Do You Have an Academic Anxiety Disorder?

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At this time of year, anxiety is running high in academic circles.  There are classes to teach, meetings to attend, committees to volunteer for, and advisors to avoid.  If you’ve been away from your department over the summer, you are now mingling with your peers, thinking that everyone has done more work than you.  Your long-term writing deadlines seem closer than ever, and you’re more aware than ever of how behind you are.

So it’s important to recognize if you have the symptoms of an Academic Anxiety Disorder, as defined by the DGM (Doctor Gina’s Manual of Academic Disorders).

I’ve already written about one form of Academic Anxiety Disorder: PTSD (Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder).  So many people have told me that they can identify with that syndrome.  Here are two more that plague grad students, post docs and professors.

Higher Ed Hypochondriacal Disorder (HEHD)

Higher Ed Hypochondriacal Disorder is my personal favorite.  When I was in graduate school I suffered from many imaginary illnesses, which made me obsess about various pains and lumps.  It helped that my then boyfriend, now husband of over 30 years, was in medical school at the time.  He could tell me authoritatively that I was not dying; I was merely neurotic (he became a psychiatrist, probably in self defense.)

My anxious symptom of worrying about imaginary illnesses replaced my worrying about graduate school.  I guess you could say it served its purpose, although in retrospect, I think I would have been happier knowing what I was really scared about.

Some tips for overcoming HEHD:

  • Become aware that unfounded worrying about your health might be anxiety.  This realization is reassuring in itself.
  • Take stock of what you really are anxious about.  For example:
    • Are you struggling with secret fears that you won’t be able to perform at the level that is asked of you?
    • Are there expectations in your program or your job that you’re not sure about, but don’t know who or how to ask?
  • Take steps to confront these fears.  Avoidance will only worsen your symptoms.
  • Follow general stress-reducing strategies (see below.)

Note also that stress can actually cause illness.  So follow the advice on my web site and elsewhere about life balance, meditation, and exercise, taking right-brain breaks, and getting enough sleep.  Academics often take it as a sign of their intelligence and dedication if they don’t have free time, hobbies, or a life.  Don’t make that mistake – be aggressive about self-care.

I found that the best cure for HEHD was graduation – I’ve been remarkably healthy ever since.

Obsessive-Compulsive Dissertation Disorder (OCDD)

Another form that anxiety can take is OCDD (Obsessive-Compulsive Dissertation Disorder) or its more advanced variant, OCPD (Obsessive-Compulsive Publication Disorder).

People with this disorder cannot write any old sentence.  They have to write perfect sentences.  They can sometimes spend two hours on one sentence, and then delete it.

Frequently, sufferers are unable to stop reading and researching their topic.  Like the obsessive patient who must check thirty times whether he left the iron turned on, academics with OCDD or OCPD must read one more article or do one more search to make sure that they have read and absorbed all possible information on their subject.

These people feel that they cannot start writing until they know all that there is to know.  They are plagued with anxiety as they sit down to write, because they are sure that they haven’t checked adequately whether they’ve read enough.  And their knowledge of their own perfectionism makes them hesitant to start writing, because they know what a painful process it will be to have to make each sentence so perfect.

Not only do OCDD or OCPD sufferers have trouble starting to write, they have trouble stopping.  They feel the need to keep adding more and more information to their dissertation or article, and feel actual pain when they consider leaving something out.  I have had several dissertation-coaching clients whose advisors begged them to just hand in what they had written, telling them that they had done enough.  And yet they continued to write.

OCDD/PD sufferers also ruminate.  They think about bad things that could happen, such as receiving negative comments from their advisors or readers.  But they don’t have the thought just once.  They have it repeatedly, often embellishing it and strengthening it until they feel that it WILL happen.

Some tips for overcoming OCDD/PD:

  • You will benefit from an external stimulus to help you start and stop writing.  Find a writing buddy, a group, or a writing club to help you stick to a daily writing schedule to help with your cycle of overdoing and avoidance.
  • Break down your tasks into tiny little steps.  Give yourself a check mark for each one that you accomplish.  Aim for accomplishing each task, not for doing it perfectly.  Practice completion, not perfection.
  • If you truly suffer from these obsessive-compulsive symptoms, it’s no laughing matter.  The inability to finish your tasks can be debilitating and depressing, and reduce sense of academic self-efficacy.  Consider getting help.  Cognitive-behavioral therapy works well, as does coaching.  And SSRI antidepressants have been shown to help with OCD symptoms in general.

Finally, here are some reminders about self-care.  These are just a few ways that you can lower your anxiety level and help you avoid developing an Academic Anxiety Disorder.

  • Exercise at least 3 times a week.  At the very least, take a one-mile walk every day.
  • Be involved in a group where you can talk about your anxieties and stress and get support.  Start a grad student or professor support group with at least one other person, and it can grow from there.  Even if your surface agenda is reading each other’s work, you can allow time for chat and support. Here is a quote from the UNC dissertation advice web page:

“Talking with one another may help you realize that the anxieties you have are shared by all, so there’s no reason to feel threatened by those who seem to be making more progress. Deep down, they’re as scared as you are.”

  • Practice effective time management techniques to help prevent overwhelm.
  • Be diligent about negative self-talk.  Forbid any bad thought about yourself to go unchallenged.

Don’t accept constant anxiety and tension as the norm.  Work on reducing your overall anxiety level and you will actually accomplish more, in addition to suffering less.


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