Life as an anxious scientist

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

38 thoughts on “Life as an anxious scientist

  1. Thank you so much for writing this post. For me the timing is incredible: I’m someone with anxiety and other mental health issues and just this week I began to seriously think about how my anxiety has convinced me that I don’t belong in the sciences.

    I graduated from college two years ago with a bio degree, and did very well in school. I know that I LOVE learning about evolution and ecology– it just turns my brain on. But I finished school feeling very intimidated by research. I didn’t really enjoy any of my research experiences in college, so by the time I graduated I’d somehow convinced myself that science in general was not for me.

    I also emerged without a very specific interest. I started school interested in evolution and ecology, and I finished without a more specific niche. The idea of having to come up with a specific research project paralyses me. (I’m sure I could just fine with the right guidance, but I didn’t have great mentorship in college– so I don’t know what that process looks like.)

    So now I’m left with all these questions. Is it worth pursuing a masters or beyond in science just for the joy of learning more, without yet having an exact idea of where I want to be after? Should I have developed a more niche interest before applying to grad school? Will I be a seriously non-competitive candidate if I don’t already know what I want my research to focus on? Knowing that I’m totally competent but full of personal uncertainties, how do I present a truthful, genuine but professional version of myself?

    If any of this interests you as a blogging topic, I would be really curious to see what advice you’d give to someone like me: college grads who think they want to continue to in science, but feel uncertain about taking the next steps.

    • My opinions:

      Is it worth pursuing a masters or beyond in science just for the joy of learning more, without yet having an exact idea of where I want to be after?

      If you’re young and unattached and won’t go into debt for a masters or PhD, go for it. Your 20’s are for exploring the world and your passions.

      Should I have developed a more niche interest before applying to grad school?

      No, don’t worry about it. But do pick a thing or two that *interests* you a lot. When you talk to advisors, they’re going to want to know “why me?” and you probably want to say that you have similar research interests. That said, I have a really hard time developing a niche interest because I’ve been worried about “closing doors” to other areas that interest me. Try to avoid not choosing out of fear or anxiety. Just pick something and dive in. You can always change later.

      Will I be a seriously non-competitive candidate if I don’t already know what I want my research to focus on?

      No. Lots of people start a PhD (in the US anyway) having just a general sense of what they want to do, not a specific one.

      Knowing that I’m totally competent but full of personal uncertainties, how do I present a truthful, genuine but professional version of myself?

      Hmmm… Well, I generally think you ought to be pretty committed to a PhD if you’re going to start one. If you’re feeling very uncertain, why not take a couple years off to do something else? Explore. Try new things. I started my PhD when I was 29. There’s no age limit. And you can always apply later.

      • Thank you so much for offering your perspective. I’ve gotten differing feedback over the years that has been conflicting and often discouraging. It is especially helpful to hear that it’s fairly normal to have some worries when ‘narrowing down’ to a more specific focus. It really is true that you can always revisit other interests as life goes on- pursuing one doesn’t close off all the others. I’ll try to keep that in mind! (I unfortunately relate a lot to Sylvia Plath’s fig tree metaphor– maybe you know what I’m talking about– and so do many other people my age.)

      • I wonder if working as a technician for a few years would be a good way to get more experience with doing science to see if you like doing that full time, and also to give you more time to think about what sub-area of ecology and evolution you might be interested in pursuing more. I think it often looks good if someone has taken a little time off from school before going to grad school.

        However, another thing that I think can be important to keep in mind is that there probably are a variety of questions/research areas that most scientists could be happy working on. I love Daphnia and think parasites are fascinating. But I’m sure that I could have gotten just as excited about many other areas (including ones outside of ecology and evolution). So, while I think it’s important for grad students to find a topic that truly excites them, I think it’s also worth keeping in mind that there are probably many such topics.

        Good luck with your decisions! And I’m glad you found the post helpful.

  2. Pingback: Resources for Neurodiverse Grad Students and the Faculty who Advise Them: Part 3 of 3 | ScholarStudio Blog: A Resource for Graduate Writers and Advisors

  3. Thanks for this post. It will help a lot of people. It certainly helped me. The 4AM rule, in particular, is a keeper.

    One reason anxiety is common in creative folks I think, is that it draws upon one key aspect of creativity: the ability to conjur up wild, improbable, but vivid possibilities almost as an instinct. As scientists, we train ourselves to prune that list down to the more-or-less probable. The crux of anxiety, it seems to me, is that panics brought about by the conjured scenarios get in the way of our ability to dismiss, or prune them.

    I agree exercise is a respite. Cognitive therapy, too, is a powerful tool. One thing that got me through late grad school, early post-doc, was the mantra “95% of what one worries about never comes to pass”.

