Wednesday 31 May 2017

My Anxiety, My Epiphany, and Me

This student suffered from anxiety their whole career, and studying for their PhD was no exception. They were able to move on after an epiphany, when they realised they been trying to please the wrong people.
- Anonymous

I’m a PhD student and, like so many others, I suffer from anxiety. I take medication to help me manage it, but sometimes that’s not enough and I experience panic attacks, episodes of irritability, anger, crying, and feeling utterly helpless. I often struggle to sleep, which amplifies things. It’s all made worse because I’m in my fourth year and no longer have an income through a stipend, but still have a family to feed and a mortgage to pay. My family are affected by my anxiety every bit as much as I am.

My latest episode of anxiety was because I had not been able to write for a long time, and I had reached the point where I had to write or I had to give up. I’m not lazy; people with anxiety generally aren’t. We’re anxious because we want to write but are afraid to. Writing is putting your ideas, a part of yourself, of your soul, out for scrutiny which, for someone with anxiety, is terrifying. And anxiety is reinforcing, so being unable to write increases your anxiety, which makes it even harder to write, and so on ad infinitum.

To people who are thinking, or have said, “can’t you just do it?”, no, I can’t. If I could ‘just’ do it, wouldn’t I have already done it? Please don’t say that to people; it’s not helpful. It’s much deeper than sitting down and making words appear on the page.

I am, and always have been, very sensitive to criticism. My rational self knows I can’t please all people all of the time, and my writing is no different. But my anxious/irrational self doesn’t let me think like this. Clearly everyone should be bowled over by the quality of my work. It’s not that I’m a narcissist or I want huge recognition, or think my work is better than everybody else’s. It’s just that it should be unambiguously right, and everyone should be able to see that.

I started my PhD feeling very positive, thinking ‘I can do this’. My problems started with my upgrade/confirmation panel. Instead of a constructive discussion, I was bullied. After the panel I had a leave of absence for depression. It took me two months to return to work. I had counselling for a year.

Even so, I didn’t really get my confidence back until a few months ago, two years later. I was talking to my partner about giving up or carrying on and I had an epiphany: I realised I’d been subconsciously trying to satisfy the upgrade panel. They were never going to be satisfied, and so it was an impossible task. I’d been afraid to write knowing, in my head at least, that I’ll fail and this has held me back for years.

My partner and supervisor have been telling me to forget all about the panel since it happened. They’re obviously right but, as anybody with anxiety will tell you, it’s really hard to let go of that negative voice because nobody should think you’re wrong. I need to get better at rejecting invalid criticism, but for now my confidence has returned and I’ve been able to write again.

Realising what’s happening has helped me to move on; you can’t begin to fix something if you don’t know what’s going on. Writing this has helped me to understand and articulate what happened. Writing for my supervisors who support me, rather than the panel, has helped tremendously. Most importantly, believing, truly believing, I have something worthwhile to say, even if some people criticise it (and they will) has been the thing that has most helped me to write again. Arguably I’m even in a healthier position by recognising that my work is not immune from criticism, rather than naively thinking I’ll scrape by unscathed, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

(I've submitted this anonymously because I don't think any good can come from identifying the institution and the academics, involved, and not because anxiety is something that should be hidden. Don't be afraid to talk to others about your anxiety.)

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