By Patrick Beauchesne, Hub Faculty Affiliate 2022 (added to blog by Jessica Riviere)
“The physiological response to stress…evolved in the context of acute stressors. The chronic nature of stress in modern life forces the body to respond in a way that it was not designed.”(Ice and James, 2012: 482)
Welcome back everyone, to my second post on stress and mental health in academia. If you were able to take the time to read my first post on the matter, thank you. For those that missed it, or weren’t able to read it, I’m happy to provide a very brief summary here. In short, faculty across academia routinely face significant amounts of stress, and unsurprisingly, this has led to a very high prevalence of deleterious mental health issues for many of us. All faculty are at risk, whether they are tenure-track or contract-based, and this issue has also impacted university staff and students as well. The diagnoses for why we are facing such a crisis are complex, but most scholars who have written about these issues point to the corporatization of the university, and its desire for efficiency and productivity, as a (if not the) main culprit. I agree with this assessment, but it isn’t the only contributor. We also graduate too many PhDs and with declining access to tenure-track positions (as well as contract positions), competition for the limited spots that remain has become particularly fierce. More recently, the pandemic has also contributed to faculty burnout, particularly for women and BIPOC faculty.
My first post was about diagnosing and exposing the problem. What I would like to accomplish here is to further explore why the stressful environment we all operate under is so deeply problematic. Beyond the ethical problems of such a system, there are repercussions to our research, teaching and service that come with frequent mental and physical strain. To conclude the post I will offer some potential pathways to alleviate and/or manage this stress and explore how we might move to a more humane working environment. As I identified in my first post, the sources of this pervasive stress are often beyond our direct control, they are frequently institutional in nature. Institutions and their structures/cultures can be changed, they are run by people after all, but change is often slow, and resistance is commonplace. While I will speak to institutional change somewhat, I will primarily offer suggestions for regaining control of our lives at the level of the individual. I recognize that there are valid critiques in response to asking individuals to change when the primary source of our stress is structural. I share these concerns and I am deeply sympathetic to them. However, I still feel that we have agency, and that we do have the power to wrest some control back into our hands by exerting that agency in certain situations. The solutions I will suggest in this article are simply a place to start, to gain some feeling of relief and change. My hope is that for many, these tools will help forge a new beginning of a longer, more challenging movement to greatly reduce the structural forces that place undue stress on us. Change often begins slowly, within our personal circles of friends and colleagues, and those smaller movements can begin with small changes we can all make individually.
Before I dig into those ideas though, I want to draw particular attention to the stigma of openly talking about mental health concerns in academia, because I see this as a major hurdle to overcome so that change can happen. In the general population, stigma is all too common. This is unfortunate, as research into the causes of mental health disorders and their consequences has increased tremendously in the past 50-60 years, but public attitudes have not. Stigma is incredibly damaging, contributing greatly to underdiagnoses and lack of treatment for mental health problems, particularly for marginalized groups. The stereotyping and trivializing of mental health problems is incredibly common, particularly on social media and in other public spheres. The contempt that so many have towards people suffering some form of mental illness greatly increases suffering and places hard limits on what people can do with their lives. Stigma is a complex issue, with multiple causes and consequences, and is worthy of study on its own.
Stigma in academia operates in very similar ways within our institutions. Depression in particular is often seen as a failure of character, an indicator of weakness, rather than a complex condition with multiple biological and social causes. Our work demands a certain type of public demeanor. What often results when we openly reveal our trauma and our struggles with illnesses like depression is an “othering”. We become seen as different, not really like everyone else. Of course, this social distancing often further compounds the isolation we may be feeling already. The following quote highlights this well. This passage was taken from a scholarly article where the author recounts her own struggles with depression, and reflects on how her institution handled (or failed to) her “coming out” in a meeting during her push for tenure:
“I was breaking a key rule of academic life by breaching the barrier between personal interaction and professional discourse… I was asking my superiors to engage with me and my illness more intimately in a way that required them to see me as a whole human being. It required a willingness in them to change our relationship, and they were not willing. I was feeling isolated when I went into the meeting, but when confronted with their lack of reaction, I felt the sting of the stigma underpinning my disease and that was devastating” (Maria Alejandra Quijada, 2020; 26)
In light of experiences like these, it’s abundantly clear that we need to become better at talking about mental health. Based on the statistics I presented in my first post, it’s quite obvious that a majority of us are under tremendous stress and are also frequently experiencing struggles with mental health. I would much rather work in a community that openly supports each other and makes space for us to heal, than to operate in one where silence and isolation are the ways we are clearly encouraged to survive.
