Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Anxiety as a Grad Student

I've avoided writing about this all semester. I've gestured towards it, but I have not publicly talked about it. I've found myself even on Facebook, which is family and friends, not work people, writing posts, and then deleting them.

Because as much as things have gotten better, there's still a stigma about these things.

But yesterday I had lunch with a friend, and we were talking about a tangential topic and I was sharing stuff that had been going on and their response was, so and so has also gone through this. And so has this person. And I've heard that about this other person. This prompted a discussion of how isolating being a grad student can be. We're not encouraged to share these experiences, as if sharing them admits we're vulnerable, and that's a weakness, and we can't have that. The result is that lots of us are going through the same things and feeling all alone.

Which hit a nerve for me. Because part of the reason I blog is because I think sharing stories and experiences helps people feel less alone. That these posts not only provide information, or approaches on what it's like to go through a grad program, but also let people know they are not alone.

So, it's the end of the semester, but I want to share this.
Since the beginning of this semester, I have suffered from anxiety. It has been bad enough that I have sought help from Student Health, and medication.
It has been a roller coaster all semester, with some weeks better, some worse, and then feeling gut punched when it came back after weeks of being gone.

It has affected my teaching, my work productivity, and my comfort level in leaving my house.
It started in August, so even before the semester started. I started in the job seekers workshop we had feeling awful. For me it was a physical start- feeling like I was choking, breaking out in a sweat, nauseous, stomach issues, feeling like I was going to be physically ill in front of people.

This went on for weeks. I was downing Pepto-Bismol and Immodium, going through a ridiculous amount. If I stayed home, I was fine, but Tuesday and Thursdays when I had office hours, then taught my two classes back to back? I was a wreck. I doubted every single one of those days whether or not I could get through the day. I had some days when I worried about having to run out of the room to be sick, or worse, the public humiliation of being sick in front of people.
And this became a self-perpetuating cycle. Even if I felt okay when I got to campus, I would start to worry about this, and so would make myself sick.

Since my anxiety manifested as physical symptoms (and because of student comments about being intimidating) I stopped wearing ties to work. So my work wardrobe radically changed.

This brings me to my second issue with my anxiety this semester. I am opinionated. I am loud. I always have been. At 39, I've made my peace that I'm not going to wake up tomorrow and my personality will have changed overnight. I'm also socially awkward. I don't read social cues well if I don't know you, or if it's not a situation that has recognizable rules or guidelines for me to follow. 

I've made adjustments over the years. I have a dry sense of humor, but when students commented on it, I dialed back my sarcasm in the classroom. Because I would never want a student to feel bad in my classroom. The first day I tell all my students that I'm direct, but I never mean that to come off as harsh, so if it ever does, please know I don't mean it, and come talk to me.

But here's the thing too, if you don't like me. If you think I'm harsh, or too opinionated, or intimidating, that's also not something I can take on. But I did this semester. I internalized this. I spent nights at 2 and 3 and 4a wondering what I needed to change. What I should do differently. 
What was wrong with me.
But talking to my friend yesterday at lunch, as we talked about academics being socially awkward in general, I realized something. That if there's one place where me being smart, opinionated, teaching difficult topics should be accepted, it's here. I've spent my whole life being made fun of for these things. But they should be strengths in academia. I should not be made to feel that there's something wrong with me. But that is what has happened.

Here's the other thing. If someone makes a snap judgment or bases their opinion on a perception and not reality, that's also not something I can control. But again, I internalized this all semester, and it made me physically ill.

I am not comfortable around a lot of people, I am awful at small talk. Because I'm bad at reading social cues, I worry I will misstep. This awkwardness, my awkwardness, is what endears me to my friends (I think) but also makes some people not like me. 
But as my friend yesterday pointed out, it doesn't help me. I've had a supervisor call me "boot campy." I've had another tell me I'm too in people's faces.
The list goes on.
Just because I can't read social cues doesn't mean I don't know when I'm being made fun of. Or that I can't get my feelings hurt.
And each of these people, I'm sure if I asked specifically what informed this perception, what it was based on, would flounder.

I go out of my way to help people. I volunteer. I share resources. But that's not what I get judged on. So another consequence of my anxiety this semester has been to stay home as much as possible. To limit interactions. I tried to go out with a friend to dinner near the beginning of the semester and I had to leave early because I felt bad. And this was a friend. Someone I felt comfortable with. Interactions with others have been awful, and I've avoided pretty much every social interaction I've been invited to this semester, which I'm sure has not helped people's perception of me as standoffish.
But I love teaching. I've taught since 2001, and it's an aspect of my life I've always loved. I'm a natural. It comes easy to me. I loved lesson planning, coming up with new activities, finding cool connections, new readings, ways to approach texts, how to break things down so students can understand and access things.

