Looking after your mental health as an entomologist

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Wednesday 9 September 2020 08:36

Recently I had a great day in the field with Steve Gale, last time I met up with him was 6.5 years ago (you can read about that here). Things have really changed for me in the intervening time and it was great to spend a full day with Steve on one of my surveys, that happened to be near his house. It's that time of year where I am wrapping up my surveys for the year, it's always a relief to get to this point, especially after this year. Burn out is always a possibility by late summer but in recent years, I haven't really had it as much as I used to. I think I've started to figure out how to avoid it by 'balancing' my time spent in the field. That is, there are some events that can be considered 'yin' and some 'yang'. Some events with a narrow focus and little time to stop and think, some with a wider scope with more time to gain perspective. Now for many people, they balance out this sort of thing by doing something completely different in their lives but I live a life of natural history and in the summer months particularly, I don't want to do much else other than be out in nature. Everything else is for winter!

The problem is, learning to tell the difference. Learning to know when you've had too much of the former particularly. For an entomologist, much of your work falls into this category. That's not to say I don't find it mindful and enjoyable, the days fly by when I am working alone in the field, recording against the clock. I always do my inverts surveys using timed sessions where possible and this does come at a slight cost. I started to notice this last year at Ken Hill. During the bird surveys I was aware how content I was, while during the invert surveys, I wasn't aware at all, I was just recording inverts. If I had stopped to think, I would have actually found I was also quite content but the issue here is I didn't stop. From a vagus nerve point of view, this is really key. If you are doing this kind of exercise all the time, you are in pure survival mode. It's not sustainable. 

In the first three months of the year I hardly saw a person but from July, I have been making an effort to meet up with people on site. They come on my surveys and get some tuition and I get company and some more balance. The harsh contrast between the two halves of the year has been really telling and is ultimately the stimulus for writing this post.

So I have recently started trying to think about how to bring this balance into my natural history life. Now I have been lucky enough to have had a great therapist over the last ten years who has really helped me understand this stuff in quite a technical way.

Tasks that can stimulate survival mode, fight or flight or the sympathetic nervous system

Now I am absolutely NOT saying that these are BAD things. This is about balance.

  • Twitching. Having a target and the possibility of failure is exciting but too much of this can leave you feeling exhausted. You can't get much of a narrower focus than this, if you don't pull up to a twitch with your heart beating out of your chest, you are probably a psychopath.
  • Targeted recording. Going to a site to look for a specific species, say like an orchid or a rare invert. It doesn't have quite the stress of a twitch (as orchids tend to not fly away suddenly) but it still has a specific focus and a possibility of failure.
  • Too much time on your own, in your own head. The focus narrows again. But too much time with large groups of people also falls into this category for me. Much more than four people at once I often find really stressful these days, although I used to love it!
  • Too much time being the most experienced naturalist. If the flow of knowledge is only in one direction, this can also be exhausting.
  • Taking on too much but particularly the side effect of this, rushing. I hate rushing.
  • Wasted days indoors due to rubbish weather forecasts!
  • Dare I say it here. And pot calling kettle black. Too much time on social media! The natural history groups seem to have blossomed in the last five years but it can still suck the life out of you if you're on social media too much.

