7 Coping Strategies While Doing Depressing Research

Often the subjects that most call for attention can be deeply depressing in nature. Sickness, wars, climate change, poverty… these topics call for researchers’ attention because they are pressing and urgent: because they impact real people in profound ways. They are human concerns that impact human lives.

In one way or another, many college students end up addressing these things over the course of their college careers—whether that be in the social sciences or ecology or literature. Depending on the depth of research, difficult subjects can overwhelm.

Three incredible people I met while doing research on migration issues in Honduras (Summer 2011)

First, let me say that I am a relative authority on this area. Most of my focus as an academic has been on issues of incarceration and immigration, and have involved qualitative, face-to-face research with individuals who are directly involved with those situations. This has put me in the direct path of a lot of difficult stories, and a lot of vicarious trauma. I don’t in any way want to suggest that hearing painful stories is the same as living them. But for those of us with a high degree of empathy, being a sympathetic listener to traumatic stories can be painful in its own right. And once you empathize with an individual, it can be difficult on a whole other level to study the statistics and trends that contextualize an individual story within a huge spectrum of painful life experiences.

When I was conducting interviews for my first Master’s thesis, I spent four months in Central America—mostly Honduras—listening to people’s stories of the pain associated with immigration. I spoke with deportees, with family members of undocumented immigrants in the US, and with multiple individuals who had lost limbs while attempting the journey north. Every day I heard a new story, and these stories fit within a massive movement of people and a social trend I had studied on a statistical level. They were individual people, and also representations of a broader trend. What I learned pained me for both reasons, and the more I understood, the more outraged and saddened I became.

To do this kind of work, we have to be able to look after ourselves and our emotions. Every person will have a different way of coping, and a different set of triggers, challenges, and specific responses to what they learn. This is far from an exhaustive list, but it’s a starting place: how to cope with doing depressing research as an academic.

Strategies for self-care during emotionally challenging research

1. Community

Find (or create) a network of people doing similar research. Build space to talk about what you’re learning, but also (and crucially) how you’re feeling about the things you’re learning. This network can include fellow students, members of relevant organizations, community members, etc. Get together face to face. Share a coffee and a long, rebalancing chat about what’s going on in your head. Share the challenges and successes, and the joys and sadness.

When I was taking and teaching classes in prison, the community of other students and instructors was a saving grace for me. We met regularly to debrief, and the laughter and tears we shared made it possible for me to continue doing that work I loved.

2. Routine

Create habits, routines, and rituals that help you cope. This can help signal when you’re “working” to demarcate mental space from the rest of your life, when you make room for a different set of joys and concerns. Create some rituals to help settle you into your research and to help bring you back out of it.

My routines for coping and mental health are:

Warm Drinks

  • Food. Eating the same comfort food can help me calm down in a very specific way. When I’m traveling, that’s rice crispy treats. When I’m home, it’s dried cranberries. Don’t ask me why, but in both situations a break for those specific foods can rejuvenate and recalibrate.
  • Warm drinks. The routine of making a cup of tea is a powerful one. It is the same every time. It requires no thought, but demands a physical movement away from my work and into a different space and state of mind.
  • Music. When I’m doing research at my computer, a specific kind of music can signal that it’s time to do a certain kind of work in a particular mindset. Example: I am currently doing research on individuals who were killed in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It’s depressing work. But every time I settle in to this work I play Pearl Jam. I don’t know how it started, but for now my research is 100% fueled by Pearl Jam, and I don’t listen to that band at any other time. It’s a trigger: music on=research on, and when the music ends, the research is over. It’s incredibly effective.
  • Regular meetings in the same place with the same people. Example: my friend Madeline and I always used to eat at the same café after trips to the prison. We would get the same food and talk over what we had experienced. Ritual and familiarity increased the power of our debriefing sessions.

3. Talk to a professional

There may well come a time when the support of a community and the strategies you build into your own research routines are not enough to help you get your head around the many things you’re feeling. I highly recommend you seek out a supportive and qualified person to talk with. Beyond the training they bring to the situation, they can also offer you something that none of your community can: you cannot hurt them with your emotions. Your sadness will not make them sad in the way your sadness will impact a friend or family member. You can let yourself feel how you feel without worrying about maintaining a professional bearing or burdening a colleague. You can just talk through what you need to talk through. And that can be a tremendous relief.

4. Taking breaks

Build space into your research. This includes both time off during a work session and long vacations from the work. Burnout is a real thing, and it’s important to give yourself some space away from your work. Having something big to look forward to—whether that’s a week you have planned to not look at your research while in between drafts, or travel somewhere non-research related—can help motivate you through the rough spots and rejuvenate you to get back into work when you return.

We often pursue research in areas we care deeply about, and therefore sometimes feel that we shouldn’t need a break, or that taking time off is somehow betraying our passions. Or perhaps we feel we can’t afford to take a break. But the truth is that time away is necessary, healing, and empowering. It will make it possible for you to continue, and to do so better than before.

5. Maintain other passions

Don’t get sucked into the work to the point where you loose touch with other interests. Just as it’s important to build community and to create breaks in the research, it’s also important to cultivate relationships and activities that are completely unrelated to your emotionally draining research focus. This could be anything from sports series to crafts to spending time out in wild places. Whatever it is, make sure it’s more than just an activity that gets put on a checklist as another “to do” item, stacked against the “much more important” research. This must be something that is also important to you—something that engages your mind and body and creativity. Something that removes you, for a time, from what you’re working on.

Bonus points if wandering around in the beautiful outdoors includes views like this. (Portland, OR Spring 2014)

For me, this list has included going to concerts, reading books, watching TV series with friends, blackberry picking, rock climbing, and listening to podcasts while wandering around outside. Find what work for you.

6. Prioritize your health

Look after your mental and physical health and well-being. Eat decently good food. Exercise. Be outside. Sleep. Monitor how you're feeling, both emotionally and physically.

This is probably the simplest advice to give, but one of the hardest things to actually do reliably. But do your best to pay attention and to look after yourself.

7. Celebrate progress made

Research of this nature can become the study of one grim trend after another. Occasionally take the time to seek out success stories, and to celebrate that as part of the overall narrative. This doesn’t have to appear in your writing or research results—your findings might be overwhelmingly alarming and any counter narrative would be a distraction to the report. But celebration is important for maintaining passion and a sense of possibility in action.

For me, this has often come down to celebrating the individuals I have known who are part of the statistics I have studied. By focusing on the hope, as well as the pain, I’ve witnessed on the smallest scale, I can maintain a sense that all is not lost. 

The final thing to remember is that what you're doing matters. These things are worth investigation and attention and even heartache. Keep on with what you're doing, share what you've learned, and look after yourself as the work goes on.

I would particularly appreciate comments on this post. Please share any thoughts or feedback you have on the topic, any strategies you use, and any personal stories in this area. It's something I've thought about a lot, but I still feel that I have a lot to learn. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated, and could lead to better strategies on all sides.