In an effort to put these recommendations into practice, I offer up some of my own experiences here. After my first few years as an assistant professor, I began to feel many of the problems I’ve been outlining. The pressure to publish regularly (particularly pre-tenure), to become a fantastic professor, and to be a highly valued colleague was becoming a lot to handle. I decided to make my family (especially after I became a father) a priority, and since then, I have rarely worked on weekends. I’ve made exceptions for truly important deadlines, but I typically make it a practice to not work (or work very little) on weekends. This has allowed me to be present in my daughter’s life in a way that has been incredibly rewarding and has energized me greatly. I have occasionally seen a therapist as well, to help me work through these conflicting feelings about what I feel I owe to my work, to my home life, and to my own mental health. This was particularly true during the worst of the pandemic. I have found mentoring to be deeply rewarding. It helps me find meaning and it’s also a way to “pay it forward”, as I was the beneficiary of incredible mentoring throughout my career as well. Finally, I have worked hard at minimizing social comparison. I found this to be one of the most important lessons over the past 5-6 years. I am solely focused on what I want to achieve in my career. My metrics are my own, and while I am thrilled and happy for my colleagues who can publish 5 articles a year, I don’t define my worth based on their achievements. I recognize that not everyone has the ability to set their own goals in this way, we all face different pressures, both external and internal. So to be clear, I don’t share these choices I’ve made with the assumption that it will work for everyone. That said, I did want to mention these actions I’ve taken because the mental shifts I’ve made has made me far more relaxed and able to focus on what really matters to me, which is becoming a better educator and colleague, first and foremost. My only hope in relaying this information is that it might help others too.
Stress, the Body, and the Mind
“What constitutes optimal good stress? It occurs in a setting that feels safe; we voluntarily ride a roller coaster knowing that we are risking feeling a bit queasy, but not risking being decapitated. Moreover, good stress is transient; it is not by chance that a roller coaster ride is not 3 days long. And what is mild, transient stress in a benevolent setting? For this we have a variety of terms: arousal, alertness, engagement, play and stimulation”(Sapolsky, 2015: 1346)
The relationship between stress and overall health has a long history across multiple disciplines. What I want to accomplish here is not a complete review of the literature, but rather a very high-level glimpse of what the relationship between stress and our bodies and minds is like. My goal here is to simply inform all of you about some core conclusions that have been found across anthropology, human biology, psychology, neuroscience, and so on. The essential message is this: some forms of stress, particularly in supportive contexts, can be good for intellectual, emotional, and overall personal growth. However, when stress is too high, and importantly, chronic, it has very insidious consequences upon our health.
One of the most critical areas of research into stress, from my perspective rooted in biological anthropology, is how stress affects the immune system. There are some compelling data from recent studies that strongly suggest that chronic levels of elevated stress greatly compromise our immune systems, putting us at risk for a host of consequences. A very recent study found that T-cells in particular are affected. This is important because T-cells help combat viruses and cancer cells, but they also assist in clearing out older senescent cells. These senescent cells are a problem because they release proteins that can increase inflammation in the body, which contributes to a whole series of common problems. Some of this damage to our immune systems is direct, but some is more indirect. For example, chronic stress can lead or contribute to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, which can alter how we make choices. We may end up sleeping less, eating more (or more foods that provide comfort, but may be less nutritionally sound), smoking, increasing our alcohol consumption, and more.
There is growing evidence from multiple disciplines that has firmly established the relationship between our environmental (including social) contexts and our health. Nancy Krieger, one of my favorite researchers into the relationship between stress and health (particularly in light of racial inequalities) has used the term ecosocial to signal this connection. Many of these researchers consider growth and development as a key component, because there is strong evidence that stress in early life compounds over time and increases the risk for numerous health problems later in life. I mention these studies here because they help give credence to the idea that our social lives have real impacts on us biologically. A perfect example of this is the contemporary research on how the experiences of socially recognized racial categories affect health. Very briefly here, this research has clearly established that daily exposures to discrimination, based on these socially recognized racial groupings, can be directly linked to increased stress, loss of immune function, compromised physiology and ultimately an elevated risk for conditions like advanced aging, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity related diseases. What’s so insidious here is that although biological race does not exist (and so these health outcomes are not genetic), the social reality of race and the discrimination that often accompanies living in a racialized world, can lead to numerous inequalities in health. This is crucial to keep in mind as BIPOC faculty are often asked to do more, to be more, and to tolerate more compared to their white colleagues.
