Anxiety in Academia

Andy here-

A few weeks ago an undergrad tweeted that their professor had told them they shouldn’t go to grad school if they were having anxiety attacks because they wouldn’t be able to handle it. I replied that it’s doable but difficult. I want to elaborate. I’m trying here to be as specific and open about my experiences as I can. The beginning of this post is a narrative about how my disorder has impacted my career and life, and the bottom is hopefully some helpful tips I’ve found over the years.

I was diagnosed in undergrad with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as well as Scholastic and Social Anxiety disorders. When I was diagnosed they said that in part it was because of life circumstances but also because “some people just have jumpier nervous systems”. I have a family history of extremely severe anxiety; mine is not as bad as that relative, though it has impacted my life and career. I’ve been on anti-anxiety drugs (SSRIs, which are also used to treat depression) twice, once in undergraduate and I just restarted them a few weeks ago. I’ve been in therapy and counseling twice, once in undergrad and then again starting soon.

Educational & Professional Life

I failed out of college when I was a freshman/sophomore. This was largely because I had never learned to actually work in high school because I could just coast through. I was advised as a college freshman, because I was good at science, to take the extremely accelerated track at the University of Wisconsin (UW). Taking Organic Chemistry as a freshman with no study skills is a bad idea. After failing out of college I took a few classes at a community college, worked a job where I was stuck in the back of a large room entirely by myself, and retreated into online gaming. Coming back from all that was difficult. I went from not socializing for a full year to being back in large 300 person lectures. The only reason that I ended up in graduate school was because my advisor at UW took a chance on me; my grades were below the minimum for admission. Months of therapy (talk and group) helped some. A part of this experience failing left me with intense impostor syndrome which amplifies aspects of the anxiety disorders (Impostor Syndrome in Graduate School)

I had my first migraine in graduate school. I had just given a presentation to my group that I had been really worried about, and got a migraine on the way home. It became a thing, a massive release of stress and then a migraine. The second one had me go to an Urgent Care facility and put on morphine because of the pain. Medication has helped, but also meditation. My anxiety and stress levels are linked, and so the migraines seem like they’re a manifestation of the anxiety.

One of the things about academia is that every new level brings an additional layer of stress. During my PhD things became more intense again. I never felt like I was accomplishing enough each day, even though I would get to work at 7 or 8 AM and then leave at 5 PM, working once I got home. I was working flat out during those days as well, trying to accomplish as much as I could. I couldn’t shut my brain off once I was trying to get to sleep, so I would be awake for hours. Susanna (my wife) eventually suggested that I stop working at 8, force myself to shut down and take time before going to sleep. I also started to meditate before bed, repeating the thought, “I got enough done today.” It helped. I also accomplished more during the day. Your brain needs downtime, just like the rest of you does.

One persistent feeling is that my accomplishments are not my own. This is a part of impostor syndrome, but it’s also a part of anxiety. I still cannot shake the feeling that the postdoc I had at the National Museum of Natural History was because the curator I worked for wanted a specific speciality and he was friends with my PhD advisor, it wasn’t because of me as a researcher. I know that’s not the case because I got another prestigious fellowship 10 days (Newton Royal Society) after I accepted the NMNH fellowship, one that I can’t figure out how to tie completely to another’s success or rank. I remember having thoughts, though, trying to figure out a way to make it not my victory, but something I got because of another person. My second postdoc I got because I had the specific skills in data analysis they wanted. I know that’s an aspect of me as a researcher, but it feels like luck. Something outside my control. My fellowship feels like it was because my postdoc supervisor is a part of the committee, but I know she was out of the room when they discussed my ranking and selection. I either feel that my accomplishments are because I knew somebody that thought I needed help or I was lucky.

Conferences & Meetings

Networking at meetings is tough. My social anxiety is strongest with people I perceive as ranking above me. As a graduate student, talking to prospective advisors was next to impossible. So is doing the talking with mid or senior level scientists as an Early Career Researcher. It means that my involvement in certain projects is behind where it would be if I were able to network better.

Being at meetings is also exhausting. My social anxiety is best explained in analogy to a chemical reaction. I can switch to a more extroverted person temporarily, it just takes a lot of energy. If you think about a chemical reaction, there’s a certain activation energy needed to promote the reaction. If the reaction is initiating a social interaction, for an extrovert it’s lower, in an introvert it’s higher. For me, a person with social anxiety, it’s higher still, because I can feel my fight-or-flight reaction start when I am meeting another person in a meeting context. Because a meeting is a sustained version, I haven’t come back from a meeting in years without catching some kind of cold. Being in therapy makes this even more apparent. After a first session describing previous issues, why I was seeking help, I was ‘keyed-up’ and having an anxiety attack for the next several hours. I was unable to even look my wife in the eye without having an anxiety/adrenaline response.

