An Anxious Mind

We all worry. Some occasionally, some more often than others, some rarely. Being a worrier, or an anxious person, is not necessarily a problem. It becomes an issue, however, when you find yourself unable to switch off, feel content, or focus; when your head is permanently filled not only with thoughts but with worries about what you need to do next and what you have (not yet) done, and what the consequences of this are. From the moment you wake up to the second you fall asleep, your head spins with daunting fragments of task lists, personal worries, and the imagining of bad things that have not happened, and are not likely to. The result of this state of mind can vary between at least two behaviors; some people experience both in turn, some only encounter one throughout their lives.

Edvard Munch, "Anxiety" (1894)

Edvard Munch, “Anxiety” (1894)

The first is a sort of hyperactivity, or mania. There is no task list, no breakfast, perhaps not even time for a shower. The next best computer is still switched on from a late night, or rather an early morning, of work and is the first object on which your focus turns (next to, perhaps, the kettle or the coffee machine). Things get done in no particular order. Anything and everything you can think of is approached with the same tense energy and urgency, from emails to rushed writing jobs. The physical manifestations of this manic state are a pounding heart, a permanent frown, constantly tense shoulders, and an inability to sleep (or rather to sleep peacefully and sufficiently). You are irritable (to say the very least), become angry and frustrated with others who do not do as you would do, or not at the pace at which you would like them to do it. Most of the time this is not their fault. Lessons learned from this state of mind: never, never respond to or write an email during this period without waiting at least half a day, especially if the email concerns some sort of dispute or touches on anything about which you do not feel entirely positive. The good side: it can make you look pretty efficient, and your task list certainly becomes (temporarily) a lot smaller.

Edvard Munch, “Evening on Karl Johan” (1892)

The second possible outcome of an anxious mind, and the state with which hyperactivity can sometimes alternate, is complete exhaustion and detachment, both mentally and physically, bordering very often on depression. You don’t get up. Often you feel you cannot get up because you’re unbearably tired, both in body and mind. If you do get up, it tends to result in a distracted stare at your computer screen or out of the window. It’s difficult – perhaps, at the time, impossible – to snap out of that distractedness, that emptiness, that tiredness, and distance. You think about everything and nothing, though in quite a lot of depth, but it seems as though you’re not part of the world. Instead, you stare at it in disappointment, deeply involved only in its worst aspects. You live, more than you usually do, entirely in your own mind. The positives of this state are difficult to identify. Sleeping, no matter for how long, brings nothing but more tiredness; your task list does not become shorter; you’re unable to engage with anyone in a genuine or meaningful way, simply because they cannot match or follow your thoughts.

Edvard Munch, “Despair” (1894)

The sometimes punishing and multiple pressures and schedules of academia can foster these behavioral patterns, at least for those of us who are prone to them. It can also lead to or – perhaps more often – stem from a lack of confidence, and a lack of belief in your abilities or the worth of your work. Unfortunately, the current job market (not just, but particularly) in academia also encourages unhealthy work patterns and attitudes. While working on your thesis, you are trying to meet the various other requirements you spot in the person specifications of the academic job adverts you dare cast your eye on. Conscious that you should be publishing, teaching, giving papers, organizing events, and trying to capture external grants, the question arises how you will produce a passable doctoral thesis next to the workload associated with all these various activities which *may* (or, for that matter, may not) secure you an academic job after your Ph.D. If you are self-funded and a part-time student, with a job on the side that pays for your fees or a family to care for next to doing your research, this question becomes, on all accounts, ridiculous. Of course, there are voices that promise you that you merely need to show the “promise” of being able to do all these things, but how will you even make the shortlist if there are Ph.D. graduates out there who have all this and more already on their CV, not least because they have been on the job market for a year at least? The task seems impossible, quite frankly, and even more so if your funding (if you have it) ends once you submit your thesis, and you have no family support to fall back on; only one or more hourly-paid teaching contracts or a job that gives you little towards your academic CV. The pressure is incredible, and there is not a day you don’t remind yourself of it. (Yet, it’s not impossible, and I and many others are living proof of this.)