In my lectures, I often conclude key sections with “take home” summaries, or critical points I want students to really keep with them. Extending this strategy here, my take home message on the relationship between stress and health would be as follows:
- Stress responses vary by individual (This is relevant in thinking about stigma as well)
- Cultural context influences the stressors to which people are exposed to, as well as how those stressors are interpreted
- Social experiences alter biological outcomes. Put another way, stress is embodied
- Stress cannot be entirely eliminated, nor should we desire to do so. Our goals should be about mitigating the worst outcomes and making stress work for us
- Stress doesn’t create a specific disease, but rather places us at risk. It creates a susceptibility to disease, a “stress state”
- Behavioral changes can help us mitigate the damage from stress.
When one begins to become familiar with this literature it becomes apparent that the common theme is this: we are not “built” to withstand chronic stress (whatever form it takes, or whatever causes it). When we experience stress, we recruit our ancient “fight or flight” physiology that is supposed to protect us and help us deal with the immediate danger, such as the wild boar attempting to disembowel us, but instead of three minutes of terror, current eco-social conditions demand this response over multiple years. That over-reliance of our stress response over such an extended period of time greatly weakens our ability to remain healthy, both physically and mentally. We humans are messy, complex creatures: our social and psychological worlds have the unique ability to cause us this damage, if the stress persists over time. Fortunately, there are ways we can mitigate this damage and improve our quality of life. However, before concluding this post with some stress mitigation strategies, I’d like to make a case why remaining in a stressed state for extended periods of time is bad for us, beyond the health outcomes I’ve reviewed already.
It turns out, facts do care about feelings…
In this section, I’d like to make the case that a happier, less-stressed faculty isn’t only a matter of health, but can actually help drive a university’s mission forward. What I will describe in this section equally applies to research and teaching, but I am considering these repercussions primarily in light of what I would consider a university’s central goal is – educating the next generation.
Research has shown that we learn best by engaging our emotions. Positive emotional states enhance learning, while negative ones reduce our capacity to learn effectively. Researchers who study the relationship between emotions and learning have found that this applies across all disciplines, including the “hard” sciences. Emotions are core to everyday decision making and planning, often unconsciously. The research on this is quite clear: when emotional regulation (like when we’re under chronic stress) is challenged, decisions suffer.
Why do we have such a strong reliance on our emotional states when learning? I don’t know if there’s a definitive answer here, but there is some compelling research to strongly suggest that emotions have evolutionary roots than help us survive and influence motivation; they’re deep seated and connected to many areas of brain function. Emotions help us connect learning in the moment to previous events, strengthening the experience and cementing it more firmly in our memories.
