Feeling really low...not sure where to turn


I apologise in advance for this rant, but I just needed to get this out, somewhere there might be people who have had similar experiences.

I'm in my first year of an arts PhD, started in October. I've been suffering with depression near enough from the start. I basically applied to do this PhD unsure of how much I wanted to do it. When the funding came through, I was pleased, but scared too. It's not so much the work I'm scared of, just the mindset I get into when I'm at uni. For no real reason, I get extremely anxious and feel nauseous all day. I always promised myself that when I finished my masters (I've gone straight from that into the PhD) that I'd stop smoking. I tried when I started my PhD, and ended up enormously depressed and anxious. I never smoke at home or at weekends, when I'm with my fiancee or friends, only ever at uni.

I've been beating myself up so much about the smoking. I tried to limit myself to 3 cigarettes a day and that seemed to go OK for a while, but I started to feel down again and it seems that limiting my cigarette intake is making me feel worse. I just desperately want to give up, but it feels awful. I worry a lot too about what I'm going to do when I finish this PhD...if I can't get an academic job, who else on earth will employ me? I'm sorry, I know everyone feels like that.

So many times I've been tempted to just give up, but what stops me is that I don't know what I'd do without the stipend money. It's more than I've ever earned and I finally feel able to contribute to the household. My fiancee has a good full time job, and I was finally starting to feel a bit more equal to him. And I know fine well that there are no jobs out there. Sometimes I think that if something makes you feel this bad, it can't be worth doing. But then I don't want to just give up. If I gave up, got another job and my depression continued then I'd know I had thrown away an enormous chance. There's just no way of knowing.

I just want to feel better about this PhD, I used to really enjoy this kind of work, but every time I sit down to it now I get dizzy and sick and sweaty. I'm just not sure what to do. Any advice would be much appreciated.


Sorry you're having such a bad time at the moment.

You seem to imply that its being in the university that causes you such stress. Since you're doing an arts subject I assume there's no lab you need to be in so could you work at home a few days a week? I know some departments have a minimum presence requirement but my supervisor doesn't care where I'm working so long as I can show that the work is getting done (and if your sup is friendly you can explain anyway). Even if there are more distractions at home, if you can be more relaxed there you're likely to get just as much work done. Since you don't smoke at home it might help a bit with that as well, though when both are stressful I think you could be justified in forgiving yourself for smoking for a few months while things settle down with the PhD.

Hope things get better for you soon.


I totally understand how you feel!

I'm in a similar situation. Deep depression, loosing my hair, gastritis...I haven't had a panic attak..yet!

I'm going to quit my PhD but I have no idea yet how to do that.

But my advice is talk with your supervisor, try to work at home for a period and take your time to make a choice.

Don't think too much about the cigarette thing!

Good luck!


Hi Clupea and Ilaria, thank you for your kind replies. I might try working from home, to see if that works. At the same time, I do deliberately choose not to work from home because I feel so much more relaxed there and don't want to ruin it.

Ilaria, I'm sorry to hear about all your physical symptoms...have you been to the doctor? These things can take a lot of patience to recover from, but I hope you feel that you're on the right track to getting better...


Quote From Jenny85:

Hi Clupea and Ilaria, thank you for your kind replies. I might try working from home, to see if that works. At the same time, I do deliberately choose not to work from home because I feel so much more relaxed there and don't want to ruin it.

You could try allocating a certain room or space to work in at home, and then your worries could be confined to that area and not the rest of your house. I have a shoe box of an office and I find it works just fine as I only use the room for work. Incidentally, I suffer from severe anxiety problems that were really problematic in the first year of my PhD. I found working from home on the "bad" days a real help. It was also useful to try and balance that with days in Uni too otherwise it can build into a fear of going into Uni - also it can be quite isolating being at home, and good company may cheer you up.


Hey Jenny!
I can sympathise with you on the depression side of things, because I've been there many times and I know how awful it is. I've been fairly okay since the start of my PhD (sometimes I think my PhD keeps me well!) but I had enormous problems before that which caused me to drop out of uni three times. I think you really need to deal with that first because there's no way you'll be able to work productively whilst you're feeling like that. Can you go to your GP or book an appointment with the uni counselling service? Or preferably both?! It's not easy asking for help but there is help out there, and perhaps once your health is sorted you can look at the PhD with fresh eyes and decide whether it's what you want to do. It sounds like it might be the right thing for you, if you can start to feel better about it. And perhaps now is not the right time for you to stoop smoking? I don't know (I've never smoked), but if I tried to give up chocolate when things were tough it would sure as hell make things much worse! Maybe don't be so hard on yourself about it and wait until things are better to try to stop, I don't think there's much point whilst you feel so awful. Really hope you can get some help. Best wishes, KB


Thank you Charls and Keenbean...it makes a big difference to hear some suggestions. You are completely right, Charls, about not building up a fear of going into uni. I don't want to do that, as it's important for me to feel like I've a job to go to, and am participating in society in some way.

