anxiety / depression with lit review?


I have been trying to write the 1st draft of my Lit Review (10K, due in <3 weeks) but every time I sit down to write I have been frozen by anxiety and depression. This is leading to huge amounts of procrastination because I keep using distraction techniques to "get away" from the anxiety of trying to write. I have written less than 500 words in 2 weeks. Last week it took me a whole day to write 45 words. My supervisor is very disappointed in my lack of progress, but supportive, but also needs me to get the work done.

Does anyone have any "spot" advice about what to do when I actually sit down at my desk? What to do when I feel the urge to break away from my computer? I've broken things down into much smaller tasks: "write one sentence," "read one abstract," so I can't break it down further. I just can't seem to even do those things. The thought of writing, of summarizing someone else's work, of trying to express something I don't understand... actually hurts. The anxiety is a moment-by-moment thing leading to a more general feeling of depression and despair of the things I'm not getting done and the work I should be doing when I get home.

I might have to go to the doctor but in the meantime I need to know how to actually sit down and get something done.


======= Date Modified 12 Nov 2010 13:43:28 =======
Ok a few pieces of practical advice from me. 

1. highlighter pen, get one,  read a few papers and highlight the interesting bits. Then

2. say you've read three papers.. draw three big circles on a sheet of paper ... and write the highlighted bits in each, just words or phrases. Then

3.  make the connection between the circles, what does one say that the other doesn't.. where do they agree ...are there connections between them .. does this process lead you off to another paper..   if so.. go with it. Add more papers, highlights, more circles until...  you have a story in your head.. a few thoughts..  anything.. then write that down.

and so it goes on .. but please you are not alone in this,  really you're not. As my sup says " its all part of the journey" ;-)

Others will come up with different ways, have a go and see what works for you.

Let us know how you get on.  Regards, Chuff


======= Date Modified 12 Nov 2010 14:59:10 =======
Hi Cornflower,

The advice above is really good. I would also bear in mind that you're unlikely to write the whole lit review in one draft. It's a process of writing, revision and editing until you craft something you're happy with. So don't try and get everything perfect first time. Let yourself go with your thoughts, no matter how stupid they seem at the time, then go back and re-draft. In other words 'make a mess and then clean it up'.:-)

As Chuff says, this sort of thing is all part of the process. We have ALL been there!


Have you tried recording your ideas in speech form? This isn't writing in the usual form, but is more like brainstorming. If you have a tape recorder or a recording programme on your computer it's easy to do. This might help break the impasse. Record your vague ideas about what you need to write, in any rambling form that you see fit. Then you can play it back and type up what you said, and take that as a starting point.

I also gave you advice in an earlier thread. I guess that didn't help :(

I would recommend going to see your doctor. This is getting severe, and you're going to have harder things to deal with later on in the PhD. So you need to find a way of coping.


I'm very much in the same position - in fact at about 11.30 this morning I just burst into tears and told my husband I couldn't do a PhD. His response was to get me away fomr it and take me out for lunch - one large glass of wine later I slept for 2 hours on the sofa and have jsut woken up.

I am really struggling with what ot do. I have a very detailed electonic mind map which has brnches for the various themes, comments by me, arrows linking various arguments and so on.

I have written a few hundred words on the basis that writing somehting is better than nothing but when I read them back they seem so trite and superficial.

I've tried trying to break it down so that instead of 10,000 words I have 5 2,000 word things but I am still struggling.

I had a research seminar to present at work this week and so for the past few weeks (months?) I have been able to pretend that I was making progress because I was working on that (but for at least the past 5 weeks I have just tinkered with that) but I am just kidding myself. I am part time and so during term time I only have one or two dedicated PhD days a week (in vacation I am full time full on which is easier as I am in PhD mode rather than teaching, marking, preparing lectures.


I like Bilbo's advice about the recorder, that has worked for me in the past. I am running into similar problems right now, and I have found a (maybe temp) solution for me. I outlined the chapter by section and approximately what will be in those. This was very high level, superficial, no references, only ideas type of outlining. Then I went though each section and though: Oh! I know section 5, I'll work on that. Wrote up section 5 and then back to the list to see what else I knew or could work around. It will be written all out of order, but then I just have to connect the lose ends of the sections together, which should be easier. Sometimes, writing '1,000 words today' won't let you break away from what is fouling you up if it is just how the information is arranged in your head vs. how you want it to be arranged on paper.

Best of luck with a solution for you.


======= Date Modified 12 Nov 2010 19:52:44 =======
I'm a new PhD student myself and still in the reading phase - haven't started writing yet.

I like the idea of the three circles. My plan is to take the quotes that I've noted from the papers I've read and write a little around each of them to describe what they mean.

At the bigger level, I've got a mind map linking the bigger themes together, so my plan is to write and link, write and link a little at a time. Then I will have content for each big theme and I can see what else I need to read. The thought of starting with a blank page is scary.

