Phd Anxiety

This blog post aims to talk about my own personal experiences and feelings to do with anxiety and low mood as a PhD student trying to get by in the often brutal world of academia. There are no certain ideas here, just some thoughts and questions.


On the one hand, doing a PhD is an experience inherently linked to feelings of fear, anxiety, and lack of confidence. This stands to reason: the start of a PhD is the start of a journey into a hitherto little-known world of academia. As with any new experience, there will be fear and anxiety. This seems to be especially the case for doing a PhD which demands so much of yourself and is, ultimately, a path that the individual treads alone, battling with deadlines, financial insecurity and even poverty, juggling commitments, and fighting with texts, ideas, and theory. Faced with these circumstances, feelings of anxiety and low-self-confidence are an inevitability. This seems readily accepted and can be demonstrated by the myriad references and allusion to the ingrown anxiety of being a post-graduate student: searching online and in texts about PhD advice there are descriptions of ‘PhD anxiety’, ‘guilt’, and the commonplace ‘imposter syndrome’. But if these experiences are part of the daily grind of doing graduate research, what of those of us with a propensity for, and often, history of, anxiety as a mental health condition. Being an avid twitter follower and scourer of the PhD-related blogosphere, I’ve noticed that this issue crops up with some frequency, and yet support or resources seem to be few and far between. I wonder if this is due to a number of reasons: firstly, the ‘shame’ of ‘coming out’ and talking about mental health remains rife. This, too, is fueled by the depression mind-set: if they know, they’ll think I’m not capable. Furthermore, the idea that doing a PhD is expected to be an anxiety-laden experience may make light of mental health as an issue, linking it, instead, to circumstances.


I’m a few months into the second year of my PhD now. The first six months were difficult and wracked with self-doubt about whether or not I was capable of doing a PhD. As I’ve progressed, gained conference grants, got more funding, presented at and organized conferences, been involved in teaching, research seminars, and projects, and seen my ideas develop, I’ve become convinced that this is, in fact, what I want to do. And moreover, what I CAN do. But now I find myself facing a new hurdle: anxiety. As mentioned above, PhD research is anxiety-inducing, I understand this. But recently I feel almost paralysed by it: my chest is tight, I feel like a can’t breath, I find myself holding my breath or clenching my jaw until it hurts, I have nightmares where I wake up screaming, I’m so tired all the time, and I am terrified of presenting at forthcoming conferences and of handing in my work to my supervisors. In fact, this last point is so bad that I just don’t want to hand in the work I’m doing, and sending that email feels physically hard. Not to mention dealing with the feedback. (This, obviously points out the next steps I need to take. The trouble I find is that seeing how far I have to go is daunting. And I feel like I’m not getting anywhere.)

I’m convinced I’m doing the right things in trying to deal with this: I eat more or less healthily and regularly, I exercise several times a week, I get up in the morning, I don’t nap, I take time off for me, and I do work (yesterday I drafted a conference paper, with the exception of filling out a few quotations). So what more can I do? Here’s some ideas:


–       In searching online for advice and support about doing a PhD and mental health, I was looking for coping strategies. But perhaps what is more useful, is the access to others to provide understanding. In order to achieve this, mental health stigma needs to be eroded. This can be done one person at a time, by talking about it.


–       Talking to others about fears and feelings also creates a platform for working through things and changing mindsets. When I was having a freak out the other day I wrote down all my worries and showed it to the other half, who scrutinized it saying ‘anyone can say they’re not doing enough, but what does this actually mean?’ and told me to take it away again and think about what things I want to do and how I can measure them to ensure that I know I’m doing enough. This is really good advice. Setting Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Targets (think smart! ;P) is useful for calming down, especially when these are written down next to what you’ve already done. This is a good way of illustrating the individual ladder rungs you have to tread, but also seeing how many you’ve already climbed.


–       Finally, I think that anxiety problems are particularly hard for researchers because our daily life is based on thinking about ideas and working through them. Mental health problems, however, cannot easily (if at all) be worked through logically. This is something that really stumps me. I use theories to read texts to show something / do something / argue something with the aim of making a statement or achieving something. When it comes to dealing with anxiety and low mood, I frequently feel completely stumped and really frustrated at what I can DO. So I think that accepting that there might not be a solution, just ideas, can help me calm down. Especially because anxiety is cyclical: I worry about work, then I worry about worrying…. and arg! Instead, I want to break the cycle, accept that there might not be any specific thing I can do, but that’s OK.

That completes three ideas, which I am putting into action. This post forms part of my #AcWriMo aims, which I thank for being the impetus in writing this. It is also influenced by a blog post by Nadine Muller which I found  particularly useful. Thanks for reading, and please comment or link if this rings a bell with you.


3 thoughts on “Phd Anxiety

  1. I’m so glad you posted this. I feel like you really capture the nuances of how anxiety and self loathing are normalised in academic and how that can be difficult to distinguish from the anxiety and self loathing experienced as mental health issues. (I’m probably being much less clear than you have been, but I wanted to reply instead of just keeping my thoughts to myself).

    It’s been, what, a month or so since I properly started my PhD and that had coincided with a lot of worsening of my axniety and depression, and I have been feeling like I didn’t really know what to do about it, so I have found your post on this very comforting but also inspiring to get on with some stuff instead of giving in to paralysis. (And one of the first things I will be getting on with is that summary for Roles — I feel really bad that it’s so late, sorry!)

  2. The feelings about self doubt, imposterism, etc are all valid, as I feel that way as well. It is nice to know that I am not alone in my anxiety induced paralysis! What to do about it? Chemicals? Not really. If you are in a university, you may have access to psychs or counsellors who can ask the right questions to find the answers. I found positive hypnosis CDs effective, at least they got me to relax enough to lie flat! And sometimes just getting it off your chest helps too! Have you read ‘feel the fear and do it anyway?’ By Susan jeffers(?) a useful, easy read that I keep returning to in moments of anxiety. Chin up, put the big girl panties on and give it your best shot! I’ll be back in a week or two…

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