Beginning graduate school is a stressful experience. Incoming students have to juggle a plethora of responsibilities, including a high-intensity course load, independent research, and teaching assistant duties. On top of all that stress, many students face additional challenges in overcoming personal anxiety, especially in high-pressure situations such as teaching and public speaking. Anxiety can feel debilitating and drain one’s confidence in their abilities to perform their graduate student duties.
This piece offers tips and strategies to manage and overcome anxiety in graduate school. As someone who is clinically diagnosed with both Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder, I have dealt with significant levels of anxiety during my six years of graduate school. I hope to share my experience and discuss the mental and physical strategies that have helped me survive anxiety and be successful in my academic career.
What is Anxiety?
Before jumping into how to manage anxiety, it is important to recognize what anxiety actually is. Stress and anxiety are related, but they are not the same. Stress is a reaction to difficult circumstances, such as overwork and pressure. Everyone experiences stress to some degree, as it is a natural response to a high-pressure environment, such as graduate school. Almost everyone understands the signs of stress and is empathetic towards colleagues dealing with stress.
This, however, is not always the case with anxiety. Those who suffer from anxiety experience not only the common symptoms of stress (tension, irritability, etc.), but also suffer “persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor,” according to the American Psychiatric Association. Anxiety is often irrational; it is common to worry incessantly about things which others may find silly or don’t understand. While such fears may be confusing for others, they can have very real consequences for the person suffering.
Anxiety in its most extreme form causes panic attacks. To use a metaphor favored by my mother, a licensed mental health counselor, a panic attack feels like what one would experience if an angry tiger suddenly charged at you. Your body goes into a fight-or-flight response, your heart beats out of your chest, you are terrified, and you can’t think straight. But there is no imminent physical danger, such as a tiger, to trigger these responses. Many circumstances can increase the risk of panic attacks, including, in my case, teaching and public speaking.
It is common to dislike public speaking, but for some it causes massive levels of anxiety. An hour of leading a class discussion or performing a routine presentation to one’s peers can feel unbearable. My biggest trigger in this regard is the fear of having a panic attack in front of an audience, which, ironically, has led to panic attacks. Although such anxiety is sometimes debilitating, I have gradually utilized strategies to mitigate the worst of it in a way that allows me to function successfully as an academic.
Don’t Be Hard on Yourself
The first step to managing anxiety is to come to terms with it. I often think of anxiety as a bully who berates you with pessimistic and irrational thoughts: that being burdened with anxiety is your fault, that anxiety makes you less than others, or that you won’t ever be able to comfortably speak publicly. These negative thoughts are nothing but lies. Anxiety does NOT reflect on your ability as an academic, and it is NOT a personal failing.
Be gentle with yourself. Teaching and public speaking are hard and take years to master. It’s OK to have anxiety. You may need extra time to prepare or practice, but that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. Getting down on yourself only feeds into the feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.
Recognize That Overcoming Anxiety is A Learning Process
As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Don’t expect to wake up and find that your anxiety has vanished overnight. Managing anxiety is a lifelong process and you should not get discouraged if progress is slow at times. Focus on the positives: celebrate minor successes, (presenting a short paper without panic or leading an engaging class discussion), and don’t beat yourself up when something goes wrong. Over time, you’ll see those successes multiply while negative moments decrease.
Reach Out to Those You Trust
You don’t have to go it alone. Sharing mental health issues can be hard for some, but reaching out to those close to you helps significantly. It is rarely the right move to bottle up emotions because that can compound the negative feelings anxiety invokes. Even if you aren’t comfortable sharing with people in your academic life, trusted family or friends can provide great comfort. Though they may not fully understand your struggles, those close to you will sympathize, and you may find that people you didn’t expect have dealt with similar issues.
I also highly recommend seeking a therapist ASAP, especially if you just moved to a new area. Therapists are professionally trained to deal with common mental health issues such as anxiety, and can help you develop a plan to overcome your anxiety. University health plans often include access to mental health services for relatively low co-payments (I pay $10 per weekly session with my therapist). Reach out to your school’s student health department: most universities provide service to assist students in finding local therapists who take student health insurance. I also recommend using Psychology Today, a great website that allows you to search for local therapists who can accommodate your insurance.
Take Steps to Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
Maintaining physical and mental health is incredibly important when working to overcome anxiety. Living an unhealthy lifestyle can severely damage your ability to confront your personal anxiety triggers. Therefore, building a healthy graduate school experience is critical.
Build friendships with your colleagues. Take advantage of the opportunities to socialize outside of school. Focus on your physical well-being. Eat healthy. Allow time to yourself to enjoy hobbies. Get enough sleep. These are all common-sense strategies, which, by now, you have surely heard ad nauseum, but following them will greatly help your chances to successfully manage anxiety.
There are two elements of lifestyle that I believe to be especially important in confronting anxiety. First, consistent exercise is one of the best things you can do. Exercise naturally boosts your mood and allows the body to expel excess energy caused by anxiety. It also lifts self-esteem and promotes physical health. Leading a healthy lifestyle can sometimes be easier said than done, particularly for academics. Our jobs require long hours of sedentary work, often hunched over computers. We are often underfunded and access to gyms, parks, and other health-adjacent environments can sometimes be out of reach. Developing strategies to maintain your physical health can be challenging, but they are critical in graduate school. Start by developing a routine, carving out space for exercise daily, or as much as possible. Familiarize yourself with the benefits offered by your university: school gym access, running tracks, etc. If you are able to, get some fresh air by walking outside. Even if you are stuck inside due to weather or a poor living environment, there are many home exercises, which require no equipment.
The second lifestyle element is alcohol consumption. Alcohol artificially induces relaxation through chemical processes in the brain, and it is tempting to use it to reduce anxiety. Alcohol consumption plagues academia, and there can be much temptation to drink as a way to relieve anxiety or fit in with your fellow students. While having a couple drinks with friends isn’t a major problem, don’t use alcohol as a means to temporarily eliminate your anxiety. It won’t help in the long term. On the contrary, alcohol often increases anxiety levels due to its after effects, and frequent use may prevent you from learning healthy coping strategies.
Don’t Run Away From Anxiety-Provoking Situations
No matter how bad your anxiety gets, you need to keep confronting it. You have to stand your ground and face that “tiger.” That may feel like a monumental task, and your mind may beg you to run away right before a teaching or public speaking event.
“I can pretend to be sick and get away with it.”
“It won’t matter if I cancel one day.”
These thoughts may seem logical at the moment, but you can’t give in to them. If you cancel that class, you are more likely to do it the next time. If you’re not careful, you will rack up unneeded cancellations, which could threaten your career.
Confronting situations that trigger your anxiety is extremely hard, but it is the single most important aspect of managing it in the long term. The only way to overcome anxiety in teaching or public speaking is through exposure: the more you do it, the easier it will become.
I speak from experience. When I entered graduate school in 2017, I could barely make it through a teaching session. I was so terrified to speak in front of a class that I sometimes had panic attacks the previous night and couldn’t sleep. I had multiple moments of panic in front of an audience, although it was never so bad I couldn’t continue. I often thought I would have to leave school because I couldn’t handle the mere act of teaching, let alone actually become a successful teacher.
After nearly six years of teaching, I rarely feel such overwhelming panic. Anxiety is still there, but through repetition and experience, I am increasingly confident in my ability to teach effectively. Coming to this point took an enormous amount of effort and work, but it involved strategies that most people can replicate. Mental health is a life-long journey, but one with tremendous benefits.
Featured image: BetterHelp.
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