I have never been a particularly make-up focused person – I’ll wear some mascara if the mood strikes, I had a brief love affair with bright lipstick – but my love of nail polish is legendary. I’ve got an entire Ikea cart in my office filled with bottles (collected over time, and nail polish never spoils, so it’s *an investment*) and people regularly give me nail polish bottles as gifts. But what they don’t know is that nail polish is actually as much a mental health tool as it is personal adornment.
Now, I have strange body chemistry that means that even the most long-wearing nail polish, no matter how professionally applied, will peel off my nails in big sheets soon after I apply it. I’m lucky to get 24 hours out of a manicure before it chips, so I long abandoned having my nails done in a salon. Mere mortals might decide that the universe does not want them to have painted nails, but not me. I paint my nails a few times a week, which lets me change the color often, and experiment with bold finishes (and often glitter) frequently.
During my PhD, I was struggling with some pretty severe anxiety. I would be writing, and a negative thought spiral would begin (insert all the imposter syndrome, self confidence destroying thoughts you can think of here!) and pretty soon, I’d be paralyzed, unable to type but also unwilling to give up on my work. When discussing this with my therapist, they asked me to brainstorm other activities I could do to occupy my hands while my brain got itself back into a state of balance. And thus, my ritual of mindfully painting my nails was born.
I’d paint my nails whenever my brain was spinning too fast and the writing was suffering. I’d paint my nails when an email from a student came through that had me through the roof with anger, giving me a break before I could reply in a more measured way. I would pick a color that made me feel particularly powerful (blood red! Navy with gold flecks! Shiny patent leather black!) while I thought about how I wanted to approach an upcoming committee meeting. I’d take deep breaths while focusing on the curve of my nail bed, the evenness of my application, watching the flow of the polish, and that was usually enough to get me back into a place where I felt just a little bit more control.
I was never the kind of person that took to meditating, so painting my nails became that mindful moment in my day that I needed. Waiting for your nails to dry? Perfect time to reflect on your day so far, and adjust your schedule. Don’t want to smudge your nails? Try reading through your drafts, or free writing, to reacquaint yourself with your own thinking. Having wet nails is the perfect excuse to take a break and bring yourself back into balance, to focus on your body, your mind, your priorities.
Academic culture can make it feel like taking a break, even to stretch your legs or grab a glass of water, steals time away from the work. But taking 20 or 30 minutes to slow down made me a better grad student. It allowed for some clarity in my writing, rather than pushing through the anxiety to write whatever muddled thing was on my mind, just to hit the word count goal. Having wet nails saved me from writing rude responses to emails, something my colleagues and students surely appreciated. Taking little breaks to do something just for me was a tiny act of resistance that said “yes, I know that painting my nails doesn’t get my dissertation done any faster, but it does make me happier and more balanced when I do it, and honestly, that’s more important.”
Maybe for you this is taking 20 minutes in the morning to do a more elaborate face of makeup while you really focus on your breathing and the music you’re playing and the day ahead of you. Maybe it’s starting the go to bed routine 20 minutes earlier so you can really take care of your skin. But building in time to rest your mind, reconnect with the present moment, and show your body a little love too? That’s the kind of everyday practice that helps you feel human and academic at the same time.
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