Tasks that stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system

  • Recording. Going to an area and just recording what you find without specific targets is extremely rewarding as the best things you find are a surprise and there is no chance of failure. 
  • Birding without too many targets. There is an irony here for me. I have recently started to get back into birding but the problem is, it really hurts my back. A gentle walk around a site where I am upright for an hour or two and my slipped disc will be in agony. A 30 min drive home though, and I'll be right as rain (?!). A day spent bending down all day to look through nets and suction samples and I will not get this. 
  • Spending time with people, but people who don't stress you out! I know the latter part of this might sound obvious but I don't always find it that easy to tell. It's much easier as a freelancer to be selective on who you spend time in the field with but it's also really easy to fall into the trap of being on your own all the time!
  • Spending time in the field with people who know more than you so you can absorb it. You know that feeling when you go on a course? You can drink up someone else's knowledge and this can feel very expansive. That's vagus nerve stimulation. Either that or the copious amount of horrible instant coffee I usually drink.
  • Taking the time to enjoy what you're doing. I hate rushing to site, so I would rather go to bed really early and have a long morning sorting out admin and having a big breakfast. There is nothing worse than the stress of feeling like you are running out of time. This is a big reason I don't get on with moth trapping and nocturnal work so well as it ruins the next day (or more) for me. I really don't know how people do night work.
  • Borderline weather. Always go for it, there is nothing worse than sitting indoors on a sunny day for no reason. 
  • When you  are properly rained off though, don't resist! There is NOTHING you can do about it. These unplanned days off from fieldwork are your best friend. Embrace them. Look out the window not in frustration but happy that you are dry and able to process some specimens/records/field notes etc.

If you follow the analogy of the yin yang philosophy, the whole is always stronger and more balanced when the two are mixed. So timed counts of invertebrates on a site with an old friend who you really enjoy the company of, balanced at the end of the day with a very short drive to find a rare beetle. I reckon that just about comes out as the perfect balance. I have recently started planning my time to think about this sort of thing a bit more and I have to say, it's really working. 

So last Sunday, Steve and I had a cracking day, some 166 field dets and a total of 200 species by the time I had processed the spiders, bees and flies etc. I nicked the above photo from Steve's blog, I am sure he won't mind. The only thing I got from the father I never met was a lot of hair, which seems to be taking over again, I only had it cut last October! You can read Steve's account of the field work here and also his account of the pan-species listing element here. I managed to help Steve out with 114 lifers! A jump of two places on the rankings and a place in the top 40. We got lots of nice records but I took very few photos. We headed down the road to see this rare beetle...

Steve found the first one. A massive baguette-sized weevil, Lixus iridis. We found a couple more in the same place but then something really interesting happened. Steve lost his glasses. Wearing glasses at home only, I could feel Steve's stress, I get stressed even though I know they're in the house when I lose them. I found my back started to get bad really quickly but in the 15 minutes or so that this happened, my ability to find Lixus went through the roof. I found four just like that. We were now both in survival mode and it wasn't looking good for a while. Then I spotted the glasses and everything was OK. I am glad we didn't give up. It really shows how much we are effected by what we are doing and learning to read your body is a great way to know what's stressing you out, what doesn't and how to manipulate the two to get the best outcomes for both your mental well being AND your functionality. To reiterate, I wouldn't find half of what I find without activating the fight or flight mode, it's not inherently bad. It just needs balancing.

Back when we could go to pubs, whenever I met up with friends in the summer in beer gardens, they would sometimes comment on how my eyes would be darting everywhere. It's because it takes a while to decompress out of that mind state, I was looking for danger/invertebrates. Saying that, it makes me realise that even though I don't really drink anymore, those sessions were a great way to decompress. Probably more so regarding just switching off for a while rather than the booze but that is something very much missing from 2020.

I digress. Additionally, I tried sweeping Nettle and Hedge Bindweed nearby and picked up a shield bug nymph I didn't recognise. This had to be the Striped Shieldbug Graphosoma italicum. I knew it was found here by Tristan Bantock but it really wasn't on my radar to see, so was a total surprise. Turns out it's most likely the first nymph recorded on the mainland. Not that it was a lifer, as I ticked this on Jersey a few year ago but it was probably the highlight of the day for me.

So if you live a life of natural history and like me, occasionally find yourself getting wound up for reasons that are not immediately obvious, it might be worth thinking about things in terms of the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems.

1 Response to "Looking after your mental health as an entomologist"

Peter Alfrey Says:

Excellent post. Not sure about others but my biggest stress is existential/world stress mainly the apparent futility of being a naturalist within an ultra- capitalist society. That is not good for mental health and no unified or effective effort from the whole conservation community to do anything about it either which is probably overall quite a depressed society.

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