Undertaking PhD research can be a daunting experience. Not only does it challenge you intellectually, but it can put a strain on your mental wellbeing. A study published last year revealed that one in two PhD researchers experience psychological distress, while one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder. Impostor syndrome, deadlines, stress, isolation and myriad other negative thoughts or emotions can be overwhelming. Oftentimes this can leave us feeling helpless and stuck. No one is, nor should be alone in this.
I myself struggle with depression and anxiety. Thankfully, the services provided through Imperial College and the Health Centre have helped me survive these past few years. The problem isn’t gone, but there are ways to overcome them in times of elevated stress. Mine was art, and I think it could be yours too. There is plenty of research to show the positive effects of art towards mental wellbeing but I’d like to share my experience, so I won’t get into the details.
During my most intense relapses, I picked up a pen, drew some random lines and I never stopped. It took me a while to figure out what my style was until I came across the Zentangle movement. It is essentially doodling, but with the assembly of structured patterns using shapes, lines, curves and dots. There is no planning and you do not need to be artistically skilled. All you need is a pen and paper. I combined this method with creating mandalas – a spiritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism that represents the Universe. Filling up the mandalas with repeated and connected patterns helped me focus on the process and realign my thoughts. Once the mandala is completed, the sense of achievement brings back positivity and motivated me to carry on.
There are no limits to what you can do with art. I took my mandalas to the next level when I entered the ‘Research as Art’ competition hosted by the Graduate School last summer. I combined my art with my research and produced The Ripple Effect. I spent 48 hours drawing a giant mandala by hand on an upcycled table top.
My PhD research explores interventions within human behaviours that can create a ‘ripple effect’ to improve the quality of the water environment. This is represented within the layers of the mandala showing the multiple components in the agricultural system and their connections to the water environment. This also provided a narrative of the magnitude of the endeavours involved to bring safe and clean drinking water to our taps. This mandala won me first place at the competition.
Of course, you don’t have to go big. Start small, carry a small notebook around and a reliable pen. Take some time to shut down and draw. Just let it flow. Experiment with different media and don’t worry about making mistakes. In the words of Bob Ross, “we don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.”
If you’d like to get some pointers and give doodling a try with me and my friends, come by the Mindful Mandala corner that will be at the Imperial Lates: Wonder Women, Thursday, 7th March 2019, 18:00 – 21:00. Tickets can be acquired through Eventbrite .
Try this: 30 Day Doodle Challenge