How a PhD tamed my monkey mind

I blogged quite consistently for the first 2 years of my PhD, however little did I know how much work the PhD would entail. After 4 years 2 months, I finally have a doctorate and all the free time in the world to write!

I embarked on the PhD an incredibly anxious, over-stressed doomsday worrier. Although the news about receiving the scholarship was the greatest thing to happen to a purposeless depressed person, I remember the terrible sickness I felt on my flight to London in early 2013. I don’t believe my consciousness was even with me during that journey, I was a lifeless zombie dragging my feet across the Dubai airport (while some perv stalked me around at 3 a.m). I wanted to sit down and cry, which would be outrageously out of character given the context, but the creep following me around pushed me to speed my aching body across the football field X 10 sized airport and board the next flight. I had the entire row to myself (as a result of whining earlier to the Emirates dude about suffering from anxiety and claustrophobia) but even that didn’t comfort me. At 28, I wanted my mommy and daddy on that flight, looking back, I have no idea why I was anxious. India is 9 hours away on flight, its not even the other side of the world. I had done this before at a much younger age but something had changed, I had become more aware of the million things that could go wrong in my life. I had no faith that life would ever work out in my favour, ever again. My irrational analysis was based upon all the things that had previously gone wrong, my brain was focused on the moments that had been out of my control. Despite being greeted at Plymouth by my wonderful new friends Jan and Mike, I was already homesick and still worried that I had an undiagnosed case of appendicitis or ovarian cyst, which would explode causing instant death. My travel plans had previously changed when I became convinced that I had a case of acute appendicitis. To add to my worries, a number of private doctors who were keen on cutting me open (usual story in India), continued to confirm what I suspected, however it took a visit with a laparoscopy surgeon who upon running various tests assured me that my pain was simply a muscle tear from my overzealous kickboxing moves. Regardless, the voice in the back of my monkey mind continued to remind me for the next month or so in Plymouth, that my appendix or ovarian cyst was slowly rupturing. I would wake up in the middle of the night in pain and stay up obsessing over my imminent death.

I can’t fault one thing in Plymouth. I met the kindest people throughout my early days, who were all keen on feeding me or making sure I was comfortable in my new home but the anxieties continued to get worse. I was so insanely in touch with my body that any minor change would alert me and push me to consult Dr. Google, who only had one response- x, y, z or cancer. My mom would convince me to keep a watch on the new changes and give it 2-3 weeks before I consulted anyone about it. Lymphoma, brain tumour, breast cancer, leukemia and finally, even tetanus, I self-diagnosed myself with all the illnesses on Web MD. My out of control madness even cost me a new phone, which got stolen on my way to the A&E because I was so preoccupied with the worry that I was dying. That was the slap in the face I needed. I clearly remember that a couple days after that event I was in House of Fraser and I saw a sweet woman in gorgeous clothes who had recently undergone chemo. She had a massive smile on her face as she spoke to the staff and it suddenly hit me that there are people who are actually facing my fears but living a far greater life than my miserable anxious mind was capable of envisioning for myself. That day I decided to take control of my irrational fears.

Surprisingly, my research began taking me into a whole new territory of behavioural science and as I found myself reading more about our motivations, intentions, environmental triggers and actions, I began to come to terms with my own patterns. This was the same time when I found excellent self-improvement/conscious exploring podcasts. The overlaps between my research and what I heard everyday on these podcasts helped me become more introspective and wanting to learn new ways to better myself, beginning with my mental and physical health. More importantly, I learned to have faith in the universe/life. The more I focused upon engrossing myself in research or the activities I loved like playing music or cooking, I was in flow state. In those moments of flow, life becomes effortless. I encountered this incredible feeling throughout my PhD write up stage. I have written some exceptional words and when I read them now, I really don’t believe I have the capacity to frame ideas that beautifully. I believe magic happens in the flow state and knowing that such a mental state can exist has helped me restructure my mind.

I still have irrational fears like the fear of being locked in my bathroom and neighbours being unable to hear my voice until I die of exhaustion. My solution is to keep a spare mobile in the bathroom. I still have to get out of my bed and check the lock on the main door every single night or arrange certain things around my house in a specific order but I no longer have to walk back home because I fear I might have left the laptop charger on and the entire building would burn down because of me. I can actually shake hands with people and may be 5 out 10 times, not feel the need to pull the hand sanitiser out. For the first time in over 8 years I slept while my parents flew back to India. I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t up at odd hours tracking flight data on Google. As I was making travel plans after receiving my doctorate this week, I realised that I am excited about flying. For the first time in over 10 years, I am thrilled. That is a long way from the girl who wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t move and was convinced that each journey was her last and if that was the case, how awful would it be for my parents who would never get to see their daughter finish her PhD, get married or take over FB or Google or something along those outrageous lines.

All the little things life unfolded in front of me throughout the 4 years have helped me understand the power of thoughts. Happier, positive thoughts are so much harder to come by but they pack the kind of power that negative spirals can never offer. Sometimes the best thing to do is disconnect and trust that whatever is meant to happen will happen in its own time. It is difficult, but I do my best to not take the behaviours of others personally. As an only child adult who never learnt boundaries or selfishness in the appropriate sibling settings, I also have high expectations from people. I don’t understand when people consistently put themselves first while I clearly remember the many occasions when I gave more than I should have. In hindsight, these are petty thoughts, but they are hard to ignore. In the past they would continue to haunt me causing mini bouts of depression and feeling worthless but my PhD changed that perspective. Even though I still find myself ticked off when my narcissistic irrational expectations are not met, I understand that the other’s journey is theirs filled with their own life experiences, interactions, struggles, hurts and monkey minds.

I think the purpose of being a human is to experience emotions but never allow them the ability to take over entirely. There are a lot of factors that affect the state of our mind, including the food we eat, the bacteria in our gut and whether we are exposed to sunlight or getting the right amount of exercise or receiving adequate social stimulation and encouragement from interaction with others etc. Therefore, it is hard to trust thoughts or emotions, especially when they are unproductive.

My PhD journey has taught me a lot about my own motives, intentions and behaviours. I also empathise more with others and appreciate the roles they play, my life would be a boring blank slate without the many others and the sometimes annoying interruptions they bring to my life. My anxieties are in more often in control than not.  I still have mini episodes where I feel hopeless but I get myself back up within a few hours. I no longer have irrational angry outbursts and am more aware of situations that might aggravate unhealthy emotions within me, so I know best to avoid them. I don’t believe this life choice is for everyone but the pressure something like a PhD (or any other hard life goal) puts on your brain really tests the extent of your human spirit. Just coming out alive on the other side is a victory over years of self-destructive thought patterns.


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