Plan for self-care during midterm/finals season
Dealing with depression and anxiety as an overachieving perfectionist at university is pretty damn horrible. All three elements are interlinked. If one starts rearing its head, the others will very likely join. It is a frustrating experience that I know many of us perfectionists struggling with depression and anxiety share. Even if you are not diagnosed with depression or anxiety, everyone experiences a high level of stress during some time(s) in their academic calendars. Are you wondering how perfectionism, depression and anxiety mix together? How you can plan ahead to prevent this negative spiral that stems from a difficult academic period? That’s what I’m here to explain…here we go!
Photo by Ben Kolde
The perfectionism trap
I recently just came out of my seemingly endless negative spiral myself, and can use what happened as an example. So we don’t need to speak in impersonal hypotheticals. For the sake of clarity, let’s name my anxiety voice “A”, my depression voice “D”, and my perfectionist voice “P”.
Day 1: The anxiety crescendo
It is midterm season, which everyone knows is just the whole second half of the semester. I had many projects coming to a close, so there were many final projects and presentations coming up.
P (content): Alright, I’ve finished my list of 36 academic to-dos for the next 2 weeks. We’re gonna get all of this done, and it’s going to be done RIGHT.
We were told about a random selection presentation a week before the presentation date. Quite last minute, which was difficult for me to handle because a) I am a long-term planner, and b) I have social performance anxiety.
A (freaking out): If I don’t work my butt off here, I’ll fall behind, and fail everything. What if I don’t have time to prepare for this presentation? Oh god, I don’t have any time left. I need to complete everything else early so that I can clear my head and use all of this week to prepare for this presentation.
P (also freaking out): I need to make sure that I have this presentation perfectly memorized, especially because the presenters will be randomly selected. I cannot make a single mistake! I don’t want to seem like I don’t care about the project or that I was counting on not being chosen. I am not like that at all – I really really do care!! I need to make sure that I represent our group’s hard work perfectly!!!
A (irrationally mind reading and fortune-telling): If I don’t complete everything right now, then I won’t have time to memorize my lines perfectly. If I make any mistakes, I’ll fail. The entire class will think I’m a freeloader who rides on other people’s coattails. I can’t let that happen.
A (inaccurately rationalizing): Plus, if I get all these things done early, then I might have time to chill out a bit more during the week. That’d be a nice break from everything.
And so, in an attempt to make time to “memorize my lines perfectly”, I completed every single item on my to-do list for the next week in one day. Took no breaks. Stayed up late. Barely ate food. Skipped on doing yoga. In fact I was pretty much glued to my chair, eyes fixed on my laptop screen and click clacking away at my work all day long. I submitted things 3-4 days early.
A (too far gone, my friends): I’m done everything…..NO I’M NOT. I have presentations coming up in the next few weeks too!!! I may as well get more stuff done so I can have enough time to prepare for those things too!!!
After I had finished my initial task list, I then started doing work and to-dos that I did not need to do for another week or two weeks.
Day 2: Burnout and spiralling
The next day, I woke up feeling extremely burnt out. Understandably, given how much work I had forced myself to complete at once in a short timeframe the previous day. But even worse than the burnout was how I started to think about myself.
D (completely exhausted): Other people can do all this work and be just fine. What excuse do I have to be exhausted?
Because I had completed every item on my to-do list, the only task I had left was to prepare for this presentation. But instead of the desired result of having time to mentally prepare and practice the presentation heavily, I could not even leave my bed. Also understandable, because I had thrown all of my physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional needs out the window.
D (feeling empty and dejected): I can’t do this presentation. I can’t do this. I can’t do anything. I’m a failure. A complete failure. I’ll fail. There’s nothing I can do about it.
One certain characteristic about cognitive distortions (such as all-or-nothing thinking and overgeneralization as exhibited above) is that they become more difficult to recognize and redirect when your health is jeopardized and your energy reserves are depleted.
The negative spiral
At this point, I had already fallen too deeply into the rabbit hole. There may come a time where I can climb back up even at this stage, but this time, I was unable to do so. And that is okay. I spiralled and spiralled and spiralled, ruminating endlessly about things I thought I was done ruminating about in previous depressive episodes. Any negative thought just latched onto me and clung to me from all angles, weighing me down and trapping me in my own dark, gloopy bubble.