    As an aside, about 4AM. I wonder if our ancestors who woke up anxious at 4AM, in the dark, worrying about that sense of impending doom, ultimately left more offspring. After all, you only have to be wrong once.

    • Yes, cognitive behavioral therapy has been so helpful for me. Learning about these unhelpful thinking styles (and ways to challenge them) was particularly useful:

      I like the mantra that “95% of what one worries about never comes to pass”! Thanks for sharing that.

      And, yes, it’s interesting to think about from an evolutionary perspective. Sometimes, when I’m having a really anxious night, I remind myself that there are no lions around trying to eat me.

  4. Thank you for this fantastic post. You are role model for us all in both your professional and personal life. Thank you for sharing.

  5. As someone who has helped others find help and talked to a therapist myself (and has struggled to figure out how to “get help”), I just want to point out that saying “get help” is not as useful as explaining how to do so. When you’re struggling with a mental health disorder, trying to sort through the bazillions of types of help (psychologist, psychiatrist, talk therapist, social worker, etc., etc.) is completely overwhelming, as is trying to find a provider who takes your insurance.

    My advice to those who think they might want help: Ask a trusted friend or family member to find someone for you. If that’s not possible, your university may have a referral service if you’re an employee. At Harvard it’s called the Employee Assistance Program. You just call and they give you a short (manageable) list of possible providers. If you’re a student, you can probably go to the student health clinic and get a referral. When in doubt, google the name of your school and “mental health” and you’ll probably land on a page giving you the name of a person who can help you figure out how to find help.

    • Yes, I like the suggestion to ask a trusted friend or family member to help you find someone. I’d also add that, for students, asking a trusted faculty member can be very useful, as they are more likely to know about on campus resources. It can indeed be overwhelming, and part of the problem is that the specifics of how to do it vary so much based on location, whether one is a student or employee, and a host of other things.

      I will go update the post to add in your suggestion about enlisting help. Thanks for the idea!

    • Something I’d add to this: people who see a therapist (or private psychologist, psychiatrist, etc) can generally give you recommendations, and once you have one contact, therapists/etc can recommend other therapists/etc.

      The way I found my current therapist, after being totally overwhelmed by the internet and after having had several terrible experiences with therapists recommended by my university, was to go up to another student and say “hi, you don’t really know me, but I overheard you once talk about seeing a private therapist here. Do you like your therapist? Can I have her contact details?” This student gave me a list of names of therapists her friends saw/liked, a list I have since passed on several times.

      (This is also how I once found a lawyer. And a dentist. I swear that asking people this sort of question isn’t nearly as awkward as you think it’s going to be, and once you find one person tapped into the local mental health care system, they’ll be able to introduce you to the local networks.)

  6. Thank you for your post! So much of it rang true for me, and I wanted to share a bit of my own story, if I may.

    I recently completed my PhD, and as I was cleaning out my desk I found all of my papers from when I was actively in therapy for my Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Depression during my 3rd and 4th years. I learned so much that helped me move forward with my life, and those memories were very positive to look back on… but what struck me the most was remembering how, before I began therapy, I really felt that *this was just how my life was supposed to be*. I thought that the level of anxiety I was living with every day was just my life, and it was normal, and I would continue on that way for the rest of my life. And when I saw those papers where I was logging these major anxiety-inducing experiences multiple times a day, I was overcome with so much sadness that I didn’t seek professional help sooner. (And, of course, I felt very grateful that I did get help, and have been much better at coping since then.)

    But my point is- for anyone who may be reading this-If you feel overwhelmed with anxiety, and you can’t remember when you started to feel that way all the time, and you think your life just has to be that way- it doesn’t. Believe me. It can, and will, be so much better.

    • “If you feel overwhelmed with anxiety, and you can’t remember when you started to feel that way all the time, and you think your life just has to be that way- it doesn’t. Believe me. It can, and will, be so much better.”
      Yes! That is so well put. Thanks for sharing. And I’m glad things got so much better for you!

  7. This is such a wonderful post, with really great links. Thank you _so_ much for sharing.

    In case anyone reading this is in the position I was in two years ago, I’ll say this. Getting help for mental illness can be a long and horrible process. My advice is: persevere. The first person, or even the first dozen people, you may reach out to may be terrible. But someone can help. If you keep trying, you will eventually see the right doctor who puts you on the right medication. You will eventually find a therapist you click with. You will find friends who can understand you and support you in ways that are mutually healthy. It can get better, I swear.

