Doing Emotionally Challenging Research in Emotionally Challenging Times – A Personal Reflection

Trigger Warning: Research on gender-based violence.


by Mascha Helene Lange

I am dealing with the sensitive issue of gender-based violence on a daily basis. Every morning, my desk greets me with book titles such as Rape and ResistanceFraming the Rape Victim, or Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape.[1] I read autobiographical accounts of people who experienced gender-based violence, I read articles, essays, short stories, novels, comics, I listen to podcasts, I watch videos, TV-episodes, films, and all of them deal with gender-based violence in some form or another. It’s the research I do, it’s the work I chose. It drains my emotional energy under any circumstances, but the pandemic has only made it more exhausting. Doing emotionally challenging research in emotionally challenging times – such as the current unprecedented “times of Covid-19” – is something we should talk about. Which is why I want to share my personal “Covid Story” here.

Emotionally challenging research can mean different things. In a general sense, it is research that can drain a researcher’s mental and/or physical energy to a degree that potentially affects their health and well-being. Because emotionally challenging research juxtaposes personal experience with the research object in ways that are detrimental to the researcher’s health, it goes beyond the usual stress that doing a PhD might entail. Unaddressed, it can become a serious issue. 

The authors Kumar and Cavallaro identify four different types of emotionally demanding research: research on issues that are highly sensitive (such as death and dying, illness, abuse, violence), the occurrence of unexpected and emotionally challenging events in non-sensitive areas of research, research that may trigger trauma previously experienced, and the experience of trauma during research.[2] I can clearly identify my own research on how gender-based violence is negotiated in US-American literature and culture as “highly sensitive” – but what, in more detail, does this mean? What does it feel like to do research on a “highly sensitive” subject? 

The extent to which doing research on a highly sensitive topic challenges me emotionally has differed over time. This is mainly due to two reasons. First, stress and emotional strain add up to each other, which means the longer I do research on this topic, the more it seems to bear me down. And second, perhaps more importantly, I need emotional compensation. That means every time I am emotionally challenged by my research, every time I over-identify with my research object(s) and become frustrated and angry at a world that keeps a highly violent and destructive patriarchal system in place, I need time off doing an activity that compensates me with opposite emotions. And here’s the specific problem the pandemic poses for me: the emotional weight of my research and the emotional load of the pandemic reinforce each other, and I can’t fall back on my usual coping mechanisms. Over the past eleven (plus) months of on-and-off lockdown, this has led to me feeling more and more anxious and emotionally overwhelmed by my own research.

There were times, for example, when I completely had to shut down because I felt that both my mind and my body had “crashed,” like a computer that received one command too many. A few months ago, I started watching the series Unbelievable on Netflix with the intent of considering it for my project, but a few minutes into the first episode, I had to stop. I just couldn’t stand looking at the pictures anymore. Watching Marie, the main protagonist, recount her experience of rape to a police officer affected me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I observed myself over-identifying with the protagonist, imagining myself in her position, despite my cognitive efforts to stay objective. Most of all, however, I was surprised about how the effects of Unbelievable on me and my body seemed completely out of my mind’s control. I felt my chest tighten with a heavy feeling. My muscles – jaw, neck, hands – clenched. My breath came in short, quick gasps that left my brain short of oxygen. I felt immensely vulnerable and isolated. After a moment of silence, away from the screen, the feeling left. But it comes back to me, in different shades, and more often since the world’s been upended through the pandemic.

Before Covid-19, I knew how to cope with the range of emotions my research leaves me with. Anger, disbelief, sympathy, frustration, fear, defiance. Helplessness and hopelessness, numbness and the urge to suppress these feelings for the sake of objectivity. Shame at the prospect of being viewed as weak, as non-professional, as too emotional. And how these emotions manifest themselves in my body, in frequent headaches, a severely tensed back, shoulders, neck, and jaw, overall exhaustion, and lack of concentration. 