Keenbean, you are definitely right about trying to sort this as it is definitely impacting on my productivity. I had 7 sessions of guided self help in the summer - I tried to stop smoking while finishing my M Litt and it had tipped me into a bad patch, worse than I'd ever experienced. I felt at the end of the sessions that I'd made big progress, but I was maybe a bit too cocky, thinking it had gone. In all truth, I've definitely not been well since that time in the summer but just lately it's become worse than ever. I've never had antidepressants, but am starting to wonder if it might be worth asking about.

It's so hard to put a name to this thing. I can't say the work upsets me or stresses me out because in the past I've enjoyed it so much. I reckon it's a combination of isolation, feeling like a failure for still being a student, fears about what I'll do after I finish and worries about whether or not I can write enough or finish on time. I know setting the strict 3 year deadline seems stupid, but I really want to do it, as my fiance is 10 years older than me and we want to try for a baby soon after I finish the PhD, before he's 40. He keeps saying don't worry because we can wait to have a baby until I get a job, but I keep telling him that might be a long, long time, when he might be the sole earner.

I feel like everyone else is so proud of me and pleased for me for getting AHRC funding but the awful part of me wants to turn around and scream "you can bloody well do it, then, if it's so great." I get so envious of people with "normal" jobs without this looming deadline, though I know the grass is almost certainly not greener on the other side right now.

Sorry for the rant, everyone, I appreciate your kind words.


My support and sympathy are with you as well. I work from home 95% of the time and while it is what I prefer I take the point about not building up a fear of going into uni. It's great if it is totally up to you to work where you want. To be fair I find that when you are in college you pick up things by osmosis if you like, which is definetely not the case at home. Having said that I prefer being at home in the latter stages of my PhD as I feel I get more work done there.

Most uni's have counsellors of some sort and it might be an idea to make an appointment with one of those. At the very least you will feel that you are doing something which is often liberating. PhDs are hard, there is no denying that. If they were not, more people would do them. However it is great being able to determine your own hours etc. For me the first year of university (I returned as a mature student) were tough. Academically I was okay but I spent all the time outside of lectures in my car, alone!!! It was only in my second year that I made any friends. I know what you mean about the stipend, at times that has been the only thing that has made me stick with it. I can see light now and am glad I stayed with the programme - hopefully, with time, you will too.

I hope things improve for you soon



I think that you should go and see the counselling service of your uni. They should be able to offer you some kind of advice.
I know how you feel. I am doing a PT PhD in UK, while working FT in Greece (I am Greek). Sometimes I feel that I don't have the energy to do anything... I do all of my work from home and I meet with my supervisors every 3-4 months, so whenever I am at the uni I feel so isolated there, I don't know anybody apart from my sups...
I have been tempted to give up, especially when I have a lot of work at my job, or when I was doing my research, or even a couple of days ago when I realised that I lost more days than I hoped because of a surgery I had to have....
Speaking to someone who is a professional and has dealt with many cases like yours could help!
Best of luck!


i think maybe you need to cut yourself a bit of slack, you are pushing yourself too hard. I have never smoked, but I know it can be hard to give up, so perhaps you should approach it in a different way... instead of limiting yourself, which immediately has the effect of making it a BIG THING, just say to yourself I will try not to smoke too much, but if I want one, I will have one with no guilt trip. This should make it a bit easier, and if you want one, have one, but make it a positive thing, think I'm having a cigarette now, but I've gone x amount of time without one, which is really good.

people can be scared of the whole thing, its unknown territory, so it is bound to give rise to some anxiety, its all new and different, it doesn't mean you can't get through it, read a couple of the books about the process, it may help you see your way forward, depending upon your discipline, it may be that there is no well trodden path for you to latch on to when it comes to design etc, or even if there is a path, it may not exactly fit your needs. Once you have sorted out at least a tentative way forward you may feel better. At the moment you are probably in a bit of a limbo situation, its early days.

follow the advice already given and see what help is available at your university, even if you don't want to take up any opportunities available in this area straight away, the fact that you know how you can get to them if you need them may really help.

Finally, don't think you are alone, there is a lot of help and support available, both at your uni, and here on this forum, you can do it!  :-)


hey Jenny

you are combining 2 major things here - smoking and PhD...try to achieve one of them first cos it can be stressful to get them both done simultaneously. I'm in Medicine and Public Health field and let me tell you that every ciagreete you smoke takes away a day of your life...but i know its hard to quit so dont try quittin all of a sudden and take your doctor's support or any therapy that you can get.

On the other hand since you are smoking anyway i'm sure that punishing yourself by not smoking completely and ruing your health (mainly due to addiction withdrawal symptoms) is not a good idea. so smoke less but smoke until you get this PhD. Get some support meanwhile and once you get your PhD then take serious steps about it.

Good luck and stay strong!