  8. Hi Megan,
    Thank you so much for your post! I have also struggled with anxiety for a long time. I also have developed mechanisms to control it and have found professional helped. Getting help is the most important thing. Please for the graduate students out there…get help and get your advisor involved…As Megan said we are humans and it is time for the tide to finally turn!

  9. Thanks for this. It took me a long time in grad school (years!) to realize that my procrastination was driven by intense anxiety. Once I figured that out, I’ve been able to take steps to manage the anxiety, which works a lot better than just trying to force myself to “be productive” via the usual strategies.

    I’m leaving academia after I finish my PhD, because it is an environment that makes my mental illness worse and I’m tired of fighting that.

    • Hi, I’m in the exact same boat, and have decided to quit academia as I complete my PhD. However what worries (*surprise surprise*) me is whether this anxiety might generalize to any work or field we go into..

      • I worry about that too, for sure. I know I’ll always have to actively manage my anxiety and prioritize self-care. But anecdotally, I’ve spoken to friends and acquaintances who’ve left academia. Those who are now in a more structured environment with more frequent feedback report that their own mental health issues have become much easier to manage.

      • Yes, I also wonder how different it would be if I was in a different career. I did talk with someone who assumed his work-related anxiety would go away when he retired, but it just transferred to other things. I suspect I would be in the same boat. Fortunately, I’ve found approaches that work for me, allowing me to continue in academia and take care of my mental health. But, for others, academia can be incompatible with mental health. When I wrote this post, I hadn’t seen this one by Sarah Boon, but it’s an important one:

  10. This post is exactly what I needed today. I just left my job as a lab tech, moved across the country and will be getting married and moving across the country again before starting a PhD program in the fall. I don’t think I have an anxiety disorder necessarily, but lately I have been very anxious and stressed about starting school again after three years off (along with all my other life changes). Cue chest pain so bad today I thought I was having a heart attack and went to the doctor. No heart attack, fortunately, and it might actually be a stomach infection completely unrelated to stress, but your post gave me much needed perspective. I feel a little less alone in dealing with my anxiety and am reminded that these feelings don’t make me a bad scientist. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  11. Meghan, I just want to say thank you for all you do. Thank you for this post, which made me feel better about my own anxiety (because, if Meghan Duffy has anxiety and is a good scientist then maybe I can be too). Thank you for writing about what it’s like to be a woman having children in academia (and maybe I can do it too). Thank you for your post about crying in science. I cry easily and of course feel ashamed of it because it’s not considered professional or scientific to cry (but if Meghan Duffy did it and she’s a scientist, then maybe it’s just a normal thing that happens sometimes if you’re a human without a lot of testosterone). I know writing all these things and being active on social media takes time and I thank you so much for that effort. Seriously. Thank you. You rock!

  12. I wish, as per your post, I felt like I could use my real name, but I’m too afraid someone will find it. I am in a non-academic research career and while I have never been diagnosed I have some degree of general anxiety and depression (a word which I hate for its inadequacy). I’ll admit I have generally convinced myself that is just how life is going to be unless I can find a way to fix it on my own. (And yes, if anyone else said that I’d try to convince them otherwise.) I have developed a number of coping skills for anxiety but less so with depression. I have found it very difficult to seek help on my own and very difficult to ask others to help me find it because who wants that job?

    A research career can definitely bring challenges. Getting immersed in an interesting project can lift me out of a low mood. But it is almost like an addiction because as I start to wear out, I push myself harder and rev myself up more to keep “rescuing” myself and it can work until it really, really doesn’t. But this career rewards that kind of work. My employer expects that kind of work. My colleagues and I respect and admire high achievement. It sells and brings in more grants. We also recognize the cost but how do you slow down when your job relies on soft money? No one wants to be the one who admits they can’t do it, if everyone else appears to be doing it just fine. No one wants to be seen as unreliable. People will tell you it is OK to say “no”, but they don’t mean that you can say no to them.

  13. Hello, Thank you so much for articulating so clearly such an important issue we tend to ignore given the work load we have to deal with. I am often anxious and sometimes I don’t know how to deal with it. This helped me a lot.

  14. While I was a PhD student my mother died. I had always suspected that I had some depression and anxiety in a more clinical sense than I really acknowledged, but my scary/startling/negative thinking was getting worse and not better as time passed after my mother’s death so I went to the campus therapy center for the first time. It was the first time I had ever sought therapy. I filled out a pretty long questionnaire as honestly as I could and handed it to the lady at the desk thinking, “Probably I just need to get more exercise. Probably they’ll tell me to join some sort of group. Probably I’m being irrational because so many people are worse off than me.” It turned out that, based on my responses to the questionnaire, the staff didn’t want me to leave before I saw a professional. I had grown so accustomed to my own depression/anxiety that I didn’t notice it going to a dangerous place. I had weekly therapy with one of the campus professionals, which was a lot more helpful than I anticipated. After the 6 sessions that the university advertises for free, I told the therapist “Thank you and good bye,” but, again, I had underestimated my own situation. The therapist explained that the therapy would continue to be free and that he didn’t want me to stop coming. (Take home message: It was incredibly straightforward to get counseling from campus resources, and I should have done it much much sooner.)