Although I was somewhat functional, I missed quite a few classes during that week. I ended up messaging my professors about my mental state, and they informed me that I was not the one who was randomly selected anyway. Regardless of this note, I was already knee deep into a depressive episode.
The day before the presentation day was the worst. I stayed in bed all day, completely trapped in my own brain and unable to even try and process how I was feeling or what was really bothering me underneath all my ruminations. I was aware that I hadn’t eaten any food around 8PM, but in that state, I really couldn’t have cared less.
Regardless, I went to class the next day, because I thought I would be guilt-ridden if I was not able to attend the presentations. Our group worked hard all year, and so did all of the other groups. Plus, I had done so much work in preparation for this one day, even if that day was 5 days ago.
Well, it didn’t go so well in the end, and I had to leave. It got worse in the next week to follow, because I could not even go back to campus for the entire week.
How can we prevent or reduce the likelihood of this spiral?
There comes a point where “work now, play later” becomes ineffective, as I have illustrated with my personal example. The TL;DR of the spiral is as follows:
- P: I have to do X perfectly.
- A: What if I can’t do X perfectly? I need to do everything I possibly can to make sure it gets done absolutely perfectly or I will fail. I’ll be a complete failure.
- *spends ludicrous amounts of time “making sure” I can get it done “absolutely perfectly”, and burns out*
- D: I can’t do anything. Everyone else can do this completely fine and I can’t. I’m a failure.
A few days before the tough week begins, take extra care to plan out your week beforehand before tackling any task.
My first mistake was that I went straight from hearing about the news of the presentation to freakout mode. It is difficult to stop your panic when it arises, just as it is difficult to prevent any other emotional peak. This is entirely okay. It may be easier to manage your reaction to that initial panic if you give some thought to how you may handle the situation beforehand.
I do all of the following steps in my bullet journal, but I thought it might be cool to have a printable for you guys to work through them and have on hand while you are going through your tough academic period. It’s a weekly planner including everything I will be talking about below. You can grab it immediately when you subscribe for email updates:
1. Prep your headspace by setting an intention
An intention is any phrase that describes how you want to approach working through your day or your problem. By setting an intention beforehand, you can use it as a guidepost and a mental reminder throughout the week. It can centre you and help you remember why you are doing what you are doing. This phrase will be different for everyone, but two key themes for the purposes of dealing with tough academic periods is moderation and balance.
Here is an example of an intention that I would have liked to use:
I will break my presentation prep into smaller pieces and complete them alongside my other less urgent tasks instead of ineffectively trying to do it all at once.
2. Review your early warning signs that you may be heading into a negative spiral and create a plan of action
This seem more relevant for those of us who struggle with anxiety and/or depression, but in fact, we all have early signs that we are beginning to throw self-care and basic health out of the window to spend more time on work. For myself, the first few signs include:
- taking my meals with me to my desk to work while eating
- thinking that I absolutely need to complete tasks 3-4 days in advance
- saying no to all of my friends who ask to hang out because I feel I need to be working instead
- skipping my daily self-care routines (e.g., meditation, yoga, stream of consciousness, bullet journalling)
Once you’ve figured out your early signs, make an actionable plan for what you will do when you notice it happening (and make an active effort to notice if it is happening by setting an intention to do so!). For me, my usual plan is to give myself an immediate break, wherever I am working. 30 minutes to revisit my self-care goals and habits, and to make them high priority again. If you’re using my printable, it has a habit tracker that you can fill in as you do them. I put some basic ones but there are blank ones for you to fill in with your own self-care habits.
3. Prioritize and plan
If you are someone who does not typically like to plan ahead, that is completely okay! To each their own. But I’d like you to explore the value in creating a plan in preparation for tough academic periods. It will allow you to see objectively how much time you have and plan out how to best use that time to complete all your tasks in a timely manner without panicking and without foregoing self-care time. Revisiting this plan throughout the difficult period will help you see what you have already accomplished and what you have left to accomplish, which in my opinion is extremely motivational.