If it feels like I’m describing all of this in an over intellectualized way, I am. I’ve done this for years to try and take all the emotions I can out of thinking about this because it helps reduce my anxiety levels. Just writing about this is difficult.

Interviewing & Teaching

Having anxiety means that your self perception is off, at least for me. I almost always feel that job interviews go horribly. The worse I feel the better they seem to go. I was completely convinced that I had made multiple fatal mistakes during my most recent interview. I repeatedly went over all interactions in my head. I spent hours mulling over all the answers I had given. I worried over what exactly to send in my emails. A lot of that is normal. What isn’t normal is that I had a feeling of panic the entire time. Weeks of utter dread. I felt as if I had let down my family, that I was never going to get a job. I told everyone that there was no way that I got that job. I ended up seeking medical help because I thought that my anxiety was going to cost me another job after this.

The first question I received after my talk is a good example. I had just finished and my first question was about the underlying driver of one of the topics I’d talked about. I have spent the last two years working on this question and have supervised three MSc students on it. I 100% knew the answer to this question. As soon as the question was asked, my mind went blank. The answer I finally gave, in my memory, made no sense. I remember not even speaking in complete sentences, instead in phrases or just words. It actually took me a week or two after the interview to have the answer reappear in my head, it was like my mind decided to protect itself by temporarily hiding that information. It really did just pop right back in my head like it had never been gone. This phenomenon happened again after a trip to the doctor discussing my anxiety. I was biking, made a turn, and ended up biking towards an oncoming car because I could not figure out which lane I was supposed to be in. I’ve been living in the UK for nearly two years and commute via bike every day. It happened last week when my group was talking about minerals somebody asked me what the hardest mineral was other than diamond. It’s quartz, but I made a joke because I didn’t want to say that in case I was wrong. Of course it’s quartz, I know I’m not wrong, but I can’t trust my self-perception of my answers, so I hide behind humor.

I got that job. I had completely given up on it and spent two weeks after they told me I was their top candidate feeling like they had made some kind of mistake. I know that my interview can’t have gone as poorly as I feel like it has, simply because if it went as poorly as I think it did there’s no chance I would be their top candidate. I know some of my competition for that job, they are amazing scientists! That’s really the bottom line of having anxiety in academia. You will intellectually know what’s going on. You’re in a grad program, so you fully know that you’re a smart, hard working person (you are). You will, however, feel that someone has made a massive mistake. In graduate school, I knew that nothing hugely bad would come of having a conversation making small talk, but even right now, as I sit at my kitchen table, I can feel some amount of adrenaline building just thinking about it.

All this might sound like me teaching could be a problem. Because my inability is situational however, I can teach just fine. If I know I’m the most knowledgeable person in the room, all of this goes away. If I perceive I’m the top of the hierarchy or an equal, then I don’t have a problem. My issues also recede as I get used to a new person, or while I’m actively suppressing them. Finding the limits of your disease can help figure out where you can and can’t be at ease. Storing up that energy when you can is vital.

Anxiety can also be useful, with some huge caveats. I have figured out how to use it as a tool in certain situations. When trying to get a grant finished, for example, if I can ride the balance between being worried about getting it all done and devolving into a complete panic, I can be exceedingly productive. It’s hard on me, it means that I work really quickly but can miss important details, and it does not work well if I do it over too many days.

It’s also, lastly, important to recognize that a basic truism of academia: there are not enough jobs and we face constant rejection. The constant threat of the complete impossibility of winning this lottery will be felt constantly. I, my family, went through 5 years of instability with constant worry about where we were going to get a paycheck from in a year, two years, three years, in the future. Anxiety issues are going to make that worse. Having a family means there’s even more riding on everything, because it’s not just you, it’s dependents as well. It’s worth it, but go into all of this with thought. Consider support systems, make plans (that’s what we do well, right? Plan to deal with anything that happens?).

Managing Stress & Anxiety

I want to end this with some things that have worked for me to help manage stress and anxiety. I’ve culled these from discussions with therapists, reading, and talking with other people. I hope they help you as well.

