I know I’m not the only one that struggles with anxiety, in life in general and when it comes to doing a PhD. Though not many of us share the realities of going about daily life feeling worried, concerned or like our hearts might jump out of our chest. Sometimes knowing exactly why, other times not having a clue, just knowing there is this sense of impending doom that you just can’t quite put your finger on.
First of all, the anxiety I am personally talking about here is that feeling of worry, bordering on panic, feeling sped up and like there isn’t enough time to do everything. Shallow breathing, heart pounding just a little quicker and perhaps feeling unusually warm. A brick in your chest, a lump in your throat and your stomach doing somersaults. The anxiety where your mind spirals and decides to show you the low-lights reel. The what if’s and the worst case scenarios. Perhaps you can relate? With practice, these feeling states can be noticed, before you fall too far down the rabbit hole. And the point of noticing, the point of awareness is really the beginning of getting to the bottom of things.
I thought I’d share some of my go-to’s for when I’m feeling anxious.
For me, anxiety usually manifests in massive resistance to whatever I am facing (e.g. work, relationships, paper writing, recruitment) and makes me shut down, not having the energy or will to be doing what I need to be doing. Now that I can (usually) spot anxious thoughts and recognise that they really aren’t helping me, I can step back and try and do things that will help me. Not necessarily eliminate the anxiety completely, because often anxiety is trying to warn me about something, or actually can be rationalised. But sometime it’s nice to have options to make riding the wave of anxiety just a little bit easier. My tips…
Write.It.Out. This can be done absolutely anywhere. At your desk on your computer, on your commute with a notepad or anywhere that you can be on your phone by sending an email to yourself or making a note. Sometimes writing things out can actually make anxiety seem worse. It can highlight the reality of a situation, but when we write we can try and get to the bottom of things. I find it useful to try and see where the anxiety is coming from. A personal and recent example involved me feeling really anxious whenever I sat down to address a paper that had been rejected. I kept a notepad next to me and just wrote whatever was in my mind (sometimes known as stream of consciousness or free writing) and eventually determined that my anxiety was coming from a lack of confidence, fear of being rejected (again!) and being embarrassed about my work when showing it to my supervisors. Knowing that these were the factors underlying my anxiety meant that I could address them and I managed to get the tasks I needed to do done.
I’ve shared this technique before, but simply calming down your nervous system can help slow down those crazy, fast, irrational thoughts in your brain and help you think just a little bit clearer. The technique involves breathing in for a set period of time, holding your breath for a set period of time, breathing out for a set period of time and repeating. You can do it anywhere. You can choose any combination of time. I usually opt for 10 seconds in, 10 seconds hold and 12 seconds out and repeat anywhere between 3 and 9 times.
Sometimes, your nervous system needs calming down. But sometimes it needs the complete opposite. If your heart is pounding, your muscles feel twitchy, your breathing is shallow and you just generally have a lot of anxious energy in your body – you might need to burn it off! Go for a brisk walk, a swim or a run. If your body is in fight or flight mode then it will have a lot of hormones circulating, adrenaline being the main one. Your body is gearing up for a challenging or what it perceives to be a life threatening situation. Diffusing that energy, rather than trying to be calm, is sometimes the best thing. It doesn’t have to be something that takes a long time or involves getting changed even. Go find an empty room and do some star jumps or stomping on the spot with the intention of getting rid of some of that nervous anxious energy. See how you feel afterwards.
Make a plan
Often, my anxiety comes from a fear of ‘not having enough time’, of running out of time and not getting things finished. How many times has this actually happened? Never. So alongside reminding myself of that track record (which I’m sure many other anxious folks can say they have) I also try to make a plan. I’ll either do it alone or alongside someone like a mentor or someone who knows me well. I’ll gather up everything I need to make a good plan which might include my diary, my calendar on my phone/computer, deadlines, a to do list, coloured pens, highlighters and I usually print out monthly calendars so I can get a good idea of things. I make a plan, in the style that I did for confirmation, with plenty of extra space and buffer room, and once I have that plan in place I know that if I stick to it (knowing I have that buffer) then things will get done. It means I can place my anxious thoughts, which realistically are only trying to help me, to one side. I can say “thank you for trying to make sure I get things done, but I will, and I don’t need your help!”