A particularly important insight to come out of this type of research is that emotions are central to motivation in learning. In her book, The Spark of Learning, Sarah Rose Cavanagh provides compelling data that shows that emotional states affect how well working memory operates, as well as helping or hindering memory consolidation. Clearly, this is a central factor for our students, but also for faculty, as our ability/desire to do research is affected by our emotional state. As I mentioned in my first post, undergraduate students face a tremendous amount of stress. This is particularly true for our own students at UMD – they often work full time, they often have care-giving responsibilities at home, many are food insecure, and so on. All of this is compounded by the fact that our attention (in this sense our ability to focus) is being gradually eroded through our contemporary digital landscape, particularly with social media. With what is emerging from the science of emotions and learning, it is not surprising to me anymore that so many of our students seem to lack motivation. This is a sentiment I frequently hear about from colleagues: Why is it our job to help motivate students!? Shouldn’t they want to learn!? When we consider the cost of college, the fact that so many students work full time, and that the future can often seem so deeply unfair and uncertain, is it any wonder why our students might feel a bit demotivated? If we also consider that in many instances, assignments we give them that feel deeply relevant and important to us don’t connect with them on an emotional or personal level, it becomes that much harder to find that desire to put in the work. So what are we to do? Improving our own mental health can certainly have a big impact here. Another thing we can do is to make our assignments connect emotionally, to make them feel relevant to their life. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of transparency here, but in other cases, we may need to shake things up and rethink what and why we are assigning the work do. We can’t solve all their problems for them, and that’s not what I’m hinting at here. What we do have control over is what happens in our classroom. With some clever and fun assignments that meet students where they are (and respect who they are), we can divert attention away from their myriad problems and hopefully help them refocus on their education. By making that process enjoyable, personal, and relatable, we truly help facilitate an intrinsic motivational drive. As I discussed above, our capacity to place our attention on something and focus deeply is governed in large part by our emotions. A classroom where a student feels seen, where the complexity of their lives is acknowledged, where the work feels important and relevant, is a classroom that will thrive. We play a role in this in multiple ways. How we design the course, what our policies are, and so on all have an impact. But equally importantly are our own emotional states. Emotions are like viruses in a way, they’re contagious. When we improve our own mental states and show consideration for those of our students’, we get human beings “who are powerfully motivated by the development of social connections, soothed by the presence of social connections in times of anxiety, and highly susceptible to the contagious effects of other people’s emotions and goals” (Cavanagh, 2016: 54-55).
Mitigating Stress in Academia
“[S]elf-care rhetoric attempts to soften the harsh realities of capitalism that works to turn people’s livelihoods, mental health, and social well-being into quantifiable output; it turns people into property to be used for institutional profit… while minimizing the need to authentically care about the “humanness” of a person”.(Squire and Nicolazzo, 2019:5)
The basic notion of self-care, I would argue, is a good one, but corporations and universities have twisted what this practice should be into something else. For example, a recent feminist critique of self-care argues that it has taken on the role of “obscuring oppression and economic disenfranchisement” by framing personal health and wellbeing as solely a matter of personal responsibility, thereby erasing and disregarding root causes of inequities that are linked to disability, class and gender. Put differently, it’s a form of gas lighting. Rather than address root causes of social and personal harm, we’re asked to go out and buy that new bath bomb, stress relief kit, or other doodad that we’re promised will make us feel better. My intent is not to participate in this obfuscation of the core issues we face. The recommendations I offer in this post come with the full recognition that these are not magic bullets, and they definitely won’t fix everything. In some cases, they may not change much at all. We are all in our own idiosyncratic “problem bubbles” so to speak, with different levels of support at home and at work, facing unique challenges due to various intersectionalities. What I’m prescribing here is simply a set of ideas that have helped many (but not all) people. Find the one(s) you feel would best suit your own situation and positionality. Although there are some very real problems with how self-care has been altered over time, faculty who practice and prioritize genuine self-care report higher compassion satisfaction, meaning: more positive relationships with students, more gratitude and meaning in their work.
One of the most powerful ways we can take self-care seriously, and make it truly functional, is to resist isolation. Self-care attempted alone, without meaningful and real social connections, often fails in its mission. One example of a productive, supportive and healing practice would be collective writing. A recent paper outlines this beautifully, where the authors make the case that at its best, collective writing can “become discursive, material and affective spaces to voice, breathe, cry and laugh together, as seeing our stories on the page creates relief”( Plotnikof and Utoft, 2022: 1267). There’s a lot to this article, but a major argument they make is that bringing all those “ugly” feelings out in the open, particularly when writing auto-ethnographically, helps us expose and fight the toxicity of going at it alone, and helps us see that we are all fundamentally experiencing similar things. The authors don’t frame their proposition in exactly this way, but their suggestion for combating the toxicity of isolation is somewhat akin to group therapy. There are risks, particularly for more vulnerable faculty, and they acknowledge it may not be for everyone. These are spaces that should likely be created and cultivated by a diverse senior faculty to encourage junior faculty to participate. When taken seriously the outcomes of collective action like this can be deeply rewarding and help us feel much less isolated and part of a community in ways that the neoliberal university often doesn’t allow for, or actively pushes against. Collective work, in whatever form it takes, is based on the well supported premise that relationships are vital to mental health and self-care. Becoming a “happy intellectual” can’t be done in isolation, at least for most of us. Tools like these can help us develop a politics of care that help us work towards more equitable, just and pleasant relations with academia.