Find somebody to talk to that you trust: I would not be in the same mental state if I didn’t have Susanna to talk things through with. If I’m feeling anxious about something, I talk things through with her. She’ll give me an honest but supportive take on whatever it is. She pushes me to find professional help when I need it. For somebody that finds asking for help to also cause anxiety, that’s important. I know this seems like me saying “oh, just find somebody you love. That’ll fix it.” but it doesn’t have to just be a spouse. Find a trusted friend to confide in, or a parent. A support structure is important in graduate school or academia for anybody, but it’s even more important for somebody with anxiety.

Many universities have counseling services that offer a certain number of sessions with student or credentialed therapists. That’s what I started with at UWisc. The University of Bristol even also has a free staff counseling service. Seeking professional help is incredibly helpful. If you are in graduate school, you should recognize that expertise is important. Just because it’s your head, doesn’t mean that you are the best person to think your way out of your issues. I’ve tried. It does not work, a professional can guide you through the process better than you can do yourself.

Stop working: It’s really easy to fall into the trap that getting more stuff done will solve anxiety problems. It won’t. You’ll get more done for a day, then your productivity will begin to drop off, and that’ll cause more anxiety. Having a firm time everyday that no-matter-what you will stop working lets you take space. You cannot work all the time and be productive. People that say they can are wrong and dangerous. It’s not healthy for you or the others around you. I play first person shooter video games (the modern Wolfenstein series is a favorite), it takes me out of the things that are worrying me at the moment and lets me focus on something external. It’s been an effective catharsis for me. Find something that works for you to distract you from constant barrage of thoughts about work.

I now have two kids, and I trained myself to have fairly intense guilt about working from home. While that’s not great at the moment because of the pandemic, it’s been an effective deterrent to working constantly.

Breathe: I meditated for 15-20 minutes before my PhD defense. I put on a specific song that helps calm or center me, closed my eyes, sat cross legged, and tried to clear my head. I’ve been doing this since therapy after my panic attack. It has helped. I have no idea if I’m even meditating correctly, but find something that works for you. You just need to create some mental space from yourself and your stressor.

Give yourself a break: Recognize that this is going to make graduate school harder. It’s going to make being an academic harder. You will feel the lows more than the highs, and academia comes with all sorts of lows. Rejection will feel sometimes like a gut punch, it’ll make you want to leave. Yes, everybody feels this, but you, a person with anxiety, does not have an accurate self perception of your personal successes. I’ve had several really prestigious positions, PI’d a large multi-institution NSF grant as a postdoc, published in Nature, Nature Ecology and Evolution, and a bunch of other really good journals. I just got a research heavy Assistant Professor position, picked from over >100 people. I constantly feel I will need to leave academia imminently because somebody is going to figure out that I’m not as good at something as I should be. I don’t even know what that thing is. You’re going to feel this too. It’s a part of us. Sit with that thought, identify it, and realize that it’s a feeling and it’s not true to what you intellectually know. But then recognize that it sucks to constantly feel like this. It just does! It’s not your fault.

Figure out your triggers: I mean this in both a positive and negative, find things that make your mental state less and more anxious. Figuring out how to calm yourself down is just as important as figuring out what might lead to more anxious feelings.

I listen to a lot of very fast music (the more I think about my disorders the more I realize it’s completely interwoven into every part of my life), which many people have told me would make them feel anxious. A good example is Animals as Leaders – Tempting Time or Daughters – The Hit. This is what I (used to) listen to when I work. It’s quick, layered, and helps clear out the rest of the thoughts that I have rattling around in my head. But the cacophony can make things worse, so sometimes I have other music (e.g., Imogene Heap) which I can use to calm down. For me it’s about finding that balance between using the anxiety as a tool to get things done and not over doing it.

Drugs: I recently went on Sertraline (Zoloft in the States). So far, it’s helping. It’s tough to say, as I got over the initial increase in anxiety the Covid-19 pandemic really gained speed, the UK went on lockdown, and I received my job offer. While it’s tough to say what’s going on for any of us emotionally, both I and Susanna think that the drugs are helping. Taking drugs isn’t a weakness. Some of us (hello!) literally have nervous systems that react stronger to our experiences. Getting help is important.

If you also suffer from Anxiety and want to talk with somebody who has made it through, please do reach out to me. I’m on twitter (@macromicropaleo) or via email (andy.fraass (atsymbol) gmail.com), or anywhere else you can find me. I’m more than happy to talk or write with anybody about my experiences, your experiences, or just to listen. If you want 5 minutes or several hours, please, really do reach out.

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