Handling Personal Crises in Academic Life

On September 19, 2016, I received news so shocking that the world stopped.

I was walking across campus when the text came through. For a few seconds I am not sure what happened. I remember the sky flashing blue above me; I remember the sound of falling water from the nearby fountain. I had been walking, but when I could see clearly again, I found myself sitting on a low stone wall.

For me, for that moment, the world really did stop. All that mattered was the shock.

But for everyone else, for the students walking across campus, for the students enrolled in my classes, for my colleagues who expected me at meetings, for my graduate students who needed my paper comments, for the conference I was slated to attend that weekend, the world kept going.

Life happens. To me. To you.

So how do we handle personal crises amidst the busy clamor of academia? Much depends on the nature of the crisis. But for those crises that do not incapacitate (physically or otherwise), here are some coping strategies that I used. Maybe they can help you.

1). Tell people you are in crisis and need help. No, you don’t want to tell everyone. You need time to process, figure out a plan, and heal. It is hard to do this when even well-meaning folk are forcing you to relive the trauma by asking you to talk about it. But you do need help. Apart from my family, I reached out almost immediately to one very good friend and three of my department colleagues (including my chair). I needed the friend for emotional support; I needed my colleagues to understand. I think this is probably my most important point. Academic life is often a lonely venture–we perceive our success or failure as based on our individual efforts and we don’t like to ask for help (doesn’t earning a PhD mean we can do it all ourselves?). This is such a myth. We need supportive colleagues who will walk with us, and we need to admit when we need help. I needed help this year, and my colleagues did not fail me.

2). Hit the pause button on as much as possible. Yes, the world keeps going, but you can slow things down. Figure out what you really need to do, and get out of everything else (at least for the immediate). As soon as I could breathe again, I realized I had two meetings scheduled that afternoon. Neither were urgent. I rescheduled. I realized I had two classes to prep for the next day. One could wait, so (after getting permission from my chair), I gave my students a research day. I couldn’t cancel my graduate seminar, but it seemed much more doable with everything else off the table. Lucky for me, I was well past tenure when my crisis occurred. If you are on tenure-track (or a graduate student), I recommend you immediately talk to your adviser or chair. You might need to pause your academic clock, and it is better to start that conversation earlier rather than later.

3). Let work be cathartic. This may sound weird, but I used work as a place I (mostly) didn’t have to talk about my crisis. It really helped to have a few hours a day where I could focus on teaching and prepping for meetings and writing conference papers. No, I didn’t ‘escape’ into work or ‘lose myself’ in work. I simply focused on daily tasks and tried not dwell too much on the crisis during that time. This also meant I didn’t get too far behind, at least with my day-to-day tasks. In order for me to do this, however, I had to minimize distractions while in my office. I shut off all access to social media, including email and texting. I turned my phone off a lot (which drove my husband crazy at times :). I also took off social media apps from my phone and laptop, and eventually just walked away from all social media (except twitter) for about 3-4 months. This was so refreshing, and it helped me stay focused on what I needed to accomplish.

4). Take care of yourself. This may seem trite, but you will make better decisions and be able to cope with the day when you have had enough sleep and good nutrition. Instead of my usual stay-holed-up-in-my-windowless-office-for-hours (which used to not bother me), I started taking breaks to walk around campus and sit in the sun. At first, I would just go to get outside and clear my head and breathe. Eventually I started taking reading and papers to grade out with me as I discovered that I could refocus and concentrate better simply by changing location. The almost ever-present sunshine in Texas certainly helped too.

5). Give yourself time. I have had two babies. Some of the best advice I got during my first pregnancy was from a nurse. She said pregnancy takes 9 months and I should give myself as least as long to return to normal. She was so right. I think her advice works for crisis situations also. Crises cause trauma, and trauma needs significant healing time. My crisis happened in September 2016, and it was well into Spring 2017 before I started to feel normal again.

6. Try to get perspective. Seriously. This helped me so much. As shocking as this crisis was, it wasn’t the end of the world. My life might look different than I had imagined, but life would still go on. We still have numerous blessings in our lives; we have strong networks of friends and family supporting us and praying for us; we also have peace of mind about what happened. Maybe we could have done some things differently to prevent (or diffuse) the crisis, but probably not. Reading authors like Sarah Bessey and articles in Christianity Today as well as talking with some of my colleagues and friends helped me contextualize my personal crisis within the larger framework of modern American Christianity. No, this didn’t change our situation. But it helped me understand the crisis better and really accept that we could move past it. A crisis can shrink our world so that we see only ourselves. Such a small view magnifies the crisis. I really promise that if you can step back and place your crisis within the larger context of your life, of your family, of Christianity itself, it won’t look quite as bad. Changing perspective can also help you work out a better plan for coping and even moving forward.

7. See the glass half full. It took me a while (and a lot of prayer) to get to this point (remember, give yourself time). But eventually I was able to have a better perspective on the crisis which also helped me to treat the changes in our life as learning experiences rather than just hardships. Now, because of what happened to us, I can speak with much greater authority and confidence to graduate students about facing the uncertainties of the future. When they come to me with a crisis, I can use my own experiences to help them and to reassure them. The life experiences we have gained this year have taught us so much, and now we can use those experiences to help others.

I would like to say that my crisis is completely over and everything is back to normal. It isn’t. I still don’t know what the future holds. But I made it through this year, with my faith, my family, and my career not only intact but thriving. You can make it too.

Handling Personal Crises in Academic Life

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