28 November 2017

Taking a breather

Posted by Jessica Ball

So I’ve definitely been letting the blogging and tweeting drop off for a couple of months now, and there are a few reasons for that. The first is that I’ve taken on some new responsibilities at work and I’m now a USGS Social Media Ambassador, which means that some of the USGS Volcanoes content you see is being produced by yours truly. This means, however, that I don’t access my personal social media channels as much at work (don’t want to risk posting personal comments on an official government account!)

The second reason is that I have been having some serious anxiety problems.

I’ve had these to one extent or another since grad school. That’s not at all unusual for a person with a PhD in science – it only takes a single web search to come up with a whole slew of studies about how I and my peers are significantly more likely to end up with mental health issues:

Ph.D. students face significant mental health challenges (Science Magazine Careers, 2017)

Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students (Research Policy, 2017)

What fewer women in STEM means for their mental health (The Conversation, 2015)

New evidence that chronic stress predisposes brain to mental illness (Berkeley News, 2014)

Paying Graduate School’s Mental Toll (Science Magazine Careers, 2014)

For a while, I wasn’t doing too badly. There were some bumps on the road to getting my PhD that made me pretty upset and stressed out, as with any graduate degree. Right after I defended my dissertation, I pivoted and took a job in science policy, which – in 2014-2015 – wasn’t nearly as contentious or depressing as it is now. The challenge of learning new skills and the fact that I was living in a familiar setting in the DC area made the transition easier.

But then I took my USGS postdoc and moved completely across the country, 3,000 miles away from all of my family and friends and to a state I’d only visited for AGU conferences. There’s a lot to love about California, and I’ve made great friends here, but I also live in Silicon Valley, the least affordable place in the country. That in itself is enough to make life here stressful, even discounting the overall culture of the Bay Area. It is not the laid-back California that you consume through TV and movies when you grow up back East – as far as I’m concerned, it’s even more anxiety-inducing than the DC area, which can seem exceptionally driven and serious to outsiders.

I’m fortunate to have a job that I enjoy and to have made good friends and colleagues here, which goes a long way to help. But the constant stress of being a federal scientist under this administration, plus a couple of recent events – trying to submit a manuscript that took much longer than it should have, and finally finding a slightly more affordable apartment but having to then move to said apartment – have finally pushed me into admitting that I probably have a full-blown anxiety disorder.

Up until now I’ve just been explaining it away by saying that I’m just stressed, or tired from one activity or another, or whatever. But it was a solid few weeks that I’d woken up feeling sick to my stomach with my heart pounding, or found myself in a spiral of worrying thoughts that kept me from even getting to sleep in the first place, and I knew that my response was entirely disproportionate to the situations I was dealing with. I’ve tried explaining how this feels to people who haven’t experienced it, and the best description I’ve seen anywhere is to compare it to that feeling you get when you’ve missed a step going down a staircase and you know you’re about to fall – except all the time.

I’m not writing about this as a plea for help – I’ve been to the doctor and started that process already, and it’s made a huge difference so far. I’m doing much better than I was only a few weeks ago. But it means that things like blogging and tweeting fall by the wayside as I sort this out. I hate neglecting this part of my life, because being a science communicator is one of the things that I’ve loved about being a scientist. And I do intend to pick things up again, because I’ve left some great volcano posts languishing (I never did get around to Sinabung!) But mental and physical health come first, followed by work, followed by blogging and social media.

In the meantime, you can see some of my posts on the USGS Volcanoes Facebook page and Twitter account, and I’ll pop on and off Twitter as I can. I won’t be attending AGU this year, but hopefully the lull when everyone else does will give me some time to cook up new blog posts. Stay tuned…