Thank you for your kind replies, everyone...I'm still feeling pretty bad, but that's maybe something to do with having a big break over Christmas and getting used to being back. I'm going to try to take some positive steps and so I'm going to my doctor tonight to discuss what the best options for me might be.

I want to have the desire to do this PhD, and I want to feel OK about it. I promised myself that, if I agreed to do the PhD, I would make an effort to stop worrying and getting down - easier said than done, obviously. I know it's not OK to feel like this, and it's not normal to feel sick and sad like this every day, so I'll see what the doctor has to say.

Thank you again, everyone, I appreciate your support.


Hi Jenny

Just wanted to let you know you're not alone. I've struggled with depression and anxiety for years, and if there's one thing that's likely to trigger those problems, I'm afraid it's a PhD. That's not to say you can't overcome this, just that what you're feeling really isn't abnormal. See what your doctor can suggest, and do check out uni counselling services, their waiting lists tend to be a fraction of NHS ones. For me, therapy has helped, medication, good sleep and exercise help. But perhaps most of all, understanding anxiety better and learning to meditate have helped. Everyone is different, but it's worth exploring things and seeing what helps you. Most of all, don't be hard on yourself, really. It's like fighting fire with fire - you never win, you just get a bigger pile of charred mess. Be gentle and accept how you feel, it's amazing howw much will pass if you just let it :-)

I know feelings of isolation were a big issue for me, do you have many friends or colleagues at the uni who you can really connect and let off steam with? I know the PhD is still essentially solitary, but any contact helps. For me, it'sbeen amazing how much better I feel on my current course, where I have classmates and a closer social group. I really hope you feel better soon, I know how miserable this is and I feel for you.


Hi Teek, thanks for your kind words. I'm sorry to hear you've struggled like this too. I'd agree with you that isolation is a big part of it. I've got a part time job that I've kept on a few hours a week in a shop which is good because I have a lot of friends there and it's nice to switch my mind off and chat to customers. I work alone in the postgrad study space all the time, and it just lets my mind run riot. There is an office I could maybe work in, where one of the only other PhDs in my department works, so on Monday I'm going to ask him if he wouldn't mind me working there too, at least that would be someone to say hello to in the mornings. I'm lucky to have good friends, family nearby and a lovely fiance, I just don't want to let them down.

Did you ever feel like your PhD was responsible for your anxiety/depression, or did you feel it just shored them up more obviously? I think I'm naturally anxious/depressive (probably hereditary - my dad's been on medication most of his life) and I don't want to lay all the blame at the feet of this PhD. That's difficult, though, when being in uni is what makes me feel worst.

I'm glad to hear you're doing better, and I'll heed your advice. I'll see the doctor tonight to explain what's happening, and see if it's maybe time to find out if medication might help.


Hi Jenny

I don't really have much to add in the way of advice as you've received some really good stuff here already...I just wanted to say I'm sorry that you are going through this, and I can totally empathise with you. When you are naturally prone to anxiety as you mention below I think a PhD is just the kind of breeding ground for it to get worse, and it happens without you even realising it until one day you wake up and feel like you've no idea how or why life so so unbearable. And while it's great having the support network, sometimes as you say, it can make things worse as you feel you are letting people down for even having negative thoughts about your PhD. In my first year I hadn't a clue what I was doing, and wanted to leave frequently only I couldn't bring myself to do it as I felt I'd be letting so many people down for nothing. perhaps if I had another good job to walk into or plenty of prospects I could have done it, but to quit to do nothing instead wasn't a great idea. Sometimes I do wish I'd left then, I've got my biba next week and while I'm glad I've submitted and can't actually believe I've got this far I still think I should maybe have done something else.
I just found that having something else to focus on, other than the PhD helps. A massive issue is see in academia is that it's too easy to get caught up in thinking this is everyting, the all-important thing that you must do to prove yourself and what you can do. But that's just the worst way to see it, in my opinion. Take time out to think about what you want from life, about how you are as a person and whether the PhD can halp you achieve that in any way. Remember the other important things, such as your health (mental and physical), your relationships and compare how losing them would be to not having the PhD. You'll soon find out what are the most important things and how to prioritise them. Remember that you must be kind to yourself, keep smoking for now if you need to, no point adding to the stress. Don't give yourself the 3-year deadline - plan roughly what you want to do/find out for your project, plan roughly what you need to do int eh first year, break that down into months and then weeks. Even if it's read 2 papers a day, you'll still be doing work, getting closer to the end, and you've no need to feel guilty. No point finishing in 3 years if you're a shaking wreck by the end of it.
Go for walks when you need to, go out with friends when you need to, if possible set a day a week where you meet friends, do something fun and take your mind off work totally. Even if that means white water rafting - trust me you'll not be thinking about work if you're doing something really active that requires all your concentration! It's so so important to get a break from work for a while, even set aside an hour a day where you do something different, to get you out of the huse, away from uni and you can have breathing space to help your anxiety levels come back down. And do use uni counselling services, really helped me!