Self-Care During Academic Conferences: Tips on Managing Time, Energy, and Looking After your Mental Health

It’s conference season! This week’s post was written by Tamsyn Hawken, a contributor for the AMHC. Check out her previous post here, visit her blog, or find her on Twitter!

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I recently attended my first ‘proper’ conference. It was an international conference but thankfully only required hopping across one time zone. Whilst I was excited about my foray into academic conferences (and, I won’t lie, the prospect of some sun, sightseeing, and tapas), there was also a niggly feeling of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. In fact, I started to worry as soon as my abstract got accepted three months before the event itself – about the tiredness from travelling, the disorientation from being in a new place, and the feeling of being pressured to socialise and network. I am an introvert at heart, so the thought of ‘facing outward’ for three to four whole days just made me feel exhausted, and I wasn’t even there yet.

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A passenger plane flies under clouds, against a blue sky

Despite these initial worries, I decided to take some steps to manage my anxiety and take care of my overall health and well-being. I ended up really enjoying the conference without freaking out or needing days to recover. While I thought I would return exhausted, worn out, and needing a rest, I was enthused, motivated and super productive.

Here are some of the things I did. I want to share in the hopes that this might help others who feel daunted by the prospect of an academic conference and everything that entails.

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Sit down ahead of the conference and think about what your difficulties might be

 

1. Thinking ahead

For me, it was absolutely crucial to sit down ahead of the conference and think about what my difficulties might be, the key areas where I might struggle or feel triggered. For the most part these were things I manage in everyday life, but there were some that were unique to the prospect of a conference.

 

I would urge you to approach student services or grad school administrators to see if there is any funding available

2. Arrive a day early or leave a day later

As mentioned, I was fortunate that my travel only involved crossing one time zone and I didn’t suffer from any jetlag. But despite this, I still had to wake up at 5.30am for 14 hours of travelling by bus, train, tube and plane before I reached my destination.

To try and pre-empt the travel fatigue, I decided to arrive early. This meant that I had a day to recover, catch up on sleep and get my bearings. Arriving earlier than needed also meant I had a day to explore my surroundings, work out the best way to walk to the conference venue and just generally get myself sorted. I was also able to stay an extra day, which meant I could enjoy the place I was visiting and integrate all that I had learnt and taken in at the conference before travelling home again.

I am very lucky that I was able to afford these extra nights, but if you cannot do this I would urge you to approach student services or grad school administrators to see if there is any funding available for these purposes. Here in the UK, universities often have access to funds that are dedicated to support the needs of those with diagnosed mental health conditions, but often they are not advertised, so it is really important to be proactive and ask whether these funds are available to you.

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Against a white wall, four white clocks display the times of London, New York, Tokyo, and Moscow

Think about what might work well for you and be firm in your choice – boundaries are important!

3. Decide what you are going to do about email

I didn’t want to leave my inbox completely and return home at the end of the conference to a mountain of emails to get through, but I also didn’t want to worry about getting behind on my emails during the conference. I set up a very simple out-of-office message, in which I stated that I was attending a conference, would have limited access to my emails and that there may be a delay in my response; if senders had not heard from me by a certain date (2-3 days after my return) then they are encouraged to re-send their email. As such, I dealt with those emails that only required a quick reply or acknowledgement throughout the conference, whilst saving those that required more thought for after I got home. Think about what might work well for you and be firm in your choice – boundaries are important!

 

Making the most of the conference experience required me to feel good

4. Have a look at the schedule and plan your days

When you are at a conference where everybody is speaking your language and gets what you are talking about, it can be incredibly tempting to try to attend as many presentations and events as possible. This might easily become overwhelming though, especially for those managing anxiety and other mental health issues.

Before heading over to the conference I had a careful look at the program. I identified which talks I could absolutely, one-hundred percent not miss, as well as the ones that were not particularly relevant, helpful or interesting to me. I also identified a list of talks that belonged to the “hmm maybe” category. I checked in with myself each day throughout the conference – If I was feeling tired, anxious or like I just needed a break, the ‘hmm maybe’s’ went out the window. I did have to manage some guilt – I’ve paid for this conference and I should make the most of it, shouldn’t I? But for me, making the most of the conference experience required me to feel good. Missing a few talks so that I could fully engage with and enjoy others was definitely worth it for me.

 

I recognized that I needed quiet time and it was important to pace myself

Socialising and networking

In addition to intellectual stimulation, conferences are full of opportunities to socialize and network. Pressures to take advantage of these opportunities may introduce a number of difficulties, especially if you already struggle to manage your energy levels in your day-to-day life. You may feel anxious about approaching new people, or you may simply feel exhausted from facing outwards so much. In order to manage this, I went through the delegates list and highlighted some people that I definitely wanted to connect with over the course of the conference. I told myself that if I managed to approach and engage with these people, then that was a job well done – anyone extra was a bonus. I also took some care in deciding whether I wanted to head out for dinner after a full day of conferencing or go back to my room and chill for the evening. Although I really enjoyed the company of my supervisor and colleagues, I also recognized that I needed quiet time on some evenings and it was important to pace myself.

 

Consider taking packed lunches or buying some of your favourite snacks to take with you

6. Diet and alcohol

Conferences can be notorious for free booze and lots of drinking during social events. If, like me, you know that alcohol can make things difficult for you, then you might want to minimize your drinking or avoid it altogether. I typically drink very little alcohol, and I decided that I would not drink for the duration of the conference but would only enjoy a cocktail or a glass of wine at the final banquet. This worked really well: I wasn’t hungover or tired, and I didn’t get that alcohol-fuelled dip in my mood that can sometimes be so hard to claw my way out of.

Food is often provided at conferences, and can be quite heavy in terms of sugar and carbs, and is generally unhealthy. If food is an important part of your being and feeling well, you might consider taking packed lunches or buying some of your favourite snacks to take with you. I took some of my favourite cereal bars, which meant I could always have something on hand that I knew tasted good and was good for me.

 

My main priority was having a space where I could go if I was feeling anxious, tired or triggered in any way

7. Accommodation

Think ahead and ask yourself, honestly, what you need at the end of each day to relax and recharge. My main priority was having a space where I could go if I was feeling anxious, tired or triggered in any way. I knew immediately that I did not want to have my accommodation in the same venue as the conference. I wanted some physical space between my daytime activities and my ‘going home’ time. I found an inexpensive place that was a short walk from the conference; it had plenty of space, I could cook for myself, and it felt like my own. Of course, this physical separation might be stressful for some, who prefer to stay at one of the hotel rooms provided by the conference venue.

 

The Bottom Line

Don’t feel bad for looking after yourself and your mental health. You may feel like you are being judged or that you aren’t fitting in, but you are the one who has to live inside your mind and your body for the duration of the conference and beyond. Make self-care decisions based on what you need, and be firm in these choices. With a little care and planning, I was able to fully enjoy my conference experience, and I know you can do it too. Have fun!

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Tamsyn currently lives in Bath and has just passed the mid-way point of her PhD in Health Psychology at the University of Bath. When she isn’t studying, there’s a fair chance you’ll find her being active outdoors, snuggling up and reading a good book, winding down with some yoga or catching up with friends over food. She also loves wild swimming, horse riding, cooking, exploring and self-development. She blogs over at http://www.healthpsychtam.com about her experiences of postgraduate study.

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