Have you got access to the book 'how to write a thesis?'. I find it has some great ideas on how to get started. It suggests exercises in writing to get you started.


Thanks everyone for your advice. I like the three circles idea too. I also have mind-maps, but every time I change the structure I change the mind map so I have five or six different versions. What I do have is the notes I've made from a bunch of different abstracts which I have started just turning into random paragraphs and putting into my lit review document under vaguely appropriate headings. The idea is not to "write" the lit review but get things down that I can edit later. I keep hearing two phrases: "Write early, write often," and "don't get it right, get it written."

Copying-and-pasting my notes has got me up to around 3200 words. It's a false security because I have to go back and add things later, and edit all these random words into something coherent, but it is giving me the chance to write odd paragraphs of real work in between them. The trouble is, I can set myself "small" goals of write 50 words, read the methods section of one paper, and it still might take me several hours to do it. Every day, that concrete deadline for internal review gets closer and closer and I don't seem to be getting anywhere at all.

I keep bursting into tears too, and sleeping much more than usual. I think the feeling of depression is stemming from something else -- the thought that, for some reason, I would find a PhD "easy" because I felt like I've done a lot with my life (and overcome a lot of tough things). The writing side I assumed I would find especially straightforward. I felt like I made far too many promises, and finding out that a) I'm really not the perfect student that I assumed I would be and b) that my past experiences really don't count for much at all, and I still have to start at square one, just like everybody, has hit me hard. But, even if I acknowledge that, it doesn't change the fact that I still have a 10,000 word literature review due in a couple of weeks, and a completely disorganised set of notes and probably at least another 150 important papers which I haven't even read the abstracts for...


PS Bilbo -- I don't have a voice recorder but I did write around 2000 words stream of consciousness about what I thought I wanted my lit review to say, and gave it to my supervisor. I'd been able to use the paragraphs from my SoC to come up with headings and subsections that I'm not trying to "colour in" with the notes from the journals I've read. It's a horrid, hideous jigsaw of a proto-lit review, but it's helped me get over that first inertia.

Speaking of colour, my paragraphs are colour-coded in Word. For some reason this "proves" to me that it's a work in progress and is allowed to be messy, as well as having an easily recognisable colour scheme (blue for paragraphs from abstract notes, red for things I've written myself, black for headings, violet for the stream of consciousness parts, green for concepts that I need to come back to...).

It's stupid and childish, not remotely academic, but... it works. Kinda.


Do you use an electronic mind map programme? I find it really helpful as changes are automatically updated and you can export the mindmap to word as a set of headings.

The only trouble I have is that my electronic mindmap is too big to print now but I can use it on screen. I've also used the facility to put links across the different legs with notes attached so that at least when I go back to try to write that part up I have a clue as to what I was thinking.

Are you full time? If so you should be able to get 10,000 in the time you have (I wrote my 18,000 word MA dissertation in 4 weeks while very heavily pregnant (submission was 3 weeks before due date) - problem for me is that because I know I did that (which was 12 years ago) I think I can always get a lot done in a short space of time - it would be far less stressful if I actually spread the work out a bit.

And so I am going to go and try to write 200 more words this morning.


======= Date Modified 14 Nov 2010 14:41:13 =======
What mindmap software do you use? I use a free one and it doesn't allow me to do half of those things...

With the word count thing, I also have that trouble -- I know I can write very fast. Unfortunately I've just figured out that academic writing is very different, and whilst I can write 1000 words in 15 minutes, I am lucky if I can write a ten word sentence in ten minutes on my lit review when I keep having to go back and check exactly what it was the authors of one paper were really saying.

I really wish I could just see a sudden marked improvement that will get me on my way, but I don't feel like that is happening at all. I only have a little over 2 weeks now.


Quote From cornflower:

I am lucky if I can write a ten word sentence in ten minutes on my lit review when I keep having to go back and check exactly what it was the authors of one paper were really saying.

When I was writing my thesis (including very complex later chapters) I would write very quickly, with lots of "..." or "blah blah blah" bits, where I couldn't remember the details, but didn't want to interrupt my flow to stop and go and check things. That way I could get a lot of words down quickly, could get the overall shape in place, and then worried about going back to sort out the finer details later on. And it worked. Could you try something like this?


Quote From cornflower:

======= Date Modified 14 Nov 2010 14:41:13 =======
What mindmap software do you use? I use a free one and it doesn't allow me to do half of those things...

I use Mindjet mind manager pro 6 - I bought it when I did my MSc (6 years ago) and haven't bothered upgrading it. There was a special offer for students.

It's really good - I have an overall PhD mindmap which has the main sections and they are mindmaps in themselves which can be easily opened. I can export the mindmap and it comes into word as an outline (with numbered headings for each bit of the mindmap so all I need to do is add some body text). I also format things in different colours/fonts etc and do the lines linking bits together. It also lets you link sources and images and lots more (haven't tried any of them)...