what exactly does having anxiety doing a phd mean anyway?

Having disclosed having anxiety, I realised that some of you may not really have a clue about what this means, particularly in the context of doing a PhD. I don’t necessarily see this blog as being just about this aspect of my PhD journey, but it is a constant challenge so figure that it’s important to incorporate it into this blog.

Basically, anxiety feels like having persistent, ongoing terror that something terrible is going to happen at any given moment. So in terms of doing something as isolating (and major) as a PhD it means a constant fear that you are going to fail, that you are not ‘good enough’ to do a PhD, that any work you do or writing you submit to your supervisors (or a journal or conference) will be deemed inadequate, even laughable. And you can’t feel you can share this within anyone because, on some level, you recognise them as untrue and irrational. It can undermine everything you and is like having the most unfair critic whispering nasty and unhelpful things in your your ear all the time (nb without actually hallucinating). And, of course, the less work you do, the more guilty and anxious you feel. Like many who experience mental illness, it can sometimes be very hard to separate yourself from the anxiety.

Needless to say, at times it makes it *very* difficult to stay motivated and have productive days/extended periods – or enjoy the process and myriad of opportunities that doing a PhD in the wonderful university environment provides. (I know this is for depression but this animation is also relevant for giving a sense of what living with anxiety is like I think.)

Having come off long term medication a few months ago, I have seen these symptoms gradually creep up on me again (coinciding with the last months before confirmation which was always going to be hard anyway!), so an internal early warning system seems to click on somewhere (‘warning, warning, warning’). So I feel like I’m needing to relearn or strengthen techniques to keep the anxiety in check. And generally it’s been okay – I recognise joys and wonder in everyday life outside of the PhD (and hell, even within the PhD if I’m lucky! 😉 ).

Unfortunately, all perspective goes out the window in the middle of an acute anxiety experience or attack. At these times it seems like riding it out as much as anything, accepting it will pass, taking pleasure in the little things (bike-riding, my cats, gardening, sunshine, books, horseriding), and, perhaps above all else, showing compassion to myself (and if that’s not a lifelong task, I don’t know what is!).


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