Last year, I wrote a post entitled “Academics are humans with human emotions and human problems.” That post was motivated in part by the overwhelmingly positive response to my post on crying in science, and also by having read about a prominent philosopher, Peter Railton, who gave a talk at the American Philosophical Association meeting about his personal battles with depression. In my post, I said, “I very much agree with Railton and others that we need to be more open in these discussions. Being able to be a positive voice on these topics is a very important reason why I blog.” I then went on and talked about different things, including anxiety. But it was anxiety, with a little “a”, because, at that time, I wasn’t ready to be more open about having an anxiety disorder. But now I am. My goals with this post are two-fold: first, to state more openly and definitively that I have an anxiety disorder, and, second, to talk some about how I have managed that.
In some ways, it feels unremarkable to note that I have anxiety. Mental health issues are common in academia and, to me, it seems like it must be completely obvious to other people that I am an anxious person. But, almost always, if I say something to a colleague about being anxious (or, more rarely, having an anxiety disorder) they are surprised.
In other ways, it feels very scary to admit that I have an anxiety disorder – so scary that I keep typing just “anxiety” (that’s something everyone has from time to time!) and then forcing myself to go back and replace it with “an anxiety disorder”. Even though mental health issues are common, there is still a strong social stigma surrounding them. Academia has a culture of silence regarding mental health issues. This graduate student wrote about their depression anonymously because of fears about how it would influence their chances of getting a job. That post says:
The real reason I want to write about this in a public forum though is that this is not a story we talk about personally. We talk about “the crisis of mental health in the academy.” We talk about how to deal with mental health issues among our students. We talk about how we need to erode the stigma of mental health, but we talk about all of this in the abstract.
I agree, fully. But I think the tide might be starting to turn – ever so slowly, but turning nonetheless. And what it will take to make progress will be for people to be more open about their struggles. So that is what I am doing here.
I didn’t receive an official anxiety disorder diagnosis until after the birth of one of my children. While postpartum anxiety is definitely a thing (that is perhaps even more common than postpartum depression), for me, it’s not just a postpartum thing. I have always been anxious, even though I didn’t really understand it for a long time. To give just one example: I used to play a lot of sports, and, as a child, went to a soccer camp for one week per summer and then, when I was older, a basketball camp for two weeks each summer. I vomited every single morning of every single camp. But, fortunately, I quickly figured out a key anxiety coping strategy that I still use to this day: if I can force myself to go about a normal routine, it will usually distract me enough that the anxiety wanes.
What does anxiety mean for me now? It means that, in the span of 30 seconds, I can go from being worried that a grant won’t get funded (how will I pay my lab folks?) to worrying that it will get funded (what if we can’t do everything we thought we could?) It means that I will be so nervous about teaching that I lose weight during the semester. (One of my main anxiety symptoms is nausea.)* It means that I feel the need to obsessively check data before submitting a manuscript. It means that, as soon as I started writing this post, I lost my appetite.
Fortunately, I have gotten fairly good at managing my anxiety, but it’s something I work at and probably always will. The specifics of what works will differ for different people, and I want to stress that, if you are even considering whether you have a mental health problem that warrants attention from a mental health professional, that is probably a sign that a visit to your doctor to look into it more is warranted. Seeking help does not indicate weakness. (This poster making that point made the social media rounds a couple of years ago.) I think one downside of the focus on the commonness of mental health issues among students and academics is that it can make it seem normal and not worthy of further attention.
Update: Margaret Kosmala correctly points out in the comments that “get help” might be too vague for people who are currently struggling with mental health issues. She is right. The problem is that the specifics of how to find a physician, therapist, or other mental health professional vary so much from place to place, and based on things like whether someone is a student or employee. So, I like Margaret’s advice to seek out help from a trusted friend or family member. They can help you find the information and, if making the call is too much for you to do (and, for some people, it will be), they can help with that. For students, I would add that talking with a trusted professor can be a good strategy, too. They are more likely to know about the resources on campus. When I teach Intro Bio, I think one of the most important things I do is help students get in touch with UMich’s Counseling and Psychological Services. I think it’s also worth noting that, if the first person you see doesn’t seem like a good fit for you, it’s totally fine to seek help from someone else (again, enlisting help from a friend, family member, faculty member, clergy member, or anyone else you trust if you need help doing so).
