Can a place cause depression? Help me get over this.
July 8, 2015 9:12 PM   Subscribe

I had an awful experience during my PhD. Managed to finish, and have been happily employed across the country for the past few years. This summer, I made the mistake of signing up for a 2 week workshop back on campus. I'm only 3 days in, and I'm stressed, lonely, anxious... the way I was for much of grad school, but not since. I can't leave before the workshop ends, and I have no friends or family here, and no access to professional help. How do I survive this, while being productive with my work and putting on a cheerful facade?
posted by redlines to Human Relations (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you have some post-traumatic stress (either lower-case or upper-case) associated with your time there. You may not have a choice in whether that condition is true or false, but you have a choice in how you frame this.

You can acknowledge that your time there was difficult and stressful, and honor that you had a tough time...and that that time is over. Focus on the now, and on the the work in front of you now. Practice smart self-care - rest, hydrate, eat real food, try to get a little exercise. Have a quick phone call or Facetime with someone you care about, treat yourself to a good book you've been wanting for some bedtime reading, buy yourself a mindless game for your phone or tablet (Bejeweled is my jam when I need to shut the head-noise up), go to bed early, and get up tomorrow and face the day with your pants firmly pulled up and an intention to focus on the positive.

It's just discomfort. It's just two weeks. You got through an entire grad program, and you'll get through this. As adults, we occasionally have little choice but to revisit places we're not thrilled about, but nothing's forcing you to time travel back to then - you can deal with it as Current You, not Past You.

If it gets so bad you think you might hurt yourself, go to the emergency room or call 911 and then call 1-800-273-8255.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:34 PM on July 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

It could be bringing up memories of the past for you, hard to say with what you've written whether it's the place or what you are doing or something else which is affecting you. Either way, you need to stay grounded and focused on the present: you are not who you were then. Remind yourself of that, and that things have changed and you've had a lot of positive experiences since then, that you're now an experienced professional rather than an uncertain grad student. If you don't think you'll get trapped in it, maybe spend a bit of time considering the past and why your previous grad school experience was so miserable, see if you can work through that unhappiness and let it go. But that can easily turn into a self-reinforcing doom spiral, so be careful.

Try to think of it as a retreat, a respite from the busy-ness of your regular life. Two weeks is not long, if there's little for you to do in the way of social activities can you think of it as a chance to catch up on your reading/netflix/write that paper you always meant to/something else? Go watch movies. Go for long walks or runs (depending on fitness and/or weather). Go out for dinner/drinks with other people on the workshop. Skype with friends and family. Be kind to yourself. And remember, one foot after another. Two weeks will seem interminable at times, but it's not.
posted by Athanassiel at 9:36 PM on July 8, 2015

I believe that places hold emotional ressonance for us through their visual, audio and olfactory triggers. Lyn Never has some great advice, especially about taking care of yourself.

You can also look at this time as a way to exorcise some demons. Maybe when you have some time alone, stomp around the campus and tell it "Campus, I won! You didn't beat me! I was strong! And I earned my PhD despite the shit you put me through. So run that up your flagpole, campus!"

I know it sounds weird but saying stuff like that in a strong, maybe somewhat angry 'push-back' voice really helps sometimes. It's about reclaiming your emotional 'space' on campus.

And you don't need to put on a cheerful facade. Resting bitch face is fine. Just do the requirements and take care of yourself.
posted by Thella at 9:48 PM on July 8, 2015 [9 favorites]

I like Thella's advice.

Sure, a place can get tainted in your mind. Vast swaths of Long Beach are like that for me. I grew up there, lonely and sick and miserable, and I can't go a few blocks in that town without hitting yet another place that invokes bad memories. When I come back to LA from LB, it's like shucking off a heavy, ugly, too-tight, itchy old coat.

Try to remember that while this college may have bad associations for you, it is not really a cursed place or something. It's just a college, and all of those sad, anxious feels are just what you're bringing to it.

And remind yourself that your life is different now. You are not stuck in this place, you have become a very different person in a whole other situation. Stay in touch with the life you live now. Exchange emails with friends, Skype, maybe Netflix some shows you watch NOW. Remind yourself that it's 2015, you haven't gone back in time.

Also, remember that it's just two weeks. You've got stuff in your fridge at home older than that.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 9:59 PM on July 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Last time this happened to me I was also exacerbating it by eating crap food, not exercising, and drinking (to escape the bad feels). When I started eating vegetables and walking and drinking water on the regular it helped a lot. I do not mean to negate any of the suggestions above, but consider whether you're meeting your basic physiological needs or if you've unconsciously slipped back into bad food/drink/sleep/exercise patterns that you had at $old_place that you have better systems to handle in $current_place.
posted by holyrood at 10:17 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

A campus is a big space. Is there anywhere close to where you're spending a large amount of your time (close to your bedroom or near where most of your working hours are) that you didn't go to when you were first there? Establish pockets of spaces that are new to you and go there on purpose regularly to decompress and maybe have a snack or listen to new music or just breathe, every day.

