I am a second year, full-time PhD student in the social sciences (UK).
Since starting my PhD, I have suffered terribly with generalised anxiety disorder, deadline anxiety and imposter syndrome. I took a three month suspension in the middle of my second year to focus on my health, and with the help of a therapist and medication I have been doing so much better. However, the deadline anxiety continues to impact my progress and ability to send work on time.
I am a perfectionist and high achiever, which I know are notorious for procrastination and the fear of deadlines. Coupled with anxiety, I often feel paralysed with fear that I am not made for a PhD and have had many panic attacks and anxiety triggers when working. Fortunately, this has been nowhere as bad as it was 6 months ago. But lately, the anxiety has taken hold again and I have found myself frequently unable to meet draft dates on time for my supervisors. The guilt I feel over this is immeasurable, as they are so patient and accommodating (especially given some awful student-supervisor experiences I have read). The last thing I would want is for them to feel I am taking advantage or that this will be a consistent problem with me. I also worry that I rely on my first advisor too heavily for support. She is amazing, but I would never want to cross the ‘personal-professional’ line in how much I reach out to her about these issues.
I am passionate about my topic and fortunate to be able to ‘design’ my proposal myself. Yet, when the anxiety takes hold (particularly when deadlines near), I loose all perspective and fear that I will revert back to how bad I was pre-suspension. I convince myself that I am behind and that deep down my supervisors/college feel I am inadequate for the stage I am at.
I apologise for how long this post is getting! The main thing I want to ask is how fellow PhD sufferers of anxiety (or PhDers in general) manage deadline fear and construct successful time management strategies? Being completely honest, my time management is very poor through this fear I have developed of deadlines. I know how crucial it is to treat the PhD like a job, because it is a job. But (especially as I still live with my family) I find this so hard to stick to and really struggle with maintaining a healthy and consistent work schedule. This seems to come so naturally to my colleagues and I feel left behind. I am also very aware that I am nearing my third year and still working on writing my lit review chapters. I just have this fear of time (or more specifically, never having enough of it) that I can’t shake and would be so grateful for any support or advice.
Hello, I developed severe anxiety during my second year. Deadlines were non-existent in my department, but I struggled with submitting work, because I was frightened of the feedback.
Every person in the world has their own 'emotional bucket'. Whatever causes upset or fear add's water to that bucket. When we suffer anxiety the bucket is already full, so the smallest thing can make us overflow. For me, getting anything less that perfect feedback would have made me overflow. In the end I came to an agreement where I would submit the work, but I would request the feedback whenever I felt I had the capacity in my bucket to handle it. It's also worth noting that the more I avoided handing in work because of this fear, the harder it became to hand in work.
You could try setting aside time around your deadlines to take care of your mental health. many people will simply say that if you mental health isn't great, a PhD will only make it worse. whilst this is true to an extent, there are ways to support someone through this journey who does find their mental health to be difficult.
For me, kickboxing is what keeps my anxiety at bay, it's a physical release, it's disciplined (I, too, am a perfectionist!) and it makes me feel stronger. Others find meditation, yoga, dance, singing to help. If you can identify what helps you, try to plan activities in the weeks coming up to your deadline.
Also try to work out why you fear deadlines - if it's the feedback, try what I did. Just having control of when that feedback lands in your emails reduces that anxiety.
Finally, if you feel your mental health is not getting better, or you find yourself really slipping, you may need to request a further break. You need to put aside what your supervisors may think or how it may appear and focus on the key thing, which is your health. There's no point to a PhD if it irreversibly damages you in the process.
Best of luck
Thank you very much for taking the time to reply - It means a lot!
I am sorry to hear that you too have suffered with anxiety. It is a horrific mental battle to endure every day. That 'bucket' analogy sums it up so perfectly. I really resonate with that as my bucket is always full with unnecessary worries, fears and predictions, with the smallest of additions making it completely overflow. I also relate to your fear of feedback, as that too is something I struggle with. Your management in receiving it when you felt ready sounds very helpful and I hope that worked well for you. You are so right too in that the longer something is 'put off' through anxiety (e.g. submitting work), the harder it becomes. I made a significant step in sending a decent chunk (approx. 14k words) to my supervisors a couple of months ago, which I received positive and constructive feedback on. But, when it came to restructuring and working on said feedback this month, I froze and ruminated over how much I have yet to organise (methodology, ethics, data collection).
That sounds good in terms of setting aside time to focus on my mental health. I guess, because I have already taken a three month suspension (and had a month off towards the end of my first year) I feel like I have had my time to do that and that I should be functioning normally now. However, maintaining our mental health is a constant task that needs it's own schedule and I need to remember this. I am glad to hear that kickboxing works for you! I used to go to the gym which I enjoyed a lot, but with Covid I don't feel safe doing so. But as you say, that doesn't mean I can't take up things like yoga or work outs at home to help. Perfectionism really is a blessing and a curse in that it can motivate us to always do your best, but equally hinder our progress in needing to be '100%' 24/7.
With deadlines, I think the main fear I have is the severe stress and pressure I put on myself when writing, coupled with the fear of not meeting them. The panic attacks definitely haven't helped, making me 'panic about panicking' when writing. But, continuing to work on my toolkit sounds like a positive way forward and I need to try my best to stay in the present moment. I have a meeting with my supervisor today to have a chat about my chapter and wellbeing, so hopefully that will help.
You are right about prioritising our health, it's so important. Because I have already had 4 months away from the PhD, I feel like that has been more than enough time to focus on myself and that I can't take any more leave. But, I will also be a detriment to myself if I think like this and need to recognise that is why these breaks are available in the first place.
Honestly Em, thank you so much for your reply and advice. It has been helpful more than you may realise! Best of luck to you too.
Hi R. So form what you've said it seems more like the restructuring and re-organisation seems overwhelming, especially when you've already put in so much work. it can sometimes feel a little soul destroying at times. It is completely normal to feel like this when we receive feedback of this nature. It's not some serious glaring errors that induce those stress feelings that make you panic correct, it's not a solid direction of changes to just follow.
Take it one section at a time, that really helps.
Also, thinking about your situation, perhaps rather than deadlines to meet you could have approximate deadlines, so give a deadline period of 2 weeks - the earliest you submit would be 28th September and the latest you would submit is October 12th. Then you can set yourself a target of 28th, but you have a buffer to work with if it's too much. That should help appease the perfectionist side of you.
I also found that taking chunks off work didn't help (i.e. I once took 3 months), but taking an afternoon off or giving myself a 'mental health' day worked much better. Control and ownership are really important to our mental health. So for example if I was having a bad day I would just say to myself 'today is a difficult day and I'm making the decision to not work, but to rest and focus on my wellbeing'. Another tip my dad (of all people, who doesn't really get mental health) taught me was to set your emotions time limits, so he taught me to say to myself 'I feel really upset about this, I'm going to let myself feel that upset for the next hour, then I'm drawing a line under it and moving on'. It helped me. As a psychologist it kind of goes against everything I would normally believe in (letting emotions come and go as they wish) but as a perfectionist who often feels out of control, it helped me.
Keep going, you are doing great
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