Don’t make a plan!
And here we go again, another counter tip. Don’t make a plan. Sometimes a plan just cannot be made. The most anxiety provoking part of my PhD recently? Recruitment. Handing over my precious study into the hands of others. Having to trust that people will come forward, do what I have asked them and help me conduct my research. Handing over control basically. And though I can somewhat make a plan of action, I can’t make a plan, not as specifically as I would like and that means trying to relinquish control a bit and accepting that things might feel ungrounded and out of my hands for a while. Not easy, by any means. I’m a planner by nature and I like to have control of things – but sometimes it just doesn’t happen, and the only way to reduce the anxiety is to release the control!
Weigh things up
If we are prone to anxious thoughts, sometimes we can write off whatever our brains are telling us as nonsense, but actually, there are times when anxiety is perfectly normal, helpful in fact! I think it’s important to recognise these instances when anxiety is likely to be around, so that I don’t automatically dismiss them because I know that I have a tendency to get wound up about things. An example is PhD confirmation (transfer/upgrade). At first I felt anxious and I froze for a few days after getting my viva date confirmed, but after realising that actually some anxiety was likely to keep me on track and make sure I was getting things done, it lessened and I was able to function. Additionally, if you hate presenting and you have a presentation coming up – anxiety is going to be expected! Your ego is trying to prevent you from what it believes is a time where you will look foolish or fail, by paralysing you with fear and anxiety! Anxiety is a survival mechanism and can be really helpful, it’s just when it becomes inhibiting and makes life hard that we need to check in and see what is going on, whether we can help ourselves in anyway. By recognising that anxiety might be trying to help us, we can soften towards it a little bit, take it under our arm in a way and see what it is trying to tell us or warn us about. It can lessen the fear that we are spiralling down a pit of anxiety and might never resurface!
These things are POWERFUL. Anxiety can make us feel rubbish about ourselves. Can make us feel like we’re not getting enough done. Never, ever getting enough done. Not being productive enough. Enough, enough, enough. But what happens when you start writing a done list? You start seeing all the things you ARE achieving. The little things that you wouldn’t normally consider as productivity. I am planning to up the use of my done lists this year and have decided to keep a word document open to keep track of all the things I’ve done each day. It is so satisfying to look and see what I’ve done over a day, even one that hasn’t been particularly productive by my usual standards. I break things down as much as possible, so ‘organising an interview’ becomes 1) contacting potential participant, 2) discussing study, 3) emailing details and 4) arranging first meeting. This is kind of the reverse of breaking tasks down in order to get them done and make them more manageable. This is a way of breaking down tasks to see how well you are doing, despite the anxiety. I highly, highly recommend making use of this strategy.
Sharing and talking
My last tip is to share what is going on and talk things over. Whether that is to a trusted friend, a colleague or a professional. Sometimes there might be something else going on underneath your anxiety. Perhaps it is about something much bigger and some guidance or support will help you get to the bottom of it and start managing things so that you can reach your potential. There is absolutely no shame in reaching out for help or assistance, in fact, in the face of anxiety, it’s a really brave and courageous thing to do.
If you are a student and have a diagnosis of anxiety (or any other mental health condition) that impacts your ability to work effectively, I urge you to approach student services at your university and enquire about getting support. Often there are services that can help you work more effectively and enjoy your studies rather than feeling like you are just dragging yourself through them.
Doing things that are time consuming, challenging or difficult does not have to make you feel like rubbish in the process. Anxiety can be managed and can be worked with, I promise!
How do you cope with your anxiety when it visits your work, life or relationships? Do you have any helpful tips for others? I’d be delighted if this could be the start of a conversation – we need to be open and honest in order to see that we are often not the only ones feeling the way we are. And we have such a wealth of diverse knowledge amongst us all. Let’s share it?
Until next time 🙂