. After a short while, and after a few (too many) mistakes, enthusiastic beginners typically become disillusioned learners. We realize how hard it is to truly develop that new skill and doubt starts setting in. In this stage, we need support and encouragement to stick with it. Once we gain some proficiency we enter the cautious learner phase; we are more proficient and more confident and as a result we learn more quickly. In other words, success breeds success — and we are on our way toward becoming a high achiever. At this time, we need the right balance between supervision and independence, as one can only become a high achiever by taking risks and learning from our mistakes.

Whether you are a postbac or summer intern learning how to do PCR for the first time, a grad student preparing for your first committee meeting, a postdoc mentoring your first summer intern, or a senior fellow ready to launch your independent career, remember this simple model of how we learn. Be proactive and find support, encouragement and direction when you need it. If you are the supervisor/mentor, use these strategies to help your employees and mentees learn. It may just keep you going when you get stuck and will help you be compassionate as your colleagues, students and mentees learn new things as well.


Community Provides More Than Support

June 17, 2013

There are many important aspects to having a successful career.  One aspect often overlooked is making sure you have a community of peers.  Communities provide more than just support for everyday life and challenges.  They are great for building networks, developing co-mentoring relationships and gaining leadership experience.  Coming to a large campus, like the NIH or a college campus, can feel like you have landed on a different planet.  Everything is so different.  Finding welcoming and supportive groups and peers can help ease that transition.  But, it can also help you prepare for the next step in your career.

While the resources below are specific to the NIH, all universities have similar groups to make you feel welcome.  Check your campus list of organizations. This is not an exhaustive list of groups available, but is meant to provide an idea of what types of organizations exist.  All of these groups are welcome to everyone in the NIH community.

  • The Graduate Student Council and the postdoc association Felcom both support trainees by providing social events, career networking and communities for intramural trainees.
  • NIH Black Scientists and Friends Network, an informal group dedicated to the mentoring and career enhancement of Black scientists at NIH. For more information, contact Dr. Roland Owens.
  • LGBT-Fellows and Friends helps its members thrive in their professional and personal lives by addressing issues unique to the LGBT community.  Join the LGBT-FF listserv to learn about up-coming LGBT-FF seminars, professional development activities and networking opportunities.
  • The NIH SACNAS (Society for Advancing Hispanics/Chicanos & Native American in Science) chapter provides a trans-NIH resource to provide a forum to network, share successes and strategize about future goals. For more information and to learn about upcoming events, join the NIH-SACNAS listserv.
  • The Women of Color Research Network supports all scientists interested in raising the voice and visibility of Women of Color (WOC) in biomedical and behavioral research.  This new social media site is for women of color and everybody interested in diversity in the scientific workforce.  Visit the Web site to join.
  • MOM-DAD-DOCS seeks to provide mentorship, support, and networking to intramural trainees (basic or clinical) with children.  Contact Lori Conlan (conlanlo AT mail.nih.gov)
  • The Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management plays a lead role in making certain that representatives of all groups feel comfortable and can work optimally on the NIH campus.
  • Visiting Fellows Committee, ~60% of the NIH postdoc population is visiting from other countries.  There are over 20 country groups to connect you with fellows from around the world: https://www.training.nih.gov/country_support_groups