With one and half days still remaining in the SETAC Nantes meeting, I was exhausted by the lunch hour on Wednesday. I had presented in an early morning session that day, had spent the previous two days in meetings and filming a promo video for the next SETAC science slam, and was dreaming of caffeine on a regular basis. That being said, I did feel good knowing that the next day I had an evening flight to Marseilles for an extended weekend in the south of France. Just then, a text message from RyanAir informed me that my flight was cancelled because of strike actions by air traffic control. It was a bit of a drag, but soon enough I was re-booked for a Friday trip to Perpignan and re-invigorated with the chance of spending a weekend of wine and sun after four days of conference-ing.
Instead of a simple bus ride to the airport to catch my sunshine-bound flight on Friday, I found myself sitting in a taxi queue with less than an hour and a half before my flight left, glancing around the corner every few moments and beginning to feel anxious and desperate, wondering if a taxi would ever appear. With protesters blocking the roads for the airport buses and no taxis in sight for the past 30 minutes, would I ever make it for my long-awaited holiday? Long story short, I didn’t. And after yet another cancelled flight and the prospect that my return flight to Manchester next Monday would also be cancelled because of strikes, I rebooked myself for a direct flight home and spent my long weekend on the Merseyside instead of the Mediterranean.
This was the first time that I had to cancel a trip completely, but it was certainly not the first time I’ve felt stuck somewhere and quite anxious because of it. Last week, there was no way for me to call for a cab, no way to unblock roads or un-cancel flights, and only a limited amount of times I could continue to keep booking and re-booking things last-minute. In hindsight I was frustrated with how I felt about the whole thing, since in the grand scheme of things it was just a long weekend away. It also made reflect back on times in grad school and as a post-doc when I was really stuck and on things that were more important than just a weekend in southern France. Whether it was crossing my fingers about a job, advisors that left halfway through a PhD, or even just full days in the lab that went completely wrong, research has a way of making you feel on edge, like so many things are beyond your scope of control. The internal dialogue can get even worse if the situations you find yourself in cause to second guess yourself or your past decisions.
Throughout this blog, and also in the way I talk to myself and to my friends, I focus on finding opportunities, developing strategies, and visualizing the potential of life. I do what I can to focus on making bad situations better, and strive to give advice or ideas for getting through the tougher parts of life as a researcher or as a graduate student. But in my own encounters with stress and anxiety, it’s become clear that there isn’t always a strategy for getting out of a bad situation. Sometimes you really are quite stuck, like waiting for a taxi in a city full of protests and road blockades as the minutes count down for your flight leaving without you. In the words of an Italian woman who, when my friend asked her when the bus would arrive since it was already 5 minutes late, replied with a curt ‘It comes when it comes’. It's true in travel as much as it is in life.
It may seem like an odd set of advice to tell you what you can do when you can’t do anything, but if you’re like me, when you can’t do anything, you still want to do something. You can’t make the bus or the taxi come on command, but you can make things better for yourself during the wait:
- Do something small yet positive for yourself. You may not be able to fix the problem or change your situation right away, but you can still do things to take care of yourself when you’re in a rut. Go for an afternoon jog, do some shopping, read a book instead of a paper, see a movie. These things won’t directly fix anything related to the problem at hand, but taking some time for yourself, regardless of how small it may be, can do wonders to help you relax, even if just for a small amount while stuck in a stressful situation. This is especially true if you focus on things such as beloved personal hobbies or your physical well-being.
- Do something for someone else. This may seem counter-intuitive, but being there for other people, whether they be friends or strangers, can help put your own stresses in context. It’s not that their problems are bigger than yours but it’s a reminder that we all have somethings that knock us over now and again, and this provides us some solidarity in realizing that we’re not alone. This can be something very formal such as volunteer work or even something informal, like offering to take a colleague for dinner or a walk after work when you know they are stressed out. Talking to other people can provide some perspective for your own situation, and sometimes a bit of advice about what to do moving forward, and sharing sympathies with another person can help get you out of your own funk that you might be in from feeling stuck.
- Don’t keep it to yourself. Even if you think your situation is exclusively unique to your project or your life, don’t feel like you should keep it to yourself. And since you know you won’t be able to distract yourself from thinking about the problem, don’t try to push it to the back of your mind only to have it come up time and time again and wear you down even further. The best way to approach the situation is to articulate it, in whatever medium you feel the most comfortable in. If it’s something more emotional or personal that you want to keep private, write it down somewhere. If it’s something that you want advice or perspective on, talk to someone you respect and trust. In graduate school I kept a small notebook at home; I didn’t use it to write about what I did or what happened that day but instead used it as a way to talk to myself about emotions and frustrations. How you do this will depend on you and how you deal with stress, but however you approach it be sure to articulate what you’re going through and why exactly you feel stuck, stressed, or anxious.
- Keep moving. There are ways in which you will be stuck, but don’t get stuck in thinking that you’re perpetually trapped or are stuck in every part of your life. You may not be able to directly solve the problem you’re in at the moment, but there is always something you can do in the meantime. If you’re waiting to hear back on a job or a grant application, keep working on other applications in the meantime. If you had a big experiment that gave results you didn’t expect and you have no clue how to move forward, read a few papers that you didn’t see before and see if you missed something. It won’t be an ideal solution to the problem, and sometimes to keep moving means you have to take the decision to leave a situation entirely, but anything that helps you from feeling slightly un-stuck is a good thing.
- Think about the big picture. In the heat of the moment, even a small hurdle can feel like a mountain. As you go through the previous ‘to dos’ in this post, think about the situation you’re in and how it will impact your life a year or even five years from now. Sometimes these are big events that we feel stuck in, but other times they only feel big because we’re right in the middle of them. Think about your long-term goals and how you can get there. Maybe this situation is a giant wall in front of those goals, and maybe it’s just a road blockage on the way to the airport that you can walk around with your luggage in tow. In the situations I’ve been in and have seen others go through, when you have your health, a good support team, and a little bit of drive to keep going, you’ll always there. Wherever there is isn’t always clear, but you’ll always end up somewhere and, more importantly, you won’t be stuck forever.
As for me, I’ve been fortunate to have gotten out of a few ‘stuck’ situations fully in-tact, and have seen a fair share of colleagues and friends do the same. Whether it be minor or major, working from small things to big, talking to friends or to yourself about your situation, and looking beyond the immediate situation, there are numerous ways of doing something when you can’t do much else. That being said, if you are in a place where you feel stuck more often than not, or feel like you can’t easily do the things on the list, don’t be afraid to ask for help from someone at your institute, university, or your doctor. There is no reason that anyone in research or graduate school should feel impossibly stuck. There’s always a way forward-even if you end up in Northern England instead of Southern France!