Graduate school can seem like a constant battle between which of your friends works the hardest and which is the most miserable. However, if being miserable doesn’t interest you, I have some experience recognizing anxiety and seeking help.
Depression and anxiety are conditions closely associated with getting a PhD. Experiencing these conditions can be isolating, which only exacerbates symptoms. The situation needs more honesty and acceptance, not silence. I recently read an article about a grad student who had a panic attack about her thesis on an airplane… and now has a fear of flying. The story deeply resonated with me; I wanted to get more information out there. So, as Samwise Gamgee advises Frodo in the depths of Mordor, “Share the load.”
Below, I’ve outlined my own personal experiences with recognizing and treating anxiety induced by the stress of graduate school.
Symptoms of Anxiety
I work with relatively dangerous things. For years, working with microbial pathogens and radioactivity was uneventful. I just did my job. The transformation into crippling anxiety was gradual. I found myself doing “checks.” For example, I couldn’t leave the lab unless I “checked” the freezer a couple times to make sure it was closed. Also, I would Geiger counter my whole body after just being in the radiation room and that wasn’t enough. I would check myself again, and then ask lab mates and lab neighbors to see if they could find anything. Once I started driving back to lab to check freezers and Geiger counter shoes….just to make sure…I became aware that I wasn’t choosing to do these things, I had to.
Ever get the cold sweats? Your heart rate triples and the blood rushes from your head to the pit of your stomach and it feels like you’re going to pass out or throw up? You’ve experienced a panic attack. I would have variations of these symptoms almost every time I worked with a pathogen. The protocols for mitigating potential exposures and cleaning spills eventually weren’t good enough for me. I would obsessively clean everything (see above), and was also incinerating whole outfits that I had deemed “exposed.” These panic attacks were starting to creep out of my professional life and into my personal life. I was unable to comfortably conduct science outreach programs with bacteria because I was convinced our plates were “contaminated” with pathogens.
Demise of Logic
A classic manifestation of this condition is the misdirection of anxiety from the source to what the unconscious mind deems as a relatively “safe” issue. I was not actually scared of radioactivity or the wimpy pathogen I studied in lab. Thus, as I tried to logically explain to myself why I should calm down, it wouldn’t work.
Treatments for Anxiety
Ultimately, I decided that I didn’t have to live with daily anxiety. It was exhausting and uncomfortable. I called our school’s counseling services and scheduled an appointment with a therapist. I’m stubborn and suspicious so the first few sessions were awkward but I soon grew to really like my therapist. She was an ally, a sounding board, and an expert on my condition. As scientists, we should respect and consult with counselors as they are the experts in the mental health field. I’m a molecular biologist. Would I feel comfortable answering questions on theoretical physics? No! It’s not my specialty. Why should we have to deal with psychological changes on our own without appropriate training?
Understanding (and Medication)
One tool my therapist gave me to combat anxiety was an understanding of the condition. My anxiety would settle on a particular issue, and I was unable to conduct a reasonable risk analysis. This is again why logical explanation didn’t mitigate the symptoms. Instead, recognizing my feelings as anxiety was a powerful weapon. Name thy demons! Also, she requested I write down my thoughts during bouts of anxiety, which I did (stubbornly). From these frantic scribblings, I noticed patterns and found the exercise soothing.
My therapist also revealed a common theme with anxious people: avoidance. We avoid the things that make us anxious, which only amplifies their power. In fact, I found examples of avoidance throughout my entire life! Discussing my situation with counseling services, we discovered that I am a generally anxious person who became vulnerable to panic attacks upon the stress of grad school. Therefore, I was a good candidate for medication as low doses of anti-depressants can alleviate anxiety. And in a study of n=1 (me), they certainly do!
Grad school can be tough for many reasons (see Taking Care of Your Mental Health by Ian Street). I recently told my therapist about a specific part of grad school, which I thought I had been managing rather well. She was blown away that I hadn’t mentioned it sooner and literally said to me, “well now I know why you have anxiety.” At the peak of my anxiety, I wondered if I should/could continue doing bench work. After seeking help and managing my symptoms, I’ve accepted a post doc position investigating soil microbial communities. While a mere few months ago this future would have been a punishment, it is now exciting.
In summary, if you are a person who sails through grad school and loves everything about academia, please keep an eye out for these symptoms in fellow students. If you find yourself experiencing challenges in the mental health arena, you don’t have to suffer! I urge you talk about your feelings with friends (who may be experiencing similar things) and especially professionals. You are not alone!