You may have heard of PTSD, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. This is an official diagnosis given to people who been exposed to a “traumatic stressor” that involves threat to one’s physical integrity. In order to receive the diagnosis, you must experience certain symptoms. Here are selective excerpts or paraphrasing from the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders):
- “Reexperiencing the event,” either through
- Distressing memories or dreams, or
- Acting or feeling as if the event were recurring, or
- “Intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event”
- “Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma (not present before the trauma)”
Although there are other symptoms, I chose these, because they relate to a specialized subset of PTSD that applies to academics. I call it “Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder.”
What is Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder?
Here is the official DGM (Doctor Gina’s Manual of Academic Disorders) diagnostic criteria for Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder:
The Academic has been exposed to a traumatic event (or series of events) in which any of the following have been present:
- Shockingly and unnecessarily negative feedback on one’s academic thoughts or work
- “This chapter is not graduate level work”
- “Your theory is stupid”
- Negative feedback delivered in a harsh, cruel, degrading or humiliating manner
- “I want everyone to read this as an example of what not to write in graduate school.”
- “How did you ever get tenure?”
- Ridicule, harassment, or any type of behavior usually observed in junior high schools, such as obvious whispering and hurtful gossip, is perpetrated on the victim.
- “She hasn’t published in two years. It’s probably because of that affair… Ssshhh! She just got here!”
- The individual’s very existence is ignored over a long period of time by people who hold some power over that person’s future.
- “I sent a chapter to Professor Smith 2 months ago and I haven’t heard anything from him. He won’t return phone calls or emails I’ve sent to follow up.”
The Academic’s response to the traumatic event involves intense shame, fear, rage, helplessness, horror, or feelings of betrayal.
The Academic will have symptoms from both the “Re-experiencing” and “Avoiding” categories:
Re-experiencing: The traumatic event is persistently reexperienced in one of the following ways:
- Recurrent recollection, dreams, or rerunning of alternate scenarios in one’s head
- “I wish I had said this in response!”
- “I can’t believe they said that in front of the whole seminar.”
- Overreaction to current events as if they were the traumatic event
- “I just know if I call my new advisor he’ll humiliate me like the old one used to do.”
- “Every time I think of sending that article in I get that horrible feeling in my stomach. What if I get that same cruel reviewer?”
- “Just walking into the department makes me feel ill, ever since that horrible meeting.”
- “I sit down to work on my thesis and and the anxiety is overwhelming.”
Avoiding: Anything associated with the traumatic event in any way is avoided.
Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings or conversations that remind the person of the trauma.
Efforts to avoid places, people or activities that bring reminders of the trauma
Denial of the impact of the trauma on one’s current feelings and behavior (avoiding feeling the full brunt of the emotions relating to the trauma)
Reduced interest in important activities relating to academia (avoiding of participation in activities that could bring further trauma)
Feelings of isolation or “not belonging” to one’s department (avoiding feelings of affiliation that could lead to betrayal)
Difficulty imagining academic success (avoiding feelings of hope and thus avoiding disappointment)
The Academic may also experience increased overall anxiety, depression, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, self-blame, and difficulty concentrating.
Onset can be delayed; e.g., symptoms may not occur until weeks or months after the trauma.
In some cases, the trauma occurred outside of academia, but became associated with it in that person’s mind (e.g. your girlfriend breaks up with you just as you’re starting your first chapter.) The symptoms of avoidance and re-experiencing then accidentally become associated with academia.
How Do I Know If I am Suffering From Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder?
Ask yourself the following questions:
Have I ever suffered from any of the “traumas” listed above? (If you’re not sure, run the scenario by someone outside of academia, where the standards for cruelty are often more humane.)
Have I ever experienced the symptoms listed above? (If so, then see if you can trace it back to an event such as those described as traumas above.)
The Avoidance Symptoms are the most pernicious, yet indicative of Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder. Many people blame their lack of progress in their work on their own laziness, perfectionism, or ineffectiveness instead of looking at the institution. This attitude of blaming the individual is encouraged within the Academy; “We all survived this mistreatment and you should be able to, too. So suck it up.”
How Do I Recover From Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder?
Here are the steps to recovery:
Acknowledge that the event was indeed traumatic.
Talk to others about your experience. Find people who are sympathetic and empathetic. Again, you might have to go outside of academia. A dissertation or tenure coach can help you with this. Ahem.
When you think about the avoided activity, let yourself feel the feelings instead of avoiding them. Once you identify the anxiety, fear, or rage, you are better able to deal with that emotion.
If you realize you’re overwhelmed with anxiety, take steps to reduce the anxiety. Meditation, relaxation, studying with a friend in a friendly environment or whatever makes you feel relaxed is will help.
If you’ve been avoiding researching or writing, start with tiny baby steps. Read something easy for 5 minutes a day. Slowly work your way up.
Watch out for blaming yourself. No matter how poorly written you think your work was, you deserved helpful feedback, not harsh and cruel, insulting or vague feedback.
Get all the support you can! Isolation will only worsen your symptoms.
Keep reading this newsletter and the archived articles on the website.
Remember, you deserve to be treated with kindness and decency, even in the hallowed halls of academia.