It may seem like an overwhelming thought at the start, but it is a good idea to write down all the tasks that you want to complete for the week. In the beginning it can just be a straight brainstormed list, but you’ll eventually need to a) chunk down larger projects/tasks, b) prioritize, c) actively plan breaks, and d) plan when you will perform tasks.
a) Breaking large tasks down
For an essay, this may be research, writing a rough introduction, body, and conclusion, editing, and finalizing the document. For preparing for a presentation, it may be compiling notes, developing a PowerPoint or a Google Slides presentation, and practicing. It is important to make each smaller piece an actionable task. If any task looks daunting, consider further breaking down that task if it is possible.
Personally, I find it difficult to overcome what I call work inertia: a tendency to “remain at rest” – not working, because I am afraid to begin working. This is again because my all-or-nothing thinking leads me to believe that if I begin doing work, everything has to be done perfectly. This thought leads to the anxiety that I will work all day without ever feeling satisfied with my work. Breaking down my tasks and spreading them out helps me to overcome this anxiety, as smaller tasks can be used to “warm up” before I tackle the larger project items.
If you’re using my printable, I’ve provided a large space for you to prioritize your tasks. This prioritization process will look different for everyone. Mark down the due dates, how much you have already done (perhaps a completion percentage) and grade allocations (is the project worth 20%? 30%?). There are other parameters by which you can prioritize! It depends on what tasks you are working on. The important part is to use the parameters to see that all the tasks require different amounts of effort and time. I know the phrase is thrown around that we should “try our best at everything”, but for perfectionists, that can be exhausting. This is a good time to look at all your tasks and give yourself a break. Not every task requires 100% of your effort. I could also say, “Absolutely no tasks ever need to be perfect”, which is also true, but that is extremely difficult to stomach for perfectionists (I know that all too well). So let’s stick with the former.
Not every task requires 100% of your effort.
c) Actively plan breaks – Untouchable Time
I want you to write out a list of pleasurable activities (there’s a place for it on the printable as well). They do not have to be grand activities. It could be as simple as journalling, watching your favourite YouTuber’s videos, making a new Spotify playlist, or petting your pets. Throw in longer activities too! Yoga, going for pho or sushi with a friend, walking around your favourite store, going on a date, paintballing – there are plenty of possible pleasurable activities.
Now set fixed times throughout your tough period to do these activities. In first year, I did something like this for the entire year as part of a personal development portfolio of sorts (my program has some amazing courses). I called these time periods “Untouchable Time”, or “UT” for short. It is untouchable because a) you cannot skip it, and b) no one else can override it for any reason. Except for absolute emergencies that are non-academic-related.
While you are here and have a clearer and present headspace, set these time blocks ahead of time. Even if it’s just two hours a day (break that up however you’d like), actively plan for them ahead of time. Tell yourself that self-care is not selfish, and self-care will help you perform better when you are working. Once more for the people in the back:
Self-care is not selfish. Self-care will help you perform better when you are working.
d) Plan out dates to complete tasks
Notice how this is last? It’s because self-care and your health comes before everything else. Fortunately, having good overall health will help you perform better when you are working. This is now where you can slot in your to-dos for each day.
It can become tempting at this stage to overestimate how much you can complete in one day (i.e., “I will do 50% of my work on this day, and 50% the next day and be done”). I want to remind you that we are not robots. Even if you were, robots malfunction if they are constantly overclocked. But we are not robots anyway. So make sure that when you are creating your daily to-dos and feeling tempted to shorten your untouchable time, you remember that self-care will help you perform better when you are working.
Self-care is not selfish. It is an important method to be kind to yourself.
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve already made amazing progress in being kind to yourself. You recognized that you needed to prepare for a tough work period (and let me tell ya, recognition is extremely difficult! So kudos to you). You created a plan to tackle your tasks ahead of time. Or hey, even if you’re already in the tough period, you again noticed that you needed some guidance and hopefully found ways to redirect your thoughts! Working on yourself and giving yourself self-care is all a part of being kind to yourself. By being self-compassionate, you can be kinder to others, kick some major butt in your academic and non-academic endeavours, and go after your goals knowing that you will have your back.
You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first. Keeping up your health will help you perform better when you are working. And it will also help you perform better when you are not working.
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),