Academic Anxiety: Mental Health Awareness Week 2014

2014-05-08 14.13.46Hi team! Hello and welcome to Mental Health Awareness Week 2014! The focus of this year’s MHAW week is anxiety, which I think is so so important. “Depression and anxiety” is one bandied about medical diagnoses. It seems to be the go-to for most GPs when you tell them that you are experiencing low mood or any of the multitude of symptoms associated with mental illness. However, very little is known about the nature of anxiety and the profound impact that it can have on people’s lives.

Imagine that you woke up tomorrow and something that you had taken for granted your whole life, like traveling on the subway, had suddenly, inexplicably, become a thing of terror. You hear the doors of the carriage swish closed behind you and try to quell the rising panic. Other passengers try not to start are you self-soothing, knee-jiggling actions and tears prick at the back of your eyes. The worst part is that you know that it’s completely irrational. You feel like you’re losing your mind and there’s nothing you can do about it. Eventually the doors swish open again and you can sprint headlong onto the platform. Even in the safety of your own home, you may not be able to escape your anxiety. Thoughts about faulty electrical outlets and the safety of your family come unbidden in the night. You awake, exhausted, to face another day of worry. Can you imagine how overwhelming that would be? This is the reality for many people.

There are a whole host of anxiety-inducing aspects of academia. The constant criticism of our work, conference presentations, encounters with our supervisors, the feeling that we’re constantly getting it wrong can be a minefield for someone trying to cope with anxiety the best they can. Sometimes it seems that the best way to deal with this sort of anxiety is to avoid the situation altogether and to stay at home watching Game of Thrones in our pajamas but then we have to deal with the anxiety that we should be working. In fact, this can often be an omnipresent source of anxiety in academia; the fear that we should always be working and that any time off is time that should be spent on work.

Anxiety is hard to get rid of. The consequences of anxiety can be far-reaching and long lasting. Just the other day, I received a text from my new boss asking me to give her a call once I came out of my meeting. Now, my new boss is lovely, my new job is lovely, everyone I have met there is delightful and I haven’t been there long enough to mess anything up but I still launched head first into the anxiety spiral of “oh I must be in trouble…I’ve definitely messed something up…I’ll probably get sacked….and I really love my new job….it must be something really bad…” All from a totally innocent request for a phone call. Of course I wasn’t in trouble. My boss just wanted to check something with me and I was left feeling a bit silly. A lot of worry wasted, as my Mother would say. We don’t feel like this on purpose, certainly it would make our lives a whole lot easier if we could not feel this way, but anxiety can taint every aspect and every interaction of our lives and I am hopeful that the attention brought to it by MHAW will start some conversations.

I’m going to make a suggestion for making academia a more supportive place for people who are dealing with anxiety. For every email you sent and every interaction you have, try to ask yourself “how would this sound to someone experiencing anxiety?” What seems to you to be a totally innocuous request for a catch up or a progress update can be, to someone else, something to dread. Would a little sentence saying explaining “nothing bad, just wanted to see how you’re getting on” put their mind at rest?  I know that academics can be particularly bad for dashing off emails saying “Where is that report?” and “Send me that thing!”. Just take one second to think about whether there is a better way to say something and maybe we can make academia a better place for everyone.

Well team, you can find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week 2014 here and, speaking of conference presentation anxiety, I have been asked to talk about mental health and academia at the Roles conference at Birmingham Uni this Friday. There’s still time to register if you want to come along and learn about mental health, gender and sexuality! Otherwise, hope you have a productive and stress-free week, you lovely people!


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