Still, even though I want to emphasize that self-care strategies might not be sufficient, I think there’s some value in talking about them. For me, sleep and exercise are very, very important parts of my mental health strategy. People routinely comment on how impressed they are that I run even now with young children, but it doesn’t really feel optional. I feel so much better emotionally (and sleep so much better) when I run that it is very high on my priority list. Sleep is also crucial, so I do my best to follow the sleep hygiene recommendations. (Here’s a slightly different set.) As a grad student, something that was important to me was when a mentor pointed out that they don’t work within an hour of bedtime because it interfered with their sleep. It had never occurred to me that that might be a problem, but, once I stopped working at night, I started sleeping much better. Another key for me is to try to avoid anxiety about anxiety. One of my motivations for writing this post is selfish: sometimes the thing that causes me the most anxiety is being worried that others will realize I have anxiety. The cat will be fully out of the bag now, and, for me, talking about things that cause me anxiety greatly reduces their power.
There are a few more specific things that have been especially useful strategies for me, and so I will share them here in case they help someone else:
- I tell myself “don’t worry until there’s a reason to worry”. There are a gajillion things that I could worry about, and I can waste a lot of time and energy worrying about things that will never happen. So, for me, I need to remind myself that, if a situation arises, I will deal with it then, but I don’t need to figure out how I will deal all the different possibilities before any of them happen. A friend of mine refers to this as “pre-worrying”, which I think is a great term. Telling myself not to worry until there’s a reason to worry has been an effective way for me to avoid “pre-worrying”. Pre-worrying can be exhausting, so this is an important strategy for me.
- I tell myself that “solutions reached at 4 AM are rarely good solutions.” I usually have no trouble falling asleep when I first go to bed, but often have problems falling back asleep once I wake up (and, having a baby, I get woken up multiple times per night). The main issue is that my brain turns on and starts acting like it’s daytime, and, before I know it, I realize I’ve been designing an experiment at 4 AM. This is when I have to remind myself that I can think things through better during the day when I’m well-rested, and that I need to stop trying to work out a solution in the middle of the night.
- I tell myself that it’s okay if I don’t get a lot of sleep that night. This might sound like the opposite of what I said above. But the issue is that, if I am not getting enough sleep (usually because I am not falling back asleep), that starts to increase my anxiety, which decreases my ability to sleep, creating a bad feedback loop. So, I remind myself that I’ve had nights before where I didn’t get enough sleep, and I got through the next day and I can do that again. Fairly often, just reminding myself of that allows me to relax enough to sleep.
Finally, in talking with some folks about mental health issues in academia, one thing that comes up is the idea that maybe people are better scientists because of those issues. I’ve talked with early career scientists who worry that they need to encourage obsessive traits to succeed. This is something that relates to this Tenure, She Wrote post regarding mental health. In it, qtchimie writes:
People constantly “joke” about research being all consuming. But reality is that researchers push themselves beyond hard sometimes. I have colleagues who regularly spend over twelve hours a day in lab. For some, I’m sure that really is a byproduct of passion or drive. But for me, this can be a manifestation of my illness. And having my illness, this tendency to get so hyper-focused and lost in a thing for so long, glorified—it feels disgusting. It feels unsafe.
So how can we build a culture that is safer for our mental health? What steps can we take to promote a culture of balance that keeps us happy and healthy while still producing top notch work?
I think these are really good questions, and this is one reason why I try to be outspoken about the importance of work-life balance and the problems of a culture of overwork. For me, yes, I think that some aspects of my personality that relate to anxiety might help me as a scientist – focusing obsessively on things is the first thing that springs to mind. But, if there was a magic, side effect-free pill I could take that would rid me of anxiety forever, I would take it. While there shouldn’t be a stigma surrounding mental health issues, we also shouldn’t glorify things that are symptoms of illness.
So, to summarize: if you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or another mental illness: you are not alone. There is help, and it is worth seeking out. Having a mental illness does not mean you are not cut out for academia. But, just as importantly, success in academia does not require that you not treat your illness. Please take care of yourself and seek help if you need it.
Update 2: If you are thinking: “I know I have a mental health issue and really ought to seek treatment, but I’m just going to wait until I finish grad school (or get a job or get tenure or whatever), please read this important post by Sarah Boon about the long-term effects of not treating a mental illness. I wasn’t aware of her post when I wrote this one. It’s a very important one.
*Interestingly, though, the teaching-related trigger isn’t standing in front of a room of 350 people. That I’m fine with. Instead, I worry that something will make it so that I have to miss class. So, as soon as I’m in the lecture room and everything is set up, I am fine.