10743744_lAll you can do is try your very best and hope for the best, which often isn’t a very comforting mantra to fall back on. Instead, you work yourself into the ground, internalize the negativity and the ruthless critique of your work on a personal level, and your self-worth only witnesses occasional peaks when students leave you lovely feedback for your seminars, or when your supervisor tells you your latest chapter draft was excellent. But even in those moments there is that doubt: does your supervisor mean “excellent” when they say it? Are they too close to your work to see all those “obvious” flaws? Are they just trying to be nice because they can see that your confidence is seriously failing you? Perhaps the students pity you, or they can’t spot the last-minute, flawed prep you did in the last two weeks. These thoughts feed your anxiety. They feed your physical and emotional lack of wellbeing.

imenoughYou tell yourself that things will be different once you have that holy grail, that first permanent academic job, when you can relax on a decent salary, traveling to only one place of work, being an integral part of your department and a permanent good colleague. But if you internalize the behavioral patterns described above now, during your Ph.D., they won’t ever go away. Not on their own, not without you recognizing that you are the one who maintains them, feeds them. You will continue to feel insecure, you’ll feel unfairly threatened by colleagues, you will beat yourself up because not everyone in your department likes you, because you can’t please everyone, because you do everything wrong, always. While academia can be challenging and punishing in itself, don’t underestimate the effect your Ph.D. studies can have on you. Depending on your subject, spending three years on your own and largely in your head is bound to throw up the good, the bad, and the ugly, especially if you have struggled with mental health issues before.

Academia can be a tough environment. The current neo-liberal structures that dictate its activities and processes make it more competitive, less friendly, and often isolating. As difficult as it may seem, you must not give into the thoughts and behaviors these structures breed, or you will never be happy with who you are, or with what you do. There comes a point – hopefully sooner rather than later, perhaps when you’ve finished reading this post – that you must change your thinking about yourself and your work. The sooner you learn to be happy with yourself – your flaws, your quirks, your strengths – the sooner you will become the researcher that you’ve always aspired to be but have always felt like you may never become. If you don’t change the way you think, you won’t be able to enjoy that first job, that first salary, that sense of being part of a department for longer than a semester, because all you’ll do is just carry on what you’ve always done, and it will make you unhealthy on so many levels.

7828965_sIf you feel you need professional, medical help because of your depression or anxiety, then seek it. I don’t advocate medication for these issues, but when you are in a truly difficult, bad place, they can sometimes give short-term relief while you’re getting ready to see your problems constructively and honestly. You needn’t suffer your challenges on your own, either. There are colleagues and fellow Ph.D. students who will be happy to provide honest, open dialogue about the problems we all face – some of us more severely and more often than others. Constructive action instead of pathologization seems, to me, the way forward. No matter if you give your state(s) of mind medical name or not matters little, at least to me. Medical labels can be unhelpful, or they can help you rationalize your issues.

14568033_sWhat’s disturbing is that it’s so easy, for those of us who are prone to worrying and to being anxious (especially those on an academic pathway), to remain entirely ignorant of just how much we internalize, accept, and indeed comprehend as ‘normal’ the state of stress and anxiety under which we (are conditioned and force ourselves to) operate on a day-to-day basis for extensive periods of time, from weeks through to years. Of course some, or even many, of you may say that all this is (easily) controllable, or that I dramatize perfectly normal periods of academic stress. However, it’s exactly the thought that this is ‘part of the job’, or even the idea that the ‘really capable’ ones do not encounter these issues, which I find frightening, and which, I suppose, I ask you reconsider. Our work means a lot to us, but the world didn’t end when I last said “no” to an opportunity, or when I decided to finish a task tomorrow and give myself an evening off for once. Most importantly, it’s only when you are happy with yourself that you can teach others to do the same, that you can help change the structures that encourage us to feel inferior, and that you can be at your best, as a researcher, a teacher, a colleague, and a friend.

Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University and has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Hull. Her research covers Victorian and neo-Victorian literature and culture, contemporary women’s fiction, and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the literary and cultural history of the widow in Britain (Liverpool University Press, 2017).

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26 Responses

  1. Yvette Summers says:

    This was an excellent blog. Exactly where I am, as an academic but also starting my phd in Sept. Thank you for sharing. I’m not alone….powerful

  2. Karen A. Moore says:

    The key is to breathe! 🙂

  3. Martha S. Ginyard says:

    We worry a lot and it can really take a toll on us. We must see to it that we will control our feelings and get rid of the doubts that we may have.

  4. aesc says:

    You know, it’s not the internal stuff that gets me. I’ve never been especially prone to anxiety or depression–I’ve had to deal with them, but generally caused by something tangible, and my brain seems to be naturally wired toward optimism. But the idea that no matter how confident you are, or how much you’ve managed to meet quite a few of the arbitrary milestones (somehow, I’m not even sure how), that what you think about yourself matters not a whit compared to whether you’re lucky enough to have your name drawn out of the job interview hat, it’s just depressing. Not knowing where you’re going to live, how you’re going to eat, or if it’s ever going to look up, that’s hard for anyone to deal with, I think.

