PhD stress: don't ignore the warning signs!

February 4, 2013

Pretty much everyone who goes through a PhD will experience some kind of stress, but this isn't always a bad thing. Some PhD stress can help focus the mind, and the discomfort of going beyond your current limits is often necessary to learn.

But stress can also be destructive. Instead of helping you focus it can have the opposite effect. And instead of helping you learn it can make it difficult to do even the simplest of things.In academia, there is a culture of just accepting that stress is part of the job. Everyone goes through this, so just keep going. It's normal. Get on with it. Sometimes, though, stress is a warning sign that something is going seriously wrong.

PhD stress: signs you should not ignore

  • Constantly feeling you can't work hard enough
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the workload
  • Feeling like you are not working to your true ability
  • Inability to focus
  • Feeling like nothing you do has any impact, and that you have no control
  • Feeling that even easy things have become difficult
  • Constant fear of failure
  • Feeling like you don't belong on a PhD program, and that you will be "found out" (impostor syndrome)
  • Physical or mental exhaustion

Just working harder, or trying to be more organised is not going to make a difference if you feel these things. You must address the root of the problem.

Slow down

The most important thing to do (and often the hardest, when under pressure) is to slow down.

Give yourself time to think, and simplify what you are trying to do.

Ask yourself...

At a simple, practical level, reducing the number of things you are working on is a good start

  • How many different things are you trying to work on at the same time?
  • If you were to just focus on one thing, what would it be?
  • How can you break it down into steps, and what's the simplest thing you can do?
  • How do you react when things go wrong? Do you stay with the problem or switch to working on something else?

Slowing down and reducing your area of focus is easy in principle, and in terms of the practical component of PhD stress this is often enough. But it's not always so simple...

Signs of depression

  • Change in sleep patterns (waking up much earlier or later than usual)
  • Emotional numbness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feelings of guilt or grief or worthlessness
  • Feeling like everything you try to do is exhausting

This is not a comprehensive list (and I am not a qualified psychologist), but just some common signs to look out for. I strongly recommend watching Robert Sapoloski's lecture on depression linked at the end of this article for a more detailed description.

If you're experiencing any of these, the best thing for you to do is seek help. Here are a few possible options;

  • Talk to your doctor
  • Find out if your university has a counselling service (and book in a session)

Many therapists offer sessions via Skype (so if, for example, you're an international student and want to talk to someone in your native language, you can find someone online), but talking to someone face to face should be your first option if available.

There is a directory of online therapists here

My own experience

I've written before about my experiences with depression and PhD stress, and while I usually focus on addressing the practical component, I also spoke to my doctor and had a number of sessions with a therapist through the university counselling service (something I should have done much earlier).

I often found when talking to friends that they tended to say things like "it's OK, everybody goes through this", but this never really helped. It was only when I acknowledged that things really weren't OK (and spoke to people who were qualified to help) that I was able to do something about it.

See
Robert Sapolski's Stanford lecture on depression (this link includes the YouTube video and a text summary)

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