Before Covid-19, I knew what would help me was the prospect of a night out, dancing and chatting with friends, but mostly dancing, dancing my feelings away to the rhythm of salsa, bachata, merengue, kizomba. Dancing allowed my mind to shift from thinking about my research to not thinking at all, to being all body and breath moving to the rhythm of the moment.

It is funny how unaware I was at the time, of how dancing kept those feelings at bay, made them bearable, gave me new energy for the next day and strength to face those books on my desk that needed to be read. Then Covid-19 came and took away my number one let-go valve. I realized I was feeling more and more anxious and emotionally drained. I had “shut down” moments. I avoided my work, I slept nine hours and more, only to feel depleted still. 

I am still in the process of finding solutions for this situation, because I know it can’t stay this way, and Covid-19 is surely not going to vanish into thin air any time soon. What one may call researcher fatigue is only amplified by other forms of fatigue that are symptomatic of life with Covid-19, newly coined ones such as “Zoom fatigue,” but also more generally screen and lock-down fatigue. Being confined to my own apartment doesn’t make the situation easier. We can never fully separate our research from our personal lives, but this seems to be even more true in times of Covid-19 when working and living spaces merge into one.

Speaking to other people about my feelings definitely helps. It enables me to label my feelings, to air half-baked thoughts and half-processed emotions. This past weekend, I was fortunate to take part in an online workshop for women in academia, a research supervision seminar, which offered spaces to reflect on my own position as a researcher, my strengths and weaknesses, as well as the “relationship” I have with my research, and most importantly, it allowed me to talk to other young researchers in similar situations. I wish there were more workshops that address the mental health of academic researchers, regardless of whether their research is emotionally challenging or not. I am convinced that this is not simply a question of individual responsibility, but also the responsibility of the institutions that supervise our work.

The workshop was a good start. I am also beginning to consciously step away from my research for longer stretches of time by banning any work from weekends. This doesn’t always work out when deadlines approach, but the rule remains: two days “off” every week. And what do I do during these “off” days? Amazingly, it seems I cannot tire from reading even though my job is all about reading, so I read a lot of fiction. Reading a good novel is one way for me to escape the confines of my lock-down apartment (escapism at its finest – but what else, if not that, do we need at the moment?). If you’re open for reading recommendations: I recently enjoyed Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon very much. And after cursing Covid for taking my dance socials away for months, I finally subscribed to an online dance course – even if dancing at home, alone, is not ideal, I’m set to perfect my shimmies, turns, and lady styling.

If there’s one thing I learned, it is that there are no easy ways out. I have heard some people ask for ready-made solutions, clear instructions on how to deal with the mental load of conducting research during the challenging times of a global pandemic. If this research is also emotionally demanding in and of itself, the load only becomes heavier. Dealing with emotionally demanding research in emotionally challenging times, and the mental and bodily toll this takes, needs time and attention. It needs reflection, and reflection cannot be achieved without distance in time and space. As hard as the current situation makes it, I am now trying to achieve that distance. By any means, I haven’t arrived at a perfect solution, not yet. But one important thing I realized is that in order not to remain standing shock-still, I need to reach out. So, if you are suffering from something similar, feel free to reach out, too.

Mascha Helene Lange, first-year doctoral researcher in American Studies at the University of Leipzig, sponsored by the Hans-Boeckler-Foundation.

https://americanstudies.uni-leipzig.de/users/mascha-lange


[1]            Alcoff, Linda Martín. Rape and Resistance. Polity Press, 2018. Mardorossian, Carine M. Framing the Rape Victim: Gender and Agency Reconsidered. Rutgers University Press, 2014. Gavey, Nicola. Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. Routledge, 2019. 

[2]        Kumar, Smita, and Liz Cavallaro. “Researcher Self-Care in Emotionally Demanding Research: A Proposed Conceptual Framework.” Qualitative Health Research, vol. 28, no. 4, 2018, pp. 648–58. doi:10.1177/1049732317746377.

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