You can also try to adjust your sleeping space to feel less like grad school with some extra attention. Can you do any decorating? Like pictures of your current life, fabric for a quick curtain, a few toys or some art on a shelf. Change the lighting with lamps if possible. Get a really nice blanket and a good pillow to cuddle up with.

And use scent carefully, because scent can pull you back to a place and time more effectively than you might think. So try to get things like hygiene products that smell of a place and time where you've been happy, and not what you used in grad school. If you have roommates for this workshop be sure to get permission but you might be able to use some scent diffusers in your room (some of them work with a little led and no fire at all) to help your mind find a better space when you're sleeping or studying. This might feel like a lot of work for just a few weeks of being somewhere but it's like the extreme version of unpacking while at a hotel. It's totally worth it.

Are there restaurants that didn't exist when you were in grad school? Go there, find a different coffee place, eat things that taste unlike what you ate in grad school. And if you have no choice but to eat the same things and smell the same smells and you catch yourself falling into an unasked for emotion, take a minute to remind yourself of a good memory or emotion that you felt somewhere else. Developing a little library of good thoughts and mantras to repeat to yourself can be very helpful.

I can't go back to an entire city without involuntarily feeling like my worst self. I think your emotions are absolutely valid. Focusing on making brand new memories with different surroundings is what helps me, and forming little pockets of "home" and "new" where I can.
posted by Mizu at 12:00 AM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

How important is it that you put on a cheerful facade and are very productive over this two-week period? Of course there are professional reasons to appear calm and to participate in the workshop, but I wonder if you are holding yourself to counter-productively high standards here. That anxious perfectionism could be one of the things your old environment triggers in you. I think it would probably be fine if you coasted on productivity, and made this as undemanding a two week period in your life as possible: attending the workshop, eating well, sleeping well, talking to friends, reading a good undemanding novel. I doubt that this one workshop is make or break for your career - congratulations, you have a PhD! And a great job! - so you don't need to be ultra-impressive to everyone you meet on this occasion.
posted by Aravis76 at 12:05 AM on July 9, 2015

This is a serious reply: Take Mushrooms and process that stuff.
posted by jbenben at 1:25 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I will suggest that, in addition to any bad associations you have, a place really can do a number on you physically. For example, you could be allergic to something on campus and physical health stuff can have impact on brain chemistry. You might try looking into somatopsychic effects and see if that rings amy bells.
posted by Michele in California at 2:07 AM on July 9, 2015

I just happen to be back visiting in the town where I got my PhD and it is grey and gloomy here. I remember how much I hated the endless grey skies. I remember feeling very relieved when someone told me about seasonal affective disorder, and when someone else showed me weather stats that proved this area had fewer sunny days than areas better-known for overcast skies, like the Pacific Northwest. It's not me, it's the fucking weather.

I don't know where you are, but if it's gloomy it might not be you, it might just be the weather.
posted by mareli at 6:34 AM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Forgot to say: if you can ID a physical component, that is potentially treatable. If it is an allergy, antihistamines and similar OTC drugs might do you a lot of good. If it is too little sunlight, bright lights and vitamin D might help.
posted by Michele in California at 8:38 AM on July 9, 2015

I like Mizu's suggestion about finding new-to-you spaces on campus and making them yours. Bonus points for seeking out fun, positive experiences in those spaces.

Do you do any group activities in the workshop (or anything that sets the stage for casual communication)? If so, maybe it'd help to invite a couple of people out for coffee/beers/whatever. You'll probably end up talking about the workshop, people's jobs and lives, and their plans. This might help to root you in the present and future, which could help pull you a bit further from the past.

I had some pretty unhappy times at Big University when I went there straight out of high school. I felt isolated, lonely and kind of lost. I eventually dropped out and finished my undergrad online years later. In the past couple of years, my work has taken me back to that campus many times. There were the same places, the same smells (especially the smells of cleaning products and older buildings). At first, it was kind of weird. Gradually, it got better.

I focused less on the physical space and my own experiences, and more on my current work and the people connected to it. To my surprise, the good experiences I've had there have helped me re-categorize the place in several ways: it's a now-place, a place full of energy, potential, ideas and interesting people, it's a place connected to my work (which I really enjoy). Two weeks may not be enough time for this to happen, but I'm just throwing that out there to say that it's possible for it to happen eventually.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 11:56 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Get outside, walk, go to the gym. If there are friendly people there, try to go out and have fun. There's likely a library, get good movies and books. Treat yourself to some fancy ice cream, a book you've been wanting, other small treats.
posted by theora55 at 1:24 PM on July 9, 2015

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