    I think the most profound thing I remember about this awakening to my own mental health is that, after I left the therapy center that first day of the questionnaire, I went back to my lab to de-brief (feeling guilty about having been gone). As I described the questions and did the whole “Can you believe they wouldn’t allow me to leave? Doesn’t everyone feel this way?” act, my lab mates agreed that everyone feels that way and that the desk lady was being over-cautious. The questions included things like, “How many times a day do you think about dying?” In retrospect, I realize that we PhD students were not okay. I wasn’t okay, but neither was anyone else. And we thought it was just the way we were expected to feel. I’m not in academia anymore, and it’s at least partially because I didn’t experience it as a healthy place for me to be.

    • Thanks for sharing this. When I was talking about writing this post with a friend, this topic came up, and it’s why I included the sentence “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.” Yes, mental health problems are common, but they are still a problem that can be serious and needs to be addressed. Thank you for highlighting that, because it’s so important.

      When I first went to a doctor for anxiety, I also thought it probably wasn’t a big deal. I kept saying things like “I think it’s probably not really a clinical thing, just that I have a lot going on”. She pointed out (correctly) that it was a long-standing pattern for me and that it was impacting my quality of life and ability to function. But I think, having lived with these distorted thought patterns for a long time, it can be hard to see those distortions on one’s own. (It also doesn’t help that the word “disorder” is kind of scary and awful.)

  15. Thanks for this post. Though I haven’t ever been diagnosed, I experience many of the same anxieties you mention and I know colleagues who do too. Being unable to go back to sleep because I’m worried about not getting enough sleep really hits home; this has happened to me several times the night before I speak at a conference, with the result that I give my talk after getting only 2-3 hours of sleep (or no sleep) that night!

    I also know colleagues who have struggled with depression and other mental health issues that are often exacerbated by professional situations. I hope we’re headed toward an environment in which such things can be more openly and comfortably discussed.

  16. Meghan, thanks for your brave post!

    I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression throughout my life. I believe I suffered for many years longer than I needed to because I believed that my mental health, or lack of it, was a product of my lifestyle and habits, not my genetics and cellular biology. The notion that mental disorders, especially anxiety, come from having a stressful job, or not getting enough exercise or not enough sleep pervades our discussions of mental health. Following from this idea, for most of my life I thought I could just choose to get better. I would tell myself “as soon as this semester’s over I’ll sleep more and I’ll get better” or “I just need to get more exercise” or “if my anxiety gets any worse I can always just quit and find a less stressful job”. Here’s the truth: there are many people eating healthy diets, getting plenty of exercise and sleep who are nonetheless suffering from mental disorders. Everyone should seek a healthy lifestyle and a good job, those are good things in themselves, but that doesn’t mean a perfectly balanced lifestyle is going to make your anxiety or depression go away. Two books that helped me see this, the true nature of anxiety and depression, were Listening to Prozac and Against Depression by Peter Kramer.

    Antidepressants turned out to be extremely effective for my anxiety and depression. Even so, once I felt better I stopped taking them. Gradually I would become anxious and depressed again. I repeated this cycle for a few years before I fully accepted my need for medication. When I mention this to other people, even friends, I get the sense that they think taking pills is somehow cheating or unnecessary: “Well I’d go crazy without yoga,” they’ll say. Or “Have you tried eliminating gluten?” Or “You just need to drink less coffee.” These comments are well meaning but they are missing the point: a scientifically evaluated medical intervention, supervised by medical professionals, is usually a pretty good way to treat a medical disorder. So if you have any reason to believe that you are suffering from an anxiety disorder or depression, go get help from a doctor. They may tell you to get more exercise or to leave a stressful job, but they may also prescribe counseling and medication.

    There are a few comments above about about how stressful academia and science are. There’s truth to that, but there’s a danger (especially for grad students) in assuming that the research lifestyle is causing our anxiety. It can be an excuse to not seek out medical treatment. As an undergraduate I was terribly stressed and depressed. But I thought that 1) everyone else was and 2) it was the nature of college not the nature of me. After graduating, I got a low-stress, well-paying, fun job working outdoors–I still wound up severely depressed and anxious after a few months.

