I have a number of friends who are facing some project, personal and mental-health challenges at the moment, so I thought I’d write a post about the Valley of Shit and the Pit of Despair.
The Valley of Shit is something everyone will go through during their PhD. It’s been blogged about several times here and elsewhere around the internets (most notably here). It’s that frustrating time where nothing goes right and everything is slow and difficult and you don’t seem to go anywhere. Add a good dose of Imposter Syndrome and you can feel like you’re wading through an endless pile of excrement.
Which brings me to the Pit of Despair. The Pit of Despair is what mental health professionals would call depression and anxiety. There is a subtle but important distinction between the Valley of Shit and the Pit of Despair.
In the Valley of Shit, the way to get out is to keep trudging along. It may not be the most productive time of your PhD (and you’ll likely hate every minute of it) but by continuing to work, you’ll find your way out of it. Feeling awful in the Valley of Shit is a normal reaction to a shitty situation. You are not supposed to be happy about being in a valley that is full of poo.
Feeling depressed or anxious all the time, and for no particular reason is not normal. (There are many excellent, eloquent and well-written articles about what it is like living with depression, this one is my favourite). Unlike the Valley of Shit, working hard will not get you out of the Pit of Despair and (to extend the metaphor) the more you dig, the deeper you’ll get. Encouragement from peers and supervisors, which can help you through the Valley of Shit does not translate to the Pit of Despair. Putting pressure on yourself when you’re suffering from a mental illness will make things worse. Fact.
The problem is that the Pit of Despair can look and feel a lot like the Valley of Shit. So it’s hard to know whether you should persevere or give yourself a break. It was probably obvious to everyone else but even during some of my darkest days I didn’t know if I was feeling depressed because I was stressed about my PhD or because I was unwell. It was only when I took time off from uni to concentrate on getting well that I knew for sure that what I was experiencing was a severe bout of depression.
The good news is that several things will help with both. Talking to a friend, councillor, peer, mentor, can help you feel better. My own experience (and that of my friends who are struggling with depression and anxiety) is that people tend to be incredibly supportive and understanding. Talking can also provide some clarity you need to figure out if you’re in the Valley of Shit or the Pit of Despair. Also, get outside and exercise. There is a whole lot of evidence to suggest that exercise helps to relieve stress as well as alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
This last one is most important: be kind to yourself; don’t kick yourself when you’re down. That shit ain’t helpful.
If you want to know more or are worried that you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety, here are some useful links: