Should I see a counsellor or psychiatrist?


Firstly - apologies for moaning -again-. I’m starting to hate the sound of my own voice complaining about my dissatisfactions. I’m half way through a PhD , have not published yet, and basically my supervisor is leaving but I’m dealing with that (I think). What I would like advice on is whether you think I need to seriously speak to a counsellor about my worries or whether this is normal and I should get a grip, keep calm and carry on!
Basically I’m starting to worry about my brain. I find it hard to focus, hard to speak elaborately (I’ve always spoke before thinking, a very bad characteristic of me I don’t know how to fix) and just difficult to any longer have any kind of intelligent debate. When I’m in a situation where I have the chance to express my opinion my mind goes completely blank and I end up speaking like I have no clue what I’m talking about. People who know me well say we know you don’t mean to speak this way and you’re actually a lot more intelligent than what you sound like when you speak, but most people I interact with on a daily basis don’t know me well and judge me on how I speak and express myself. And I don’t sound smart AT ALL even when I’m talking about my PhD. Nobody knows my PhD project as well as I do, yet it doesn’t sound like it when I open my mouth. I was told by my supervisor that I’m now a scientist and must lead by example but I can’t even talk like I know what I’m talking about. Sometimes I think I must have early onset Alzheimer’s! Is it because my brain is overwhelmed with info (PhD and life as lot is going on in both avenues!)? Do I need to speak to someone?


Hi, statictraveller,

You sound like you are depressed, which is normal given your circumstance. Your primary supervisor, who is critical to your PhD, is leaving midway through your study and you are having concerns on how you will proceed without him/her.

Yes, it is definitely a good idea to speak to a counselor and get some advice on how to cope emotionally. It may also be good for you to talk to your postgrad coordinator and Grad School on how to cope after your current primary supervisor has left. I assume that a new primary supervisor has been identified? Or are you leaving with your supervisor and continuing at the new university?


Hi statictraveller,

It's definitely normal given your stressful circumstances. Stress can have really strange effects on people. It can mimic all sorts of conditions. I would speak to a counsellor if you feel that will help - do you a service at your uni? Just because it is normal doesn't mean that a counsellor wouldn't be helpful. You could also look up some websites on coping with stress, breathing exercises, cognitive behavioural therapy etc. Those can be really helpful.

I would defo speak to your advisor - or whoever is there specifically in your uni for this sort of issue. It might
be the postraduate lead for your department or faculty. Talking to them should bring some calm - as they should hold some answers. Making them aware of the difficulties/issues (and the impact it is having) will mean that they can help.


Have you always been like this, or it is a recent change?

I'd say if you've always found it difficult to express your opinions eloquently verbally, then it's not a cause for concern.

I'm also much better at writing than speaking (more time to think first) and experience the same as you - I don't express myself well, even when talking about my own work. Sometime I use the wrong technical words, or I speak colloquially because I have to think about the correct technical words first, so it's quicker just to talk in science slang, almost. It does get better with practice, but I'm still not at the level of other academics. I don't think I ever will be - I excel at writing, not speaking (don't judge me on this post haha). I can't be good at everything.

Avatar for Pjlu

Hi there, on the topic of speaking, similarly to yourself and ToL (post above), I often struggle to express complex and new ideas coherently on the spot. For professional presentations or even general defences, I write up and clarify, ensure my train of thought is logical and rehearse before formal presentations generally. I think many of us do and we learn to use different strategies to improve any public or professional communications.

When we are stressed, often we go into flight, fight or freeze responses-our body shuts down parts of our thinking brain and floods us with adrenalin so we can run away, fight our corner or sometimes we just freeze. It may well be that your stress symptoms bring on one of these responses, and as Tru pointed out, you may also be depressed (another condition which can impact negatively on how we think). These changes are not permanent but they can be frightening when one is undergoing them.

Tudor suggested, in addition to supporting your question about seeking counselling, seeking further clarification and support from your advisors-and this may be helpful not only in helping you source support, but perhaps letting your panel advisors know you need just a bit of moral support right now to help you through this.

Personally, I think if you can access counselling, then this would probably be very reassuring for you and an effective counsellor will help you work through the key issues and develop some supportive strategies to address them. You may not need much, just one or two sessions may be enough to get you through this. Many people use counselling for a range of life situations and find it very helpful. A psychiatrist is usually someone who you would see if you had a significant mental health condition and generally you need to be referred to one by a medical doctor or psychologist first, so counselling would most likely be more helpful and accessible through your university. Best wishes though, it is a hard process and being highly stressed is not your fault; it does seem to come with the territory.


I'm actually normally pretty okay (or so I think) when talking about my research.
But my first two conferences I went to, in particular the second one i went to, I was pretty much exactly how you describe. I think it has something , as Piju said, something to do with the fight or freeze response.

I was massively anxious, practically in a state of camouflaged panic, most of the time. And when people asked me about my research I just couldn't string a coherent sentence together. I remember at one point I tried to reply to someone, and all I could do is regurgitate some of my presentation which I had learned off, like some demented robot!! he even made a joke of it, (in a nice way) and asked me if I wanted to get my slides out.

I can laugh now looking back, but it really wasn't that funny at the time. I do remember feeling also like there was something wrong with my brain.

So maybe that is what is going on with you.

I have to mention, there are also possible neurological reasons for your problem, but I don't know how you rule that out.

How is your writing; is it clear and intelligible ?( and no one ever feels like it their writing is good all the time)
Are you finding it reasonably okay to think to yourself when your alone, or writing about your project.
If so, I would say I the talking thing is probably just due to anxiety and probably just becoming just a vicious self-fulfilling circle now.
Its like stammering or blushing, the more self-conscious you are about it and the more you try and stop it, the worse it becomes.

So maybe take some pressure off your self and allow yourself to sound dumb for a while


As someone who has experienced considerable generalised anxiety (GAD) throughout the course of my PhD (finally completed in 2015!) I can thoroughly recommend seeing a therapist to discuss how you are feeling. In particular, I have found CBT therapy to be very helpful in both understanding better the biological reasons for my responses to things (fight or flight as others above have described) as well as techniques to better handle it.

However, I would also say that there is no shame in seeing a psychiatrist, which I also do, to keep an eye on the medical side of things. While a GP can be helpful initially, nothing beats seeing an expert who has seen it all over the years and can reassure you (nothing you say will shock them!). In particular, for me, a combination of the aforementioned CBT therapy and medication has let me lead a relatively normal life and I now have a wife and young family to add into the mix!

It truly can (and will!) get better and the first step is seeking some help. It is important to realise that academia can be quite a toxic environment (at least I have found) and that you're not necessarily 'losing the plot'. What you're feeling, especially with your supervisor leaving etc, is in all likelihood a normal response to the situation... and the responses of some of the people around you, such as telling you to 'pull it together' is actually abnormal! Put all this together and it is a recipe for feeling quite rubbish :-)


Statictraveller, try not to torture yourself with thinking you are suffering from earl Alzheimers or that theres something wrong with you. My own father has early-onset Alzheimers, and so of course I also believe in getting yourself checked out if you have serious concerns, but I have also suffered from the same convicition as you that there must be something seriously wrong with my mind due to my sudden loss of eloquence in talking about my PhD. But, no doubt you can still chat with friends and talk about things in more casual settings, and so I am sure that this is more about your self-esteem and fears of not being as smart as those around you, (basically classic imposter syndrome).

It is not easy, but I think if you found a way to calm down a bit you would suddenly find that your mind was a bit more at peace and that you could then process your thoughts and words a bit more easily. It's often a neglected aspect of depression and anxiety that it really does impact your thought processes and speed of thought, and its basically because your mind is juggling the science alongside a thousand other thoughts running through your head. So please try to be kind to yourself and give yourself a break, as it sounds like you're just overwhelmed by everything at the moment.