By Laura Bulmer
Self-care is important. I’ll go further and say it is absolutely essential in grad school. Genetic counseling graduate training is notoriously very rigorous and can contribute to two very stressful years, if you allow it to overwhelm you. It is easy to say self-care is a necessity, but it is much harder to maintain at the top of your priority list when immersed in the stress and anxiety that grad school conjures. A lot of people say school should always come first, but I would argue that self-care and academics should be tied for first in order for students to maintain their composure when assignments, capstone, and clinic responsibilities feel unrelenting.
Studies have found that genetic counseling graduate students have significantly higher levels of anxiety than both a general population of working females and professional genetic counselors (Jungbluth et al. 2011; Lee et al. 2015). This is not surprising given the nature of our work combined with the typical responsibilities of being a grad student. Constantly learning about genetic conditions and family struggles, while simultaneously practicing our compassion and empathy takes its toll. This is why taking care of yourself is so necessary. Regularly practicing self-care can help with processing emotions and stress so we can be the best students and future counselors possible.
So, what exactly am I talking about? There is no prescribed method for practicing self-care. Self-care is very multi-faceted, and can include:
- Taking care of your basic needs, like remembering to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner;
- Giving your mental health the attention and care it needs by setting boundaries, taking time to process emotions, and allowing yourself to feel all of your feelings;
- Maintaining and nurturing relationships, including seeking support when needed; and
- Attending to your physical health through your preferred method of exercise and a balanced diet.
And those are just a few! Essentially, it is doing what is right for you to make yourself feel happy, healthy, and centered, which can all help keep you more motivated and fully present.
Knowing about self-care is great, but it has little utility until you implement it in your life. It does not necessarily need to be an activity you set aside time for, but can also be a continuous process throughout the day. The latter works best for me, personally, because that way I don’t feel anxious that I am wasting precious time that could be used finishing a project or sleeping. One way to practice this is by finding small joys and things that make you feel better while doing something you already have to do. For me, this might be spending my 15-minute car ride to class listening to my favorite podcast, or calling my mom on my walk from my car to the program building. It could be studying with my cat in my lap because she makes me happy and warm. Additionally, this may look like taking a much-needed reflection break on your way home from clinic, before entering back into your life at home. You can find those things, small or large, that make you feel like your best self when you are actively looking for them.
In my personal experience, I notice immense negative effects when I let self-care fall to the wayside. For example, I feel my confidence in my work slipping, I find I am far less engaged in the material, and I generally feel more exhausted overall. I can’t be the best student possible if I’m not taking time to care for myself. Likewise, it is hard to be a friend to others when you are not first being a friend to yourself. Genetic counselors know how to practice empathy, but sometimes we forget to turn that compassion around on ourselves.
I have heard people dismiss self-care because they think they don’t have the time for it, or that it is a selfish practice. I’m here to tell you that there is time for it and it is the farthest thing from selfish! Like I said, you can’t give to others if your cup is empty, so you’d be doing others a disservice to not take proper care of yourself. I urge you to keep an open mind when approaching self-care. There is no one way to practice self-care; by nature, it is doing what works best for yourself. Try new things, find out what you love, and look for the small ways to brighten your mood when you feel like there’s “no time.” And remember, you can’t be a functioning grad student if you aren’t first a functioning human, so take care of yourself. You can and should be at the top of your priority list, too!