I blog and reflect constantly on my teaching. This year saw huge paradigm shifts in my teaching based on pedagogical conversations on Twitter, and my own reflection. I stopped policing things in my classroom, instead focusing on content. I let students revise all their work, with the idea that if it was important they learned it then IT WAS IMPORTANT THEY LEARNED IT. I share lessons. I do check in surveys every four weeks with students, so if there are issues we can course correct early and so students feel like they have a voice in the classroom.

You have to know all this I think to understand how much it has impacted me all semester to have this thing I love betray me. 
Once I started teaching, got into my classes, was the only time the anxiety went away. Once I got into my class, it went away, which is common, distracting yourself is a common tip for avoiding anxiety. But my problem was the class would end, and all of a sudden my anxiety would return. I found myself doubting choices, and if a student made a negative comment it would send me into a tailspin for weeks. 

My anxiety this semester has made me doubt my teaching. It has made me doubt my personality. It has made me doubt just about everything about me and what I do. In the final year of my PhD program, I have wondered if the last fourteen years of teaching was a misunderstanding. If I shouldn't be here. What this meant for what is next.

Logically I know none of this is true. I know I'm a good teacher. I know that for every student who doesn't like me, the fact that I'm loud, or wear ties, or subvert what they think a teacher should be, there are literally hundreds of my students who learn from me, like my class, are better after taking a class from me. Who a decade later still check in with me.
But logic has little bearing on anxiety.

This is what anxiety feels like.
You try to talk yourself down. You try to logic yourself out of the downward spiral. You journal. You change routines. You run down a checklist of things to calm down. And maybe it works for a little bit. But then it's 4a you're wide awake and the gerbil wheel starts all over again.
And your heart races, and your blood pressure skyrockets. You break into a sweat and think there's nothing redeemable you can do.
I went through all of August and September feeling like this. I didn't really talk to anyone about it. But it took me two months before I made an appointment with student health.
They promptly gave me a prescription for one medicine to calm me and one to deal with the physical issues. They gave me an appointment with a therapist who promptly diagnosed me with Anticipatory Generalized Anxiety- I anticipated something horrible happening, and that generated my gerbil wheel. I took the medicine for a couple of weeks. But I don't like taking medicine. And it worried me that this wasn't fixing me, fixing the causes. And because this is what I plan on doing, I needed to figure out what was triggering this and work on that.

So I tried different things, physical things. A new tattoo. More running. More heavyweight bag time. And this worked. Identifying my triggers. I was able to go almost a whole month without the medication AND not feeling bad. Then something happened last week and I was right back to where I was at the beginning of the semester.
Last week I guest lectured in a professor's class and I had to take all my medicines because I thought I was going to be sick. It was August and September all over again. But like those months, I felt this way in the thirty minutes before class, but as soon as I started, I was fine.

I have three classes, and two weeks left in the semester. And I don't know what these will be like. 
The lunch yesterday with a friend, and another friend who is constantly checking in with me have helped. Talking to my dad has helped. And I know this is probably all exacerbated by general anxiety about the job market, finishing this year, and me feeling isolated. But again, logic does not really belong here.

The line that now runs on my gerbil wheel is please just let me get through the end of this semester without anything else.

In a lot of ways, I feel like this has been my best semester. I love my survey of early English class. I'm in the second round of dissertation revisions. I've applied to 43 jobs. It's been a productive semester. And I need to keep reminding myself of that because the gerbil wheel seems to want to erase all that.

At this point I just want to get through the end of the semester without anything triggering my anxiety.
Because the great thing about teaching is that each semester is a new start. And next semester I'm only teaching an online class, which I think will help a lot. As will finishing the dissertation.

But here's what I hope people take away from this:
  • You are not alone. Whether or not anyone is talking about it, lots of people are going through what you are. Find someone you can talk to, whether it's online or face to face, a peer, or a mentor.
  • Use the resources your campus has- support groups, student health, counseling.
  • Take care of yourself. While this semester has been awful in a lot of ways, Nehi, time with her, running, have all made sure I didn't go from bad to worse.
 So that's my share. It's embarrassing. It highlights how awkward I am. It's personal. Perhaps it's an overshare. But I hope it helps some people realize that they're not alone, and that there are ways to get through it.


  1. Wow, Karra, I am so glad we have connected (we have soooo much in common!). Anyway, I have been reading around in your blog and (I hope it's okay) I've bookmarked this particular post to share with my students. I'm working on health and happiness resources for them, and your post here fits beautifully with a series of videos by some undergraduate students at my school (Univ. of Oklahoma) which appeared in our student newspaper. Here's a link to those resources if you are interested; this is so important!
    OU students on mental health
    I will be reading your blog with pleasure this semester! :-)

  2. I make all of these public, and write them and share them in the hopes that they might help others, so happy to have them shared!