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PhDiaries: Things I have found to help regulate my nervous system during my studies

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My PhD experience so far has not been a smooth one, like a lot of PhD students! Particularly in terms of my nervous system, so I have been trying to learn techniques to help regulate, to understand, and even use the way my nervous system works to my advantage. Our nervous systems can be crucial indicators as to what we need and want and working with it can be so helpful.

These are a few ways that have helped me to regulate my nervous system to get what I want out of my time on my PhD journey so far.

Confiding in different people

Having multiple people to talk to has been a game changer for how I approach my PhD work. While I regularly work with my supervisors, I also have frequent chats with other academics to find out about opportunities, perspectives and discussing ideas. For example, there is a conference I will be submitting an abstract to that I would never have heard of had I not spoken to another academic. This conference covers themes I am interested in long-term. Obviously it is important to not expect or confuse this with supervision help but approaching them for a chat (even if it’s just brief) can be so helpful in comprehending things in different ways and helpful in thinking about different options available to you throughout your research processes.

Similarly meeting different PhD students from across the University at events, workshops and even just in office spaces has been great getting different insights into what to think about my research direction as well as the reassurance that you are not alone throughout your PhD journey.

Walking at least once a week without listening to any music or podcasts

Podcasts (and music) are my ultimate PhD decompression, which I particularly love to save for my morning and evening walks throughout the week. Walking really helps to regulate my nervous system – it is my time away from screens or being inside. Being outside with just myself is really soothing amongst the PhD busy-ness. However, I have noticed that having a couple of walks to myself without or partly without something playing in my ear can really help my mind to be at peace. Even if there are still lots of ideas whooshing around when my mind is ‘quiet’, that break from something playing can be so helpful for regulating my nervous system throughout the week. I find it to be effective processing of things from the past few weeks and usually notice a massive difference in my mood for doing this regularly.

Should-a , coulda,  woulda

Thinking, “I should have”, “could have”, “would have” is something I regularly do. I often notice this as feelings of shame or guilt before I can put my finger on these exact thoughts that I am having.

A tip I learned from some coaching recently; as soon as you notice one of these phrases in a thought, pause and be curious as to where it is coming from or what is coming up that might have triggered it. I have found that whilst these short but very often powerful phrases can lead to degrading feelings, they are easy to notice so I can try to regulate. Even by simply saying to myself “STOP” as soon as I hear them creeping in has been very helpful in detaching from the thoughts. By trying this, I have been able to catch myself in the moment before I begin to spiral into thoughts and emotions. Instead I feel intentional with how they are impacting my nervous system. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I do often just watch myself spiraling, but a certain level of detachment when this happens helps me to watch this within myself without judgement and then begin to have a think about how I want to handle these thoughts.

Regulating my nervous system isn’t always easy. I also think it is a phrase that can be easily abused by others to make you feel as if you shouldn’t show strong emotions and should always keep a straight face no matter how you are feeling. But for me, concentrating on regulating my emotions in different ways to help me in different contexts is about helping me make judgements on how to handle something, or how I want to handle something differently in future.

I have found thinking about things in this way has been really rewarding and hope others are able to find a similar opportunities to do so as and when they want and need too.