    Two things that make it worse: being a mature student and being an international student. In the first case, you have a limited time. If you finally manage to land a first job at 40, retirement is not a thing that is ever going to happen (unless you have some family money to fall back on). That might be okay; academics tend to work till they’re pretty old anyway, but it’s still scary. In the second case, it’s an added level of uncertainty–not getting a job within a certain arbitrary time frame (before the visa expires) means leaving the life you’ve built up over the postgrad years. Friends, colleagues, professional networks, social networks, your physical home–you lose all of it, all at once, and that’s even more scary!

    I understand why people say ‘look into other careers.’ In some cases, we’ve HAD other careers. They weren’t the right thing. Academia is the right thing. I won’t ever regret doing the PhD because it’s amazing–it was never only about getting a job, for me, but about spending time doing the thing I most wanted to do in the whole entire world–but I’d be lying if I said I’d be personally, emotionally, spiritually satisfied with an alternate career at this point. The reason for going back to do this when you’re already a grownup is because it is The Thing You Want Most. There’s more at stake than just ‘getting a job.’

    Anyway, sorry for a lot of wordvomit all over your comments, but some of this had to come out somewhere. 😉

  5. Ryan Raver says:

    Nadine,

    Great article. I would just like to point out though that there needs to be a clear distinction between “burn out” and “stress.” Unfortunately, grad school depression is very prevalent and many who have type A personalities and are perfectionists seem more prone to anxiety. There are many issues here that need to be addressed:

    Stress vs. Burnout (there are clear distinctions):
    1) Overengagement vs. disengagement
    2) Overreactive emotions vs. blunted emotions
    3) Loss of energy vs. loss of motivation, ideals, and hope
    4) Can lead to anxiety disorders vs. leads to detachment and depression
    5) Primary damage is physical vs. primary damage is emotional
    Also, burnout may make you feel like life is not worth living.

    What your article doesn’t mention is helping those branch out from academia. Let’s face it, some just aren’t cut out for it, and many want to pursue better job prospects. So simply stating that “I am enough” and “academia is a tough environment” doesn’t really address the problem that we are having. I know many PhD students that realized that academia wasn’t right for them and have now find satisfying jobs outside of academia and they got their lives back. Grad school fosters depression as we know and this is because of the academic, high-pressure work environment. My advice to those who are burned out, is to seriously ask yourself if you have enough energy to finish. Stress is one thing, but PROLONGED stress can cause burnout. It also is a sign that the work environment may not be a good fit for you because your are prone to these types of things. If you are depressed, I agree with seeking professional help, but at the same time a serious life change may be needed. There is no shame in leaving with a Master’s degree for the sake of your mental health. Others who can make it through and finish the PhD need to be aware of all there options beyond the PhD:

    What also fosters depression is living under the delusion that (in the U.S. for example) you will land a faculty position within 5 years of obtaining your PhD: Only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years (according to a 2009 NSF survey). So to not inform people of other options outside of academia can also contribute to depression, because they feel trapped in the academic life. PhD students and post-docs need to have options and be given outlined steps to make this feasible and obtainable (i.e. to start networking). Simply trying to overcome depression and anxiety is not the end-game because guess what? You can get the PhD, end up with no job and become more depressed. That is why PhD students need to be aware of options NOW, and see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, of course you will become anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, and lose motivation. You will feel powerless. That also makes you feel like the work you are doing now is meaningless because it won’t get you anywhere. You are being trained to pursue a job where only ~1 in 10 people land a faculty position (and the PhD has many transferable and marketable skills that can be taken to other fields). Therefore, you end up working 10x as hard as the other person just to stand a chance, which can lead to overbearing stress and ultimately, burnout. In reality, harder work doesn’t necessarily guarantee you the academic job, and it doesn’t always equal more quality output (i.e. data). Therefore, it is no wonder the academic work environment fosters depression because of its high standards that continue to rise as the job market gets more competitive and research funding becomes harder to obtain (yet the number of PhD’s awarded is on the rise?). Instead of keeping silent about ‘non-traditional’ or alternative PhD careers, when are we going to be more open about them? I think if we were more open and PhD’s knew of their options upfront, depression rates would decrease. So people need to be informed of OTHER options so that there is HOPE, in order to decrease depression and anxiety rates during and after a PhD (I speak from experience).

    • Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

      Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response. I absolutely agree that we need to stop idealizing academia as the holy grail at the end of a Ph.D., though of course I didn’t address this here because the post is from my perspective and with those in mind who, like me, are determined that academia is the right career for them.