    As others have said, the good news is that many campuses are bastions of mental health resources. Meghan, I am so glad to hear that you are telling your undergrads about psychiatric resources on campus—I think that’s something all academic advisers and professors should take the time to learn and spread the word about.

  17. I’m a bit late reading this post, but THANK YOU, Meg, for once again bravely saying things that need to be said!

    I was wondering if you might have advice for those of us who know people with anxiety disorders and want to help, but don’t know how to help. I obviously don’t want to be presumptuous and force my “help” on any colleague who seems anxious, because I’m sure it would just make them more anxious if they thought it was easy for other people to see their anxiety. But when a colleague who is already seeking professional help discusses their anxieties with me, is there anything I can do – or a Department Head can do, or an advisor can do – to make things easier/better for that person?

    • *I’m going to caveat this by saying I’m not a mental health professional, so my advice is limited to my experiences.*

      If a colleague is discussing their anxiety (or other personal details of their mental health) with you, cheers to you! You’ve already made positive steps in being an approachable, supportive person. At this point, the most positive thing you can do is listen. As Meg and others here have so eloquently stated, people who struggle with mental health issues in academia often feel like they can’t talk about it. The reasons for that seem to vary (imposter syndrome, it’s “normal” and I should just “deal with it”, others have it worse, I’m weak, etc.). Talking about “it” is hard; really hard, especially to an advisor, department head, dean, or other boss-type person. Listen attentively. Ask questions about their experiences. Ask if they have considered taking advantage of some of the resources available to them, such as a university mental health facility. When the conversation begins to slow, ask how you can help. They’ll let you know what they need, and maybe it’s just an open door or open mind. Finally, check in with them later. A simple, genuine, “How are you doing?” over coffee can work.

      You can help those silently struggling with mental health issues by making mental health something you’re not afraid to talk about, and often. If you’re an advisor with students, sending out blog posts like this is helpful. These kinds of posts can be conversation-starters about mental health (look at the amazing comments section here!). Passing them along says, “I think this is important,” and gives you a reason to discuss it one-on-one, if you want. If you’re a student, learn to recognize toxic mental environments (as other commenters have described above). If your organization has a student organization, suggest a mental-health professional be brought in for a talk. If you’re a department head, don’t be afraid to bring up mental health in faculty meetings (or bring in speakers), and foster an environment that does not reward mental degradation. Check out resources like and take advantage of whatever resources are available to you. Mental health professionals don’t just work with those experiencing problems, they work with everyone. They’re an incredible resource, and one I have personally used to help me help others.

  18. Hey, I’m so glad to have found this post.
    Earlier this month I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, along with negative personality traits etc. I’m not a scientist/Ph.D/working professional, I’m in Grade 12. The symptoms became more and more apparent in the last 10 months or so, it affected every bit of my work and turned me into an unemotional wretch. I just wanted to share that I’ve heard people say that mental illness, especially depression and anxiety are so “stupid” and are tactics used by attention seekers. I think that’s ironic because one suffering from either of those two does the most they can to cover it up. It’s funny how people think that mental illness is all “just in the mind,” which it is, but isn’t that easy to get over. I did not realise when these crept in but I did realise when I was almost drowning in them. It affects you in every possible way, and honestly, there is a point when you need that help. You can convince yourself that you’re a strong person and this will blow over, but sometimes it doesn’t. I’m on meds right now, I’ve had a bit of trouble with side effects but one must consider the overall benefits of it, plus seeking therapy with a psychiatrist or a counsellor. Whatever it is, get all the help you need, because it’s when you’re feeling better that you understand what a horrible place you were in. The waves will keep pulling you in, but it’s up to you to stay afloat until you can finally swim to safety.

  19. Pingback: Guest post: Life as an anxious grad student | Dynamic Ecology

  20. Pingback: Mental Health in Academia: A Guilty Scientist – Science Daily Dose

  21. For passionate ecologists, anxiety and depression are occupational hazards, especially if our work is related to conservation biology. We are constantly confronted by disasters, setbacks and apathy.

  22. I would love to see a post from the perspective of a PI with mental health illness trying their best to mentor graduate students / postdocs with similar illness. There are days where I am feeling crushed by my own issues, and I still have to pick up and try to help my mentees get through the day/week/semester. Combined with parenthood and pressure to keep blasting forward in my science, most days I feel like I am just shards of glass on the floor within nothing left of my own life/personality/passion/love. Thoughts on sciencing while anxious, with little kids, and with grad students who are similarly struggling?

  23. Pingback: Mental Health in Academia | ScholarStudio Blog: A Resource for Graduate Writers and Advisors

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