I’d like to conclude this section on how we can help each other reduce stress and improve our mental health by linking to a wonderful article titled Common Academic Experiences No One Talks About: Repeated Rejection, Imposter Syndrome, and Burnout. This piece stems from a conference session where the participants weren’t presenting on the latest methodology, theory or findings, but rather they were openly discussing all their insecurities, their feelings of burnout and isolation, and more. As the authors recount, the session was truly special, and it left the audience feeling quite energized in a way that is rare at conferences. Some people had tears in their eyes, while others were hugging. What this speaks to, again, is the need to be connected, to be seen, and to be treated like the complex, emotional creatures that we are. The participants of this session then published some of the key aspects that they all presented on. I will summarize a few of their findings here, but I highly encourage all of you to read the whole piece. Jaremka and colleagues separate their advice for self-care into very useful categories: first at the structural level vs. the individual one, and second by topic, such as feelings of rejection, imposter syndrome, and burnout. I’ll focus on the feelings of burnout here, as they are the most connected to the themes in my blog posts, but all of them apply and are quite useful. To me, some of the highlights of their recommendations are as follows:
- Know that you are not alone
- Recognize that “more work” does not always mean “more productivity”
- Engage in introspection/metacognition
- Set explicit boundaries (such as no work on weekends)
- Minimize social comparison when possible
- Build a self-care toolbox that works for you (exercise, meditation, socializing, enjoying time with family and pets, etc)
- Find meaning in mentoring or helping others
Again, this list is not exhaustive, and not all of these will work for everyone. All of the authors also strongly recommend seeing a therapist or similar professional to help talk through these emotions and to get support, which I strongly endorse. A fairly prominent theme of this article centers on the shared nature of our challenges, and only by coming together and openly and collectively addressing these issues, do we have a chance at changing structural and cultural issues that keep us from becoming less stressed and more fulfilled at work.
My emphasis on communities of care, rather than just self-care is intentional. As I hope I showed in my first post, the neoliberal university can often feel dehumanizing. An effective way to push back against this common threat to our mental health is to openly talk about emotions and taking care of oneself. This can be an effective tool because it fosters generosity, community and collegiality. It helps us move away from cold, distancing metrics of success or output, and centers human wellbeing. I’m not arguing that any accountability is undesirable here, I’m only arguing for a realignment of priorities, given how damaging the obsession with “productivity” has been.
So after two blog posts on this issue, what do I want to leave you with? First and foremost, I hope that you feel less alone. The majority of us contend with high stress levels on a day to day basis. The toll this takes on our physical and mental health is profound, and sometimes it helps to simply know that you are not alone in experiencing academic daily life this way. Second, I hope that these posts have contributed to a growing movement to de-stigmatize talking about mental health. I hope that more faculty begin to talk to and support each other, that administrators shift resources and values to better deal with the rising tide of mental health problems, and that we also bring these discussions about stress and mental health into the classroom. For our students, at the very least, the stress they are under should be openly acknowledged in the classroom so that our students feel seen. Ideally, more of us will begin to design assignments and work that overtly considers these realities. Small gestures, like increased flexibility for assignment due dates, often mean a great deal to our students. Finally, I hope that my suggestions in this second post prove useful at the individual level. I am under no illusions that these stress reduction techniques will magically eliminate stress for you, but if they lessen the burdens you face, or prove useful in some other way, then that would make me quite glad.
Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
Ice, G.H. and James, G.D. (2012). Stress and Human Biology. In Human Biology (eds S. Stinson, B. Bogin and D. O’Rourke). https://0-doi-org.wizard.umd.umich.edu/10.1002/9781118108062.ch10
Plotnikof, M., & Utoft, E. H. (2022). The “new normal” of academia in pandemic times: Resisting toxicity through care. Gender, Work & Organization, 29(4), 1259-1271.
Quijada, M. A. (2021). My mental health struggle in academia: What I wish all business school faculty, students, and administration knew. Journal of Management Education, 45(1), 19-42.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2015). Stress and the brain: individual variability and the inverted-U. Nature neuroscience, 18(10), 1344-1346.
Squire, D. D., & Nicolazzo, Z. (2019). Love my naps, but stay woke: The case against self-care. About Campus, 24(2), 4-11.
Photo by Nicole Baster on Unsplash