How I dealt with anxiety on my PhD by Yuri (PhD researcher based in South Africa).
Have you ever felt like the world was passing you by?
Have you felt like you’re rooted to the pavement whilst everyone around you is going on with their daily lives, laughing, progressing… while you’re just stuck in this hazy fog of negativity, playing a horrible version of stuck in the mud where nobody comes to free you?
This is me on most days.
I would say I am going through one of the darkest times of my life. I am in the third year of my PhD and I feel like the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off due to maintenance!
It’s no secret, an overwhelming amount of PhD candidates suffer from anxiety, to the point where it’s considered almost normal.
I decided this was no way for me to be living my life and when I finally got around to seeing a therapist, one of the things she asked me to do was to list my symptoms.
I told her I was easily irritated, wasn’t sleeping well, had sharp stomach pains, felt paralysed by my workload, I was unable to focus (at this point she was furiously scribbling down but still I continued listing symptoms).
Easy tasks felt so difficult, so I end up procrastinating.
I felt like everyone around me was working harder than me, and I had a constant fear of failure.
If you also identified with this list, you’re definitely not alone. It’s tough but I continually realise I am tougher, these are some ways I’ve been dealing with anxiety and maybe you’ll find them helpful too.
On bad days, even simple things like making your bed and taking a shower are achievements. Make a to-do list, starting with small tasks. Tidy up your desk, clean your house, do some gardening. It’s such a good feeling checking tasks off. Then make bigger to-do lists, break up work-related tasks into mini tasks so you don’t feel overwhelmed by all the work you still need to complete.
Time you enjoy “wasting”, is not wasted time
Find a side hustle/ project or just do something different for a change. Take breaks, whether short breaks in the day or longer breaks away from work. Read, do a craft or whatever else you enjoy. It’s been proven we actually get bored with our surroundings and need a change of scenery to stay focused.
I declare face mask Sundays!
Dress up or down if you’d like, the point is to dress for yourself. Dress the way you’d like to feel. I tried for the longest time to dress like the people around me, but the truth is, I never was a sneakers and jeans kind of girl! Make face mask Sundays a thing. Sip on some tea, fix those wayward brows (just me?) and spend 20 minutes taking care of yourself.
Find your tribe and stick with them
Avoid the people who trigger your anxiety. For me, that means working at night and on weekends. Spend time with people who are calm and good for you, share what is troubling you. It’s much easier when you don’t have to shoulder the burden by yourself. You might also be able to brainstorm solutions, whether it’s the experiment that’s just not working out or venting about the colleague who doesn’t shut up (again, just me?)!
Mind over matter?
People experience anxiety differently.
I personally don’t feel as present in my everyday life when my anxiety levels are high. So my first tip is to become more mindful, be present in whatever you’re doing, engage your senses to further ground you.
- Taste every bite of your food
- Look at the sunset
- Practice gratitude.
It’s simple, you are far more privileged than what it seems when you’re going through an anxiety attack.
Have your truths that you repeat to yourself.
For me, these are:
this is just a Wednesday (whatever day it is), this is a tiny lab in the middle of South Africa (where I’m based), and this situation doesn’t define me.
Remind yourself of your achievements thus far.
I have a poster hung up at my workspace from a conference I recently attended as well as a trophy that I won for speaking at a faculty forum.
It’s a reminder to me that I am capable of solving problems even though at this moment it feels like I can’t.
Listen to motivational talks on YouTube, I am almost embarrassed to admit I do this but hey, it gets me pumped while I’m setting up an experiment!
Put up inspirational quotes at your workspace, if that’s your thing.
I often post motivational quotes on my Instagram as a mantra to keep in mind for the day.
Ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen?
Very often I have to shake myself out of overthinking and I ask myself, “Am I going to die from this?”. The answer is always no (insert eye roll emoji 🙄 here). And I instantly calm down.
This isn’t just all in your mind but your mind is a powerful tool against anxiety.
You can have the most positive change if you change your mindset towards difficult situations.
Everyone experiences varying levels of anxiety and others around you might be better equipped at dealing with (or hiding) it.
Anxiety does not define you, it is only a small part of your life.
Let go of the self-doubt and worry.
You’ve got through difficult situations in the past, you have it in you to overcome this as well!
These are my practical tips, feel free to share yours as well. J