      I have to say that I’m cautious of the distinctions you draw between burnout and anxiety, not least because they are very, very shaky and I think all of the above symptoms you mention can coincide quite easily.. Especially distinctions such as “loss of energy vs. loss of motivation, ideals, and hope” are very difficult to draw in reality, though there may be very clear theoretical lines. Equally, assigning primarily physical or emotional damage is more artificial than the lived experience, I think.

      That’s not to say, of course, that we need to be mindful of what we’re actually experiencing in order to figure our why we are feeling a certain way, and this may well lead to the realization that academia isn’t the right choice. But while I think a better grounding – from year one – in what options there are after the PhD, I also don’t think this is the sole solution, especially of course not for those who do want to remain in academia.

  6. Helena says:

    Thanks for this, basically summarises most of my PhD experience (and I’m not finished yet!). I’ve had problems with depression in the past, as a teenager (20 years ago) which was treated with medication. Was mostly fine in the period between then and when I started my PhD.

    The single best thing I’ve discovered to deal with my anxiety and depression this time around has been meditating. I made it a new year’s resolution and have meditated every morning since shortly before the new year. My moods are much better, I still get occasional lows but I’m not sucked into the black pit as suddenly as before. My family and others have noticed that I seem to be a lot better in the past few months. It’s also really helped with my ability to concentrate. I’ve been lucky enough to find a really supportive counsellor through the student health service who has helped me a lot.

    I would definitely recommend meditation to anyone who is dealing with anxiety / stress – it’s free , portable and has only positive side effects!

  7. Rebecca says:

    Hi Nadine,
    Thank-you for posting this blog. I’ve wanted to make better use of my ac privileges for a long time in the sense of helping myself and others to recognize that mental health issues can be lived with and spoken about in a way that does not have to result in judgment and alienation. Until I read your post I have been unsure how to go about this. But now I realize that I can help myself and others simply by saying it as it is and by joining in with the conversation. To me, depression seems alien when it is left unspoken; but now that I see it translated into a conventional form, its potency seems to have been dissolved into something more friendly. Thank-you for both speaking out and for showing me that it is possible to succeed in academia in spite of, or perhaps in part because of (?), an anxious mind.

  8. Shyane Siriwardena says:

    Nadine,
    I just found this post via Twitter and I wanted to thank you for posting such an honest account of your experience with anxiety. Not only can I thoroughly relate to the reactions you described, I have seen the very same reactions in students that I’ve taught. What bothers me is how blasé some members of faculty can be about this very challenge so many students face. Mental health is only ever whispered about in faculties, I’ve found. To be sure, there’s more open discussions on welcome days, or from those responsible for pastoral care; but, the denizens of the highest recesses of the ivory tower seem either unaware, to willfully ignorant.
    Posts like this one go such a long way to making students feel understood, and (hopefully!) to making teachers open their eyes.
    Many thanks for your courage!
    Shyane

  9. Rosie Miles says:

    I’ve just discovered this post, Nadine, and I too think it is very brave and hugely commendable that you post this. I actually feel encouraged that a younger generation of academics than me are being honest enough to talk openly about some of the facets of life as an academic that can be emotionally and psychologically difficult. And interestingly it’s blogs that are opening up the space to say these things. Perhaps there is an increased awareness of ’emotional intelligence’ and that that’s as important in life as intellectual intelligence (but it’s a lot less likely your PhD supervisor or your Dept. Research Coordinator, etc., will tell you that).

    It’s possible to go through an academic career, at all stages of it, feeling never quite good enough. After all, there is always someone who has published more/is more popular with the students/is invited to write or speak more/is at a ‘better’ university than you, in a ‘better’ department, etc., etc., etc. The other side of that is the constant ego-driven self presentation of ourselves that we are often required to make in the professional academic world. Both can cause anxiety, distress and depression. Many academics are also very driven, and this can seem a seductive trait, as such people may appear (and indeed be) very productive. But being driven is also not healthy.

    I don’t necessarily have any easy answers to these matters. It seems that the more one becomes aware of how academia operates and how it impacts on your own life and psyche, then maybe the more able one is to negotiate one’s way through mindfully and with self care. It’s not easy…but it’s helped by posts like this. Thank you.

  10. Sharon Ruston says:

    Nadine – I just wanted to say how brave it was of you to post this. It’s so important that we talk about these things which are hugely prevalent in academia. I’d love to tell you that it all gets easier as you climb the career ladder but there are new as well as the same sources of stress as you go. UCU (which I urge all part-time and ECRs to join) have been looking into the issue: http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=3647.

  11. Kate Antonova says:

    I found this blog through twitter (forget how I found you there!).

    There are also the physical manifestations of academic stresses – how many people do you know with back problems, neck problems, migraine, etc? I had a major back injury a few years ago and was amazed how when it came up nearly everyone had gone through something similar at some point. I think it’s the combination of stress, spending large periods of time sitting, especially over computer, and also the very academic attitude that either you push through pain or you’re “not serious enough” for this profession. Grad school and the tenure track tend to breed that.

  12. Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

    Hi Alison, Amy and Karen,

    Thanks so much for reading the post and for replying to what I know is a very personal and often hushed up topic! I really appreciate your honesty.

    Alison, I know exactly what you mean re. “holding your breath” without even noticing. Especially in the mornings I used to often catch myself breathing only very shallowly when I was preoccupied with something!

    Karen – yes, I can see how writing down any worries can help rationalising (and perhaps even eliminating them). Good idea!

    Amy, you don’t sound like an idiot. I’ve had responses to this post via various channels, and it’s clear this is what many people think of themselves, i.e. that they somehow lack the superhuman skills of other academics because they do not know how to fix their brains. No matter how much we try, more often than not these issues in particular need some sort of external input. Unfortunately, we can’t step out of our body and observe ourselves.

    Thanks again to all three of you – your responses are much appreciated.

  13. Alison Summers says:

    it took me two years of studying for a PhD and a workshop on slowing down before I realised I had been holding my breath for most of the time. This is not good for energy, anxiety or for the brain! I still catch myself holding my breath and have to take deep breaths and remind myself to breathe. I think the breath holding has to do with waiting for someone to “catch me out”, “find me out” and “tell me off”. Have to remind myself I am an adult. (55 years old!)

    • Jane Jackman says:

      You’re not alone! I suffer the same feelings of inadequacy and fear of being ‘found out’ for being an dunce in academic clothing. Also like you I’m (the wrong side of) 55, so it must go with the territory. In fact I’m often tempted to give up on the doctorate, it’s so anxiety-ridden…but now beginning to realise that rather than throwing in the towel, I need to figure out a better (kinder to myself) way to manage my project. Thanks for the tip on breathing, it’s a start.

  14. Karen MCAulay says:

    One helpful strategy is to WRITE DOWN all concerns when you realise the downward spiral. There;s a certain satisfaction in being aboe to strike them off the list/ delete from evernote! and I’m ashamed to say, if I’m seen eating chips at lunchtime, it means I’VE IDENTIFIED A STRESSBUNNY DAY!

  15. Amy Rushton says:

    Nadine, thanks for posting this thoughtful and honest account about your experience of anxiety and its impact on your life (both professional and personal).

    Academia and Higher Education is a sector that generates enormous pressures to perform for the reward of little security, money and, indeed, hope. Of course, we don’t do it for the money or the security (although it’s nice when it happens!), but this does add pressure. Most of us also make sacrifices in our personal lives in order to pursue academic careers. Sometimes it’s hard to look for the silver lining.

    As individuals, we’re often ‘exposed’: in the peer reviewing system, in front of students, in front of peers at conferences. This leads to feelings of vulnerability, not a quality that is particularly appreciated by senior colleagues. At the same time, the oft-cited problem of working in academia and Higher Education is that it requires isolation. All of these factors combined create a confusing, conflicting matrix of stresses that demand mental space. It isn’t hard to imagine what that does to those of us (and it seems to be the majority) who were already prone to anxiety and depression *before* beginning their postgraduate careers.

    Anxiety and depression are isolating conditions so posts like yours are crucial to reassure and – most importantly – connect with others feeling the same way. Sometimes, it’s easier to just say it once on blogs and social media than to have to go over and over it in person. I know that was the case for me! I ‘came out’ of the Black Dog closet (kennel?) this year and was overwhelmed by the positive responses I received, especially from people I hadn’t been close to. (I was also surprised by the reactions of those I *had* been close to – but that’s another story.) Subsequently, I have found Twitter to an invaluable source of support – it’s the equivalent of an on-line staffroom for postgrads and early career researchers. It never fails to cheer me up.

    To end on a more specific personal note: for anyone working towards a doctorate and who recognises or suspects even a slight symptom of anxiety, *please* contact your counselling service and/or GP. My work-related anxiety would often mentally paralyse me: I’d find myself staring at a screen, worrying about how to (over-)prepare a seminar or how to articulate an idea in my thesis without sounding like an idiot. I’m still dealing with this aspect of my mental health: small steps but significant changes are already apparent.

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