Starting a PhD with panic/anxiety


For all intents and purposes I had a break down a few months ago which left me crippled with anxiety/panic attacks. I am recovering now but I am supposed to start a PhD in September (6 weeks away) and I am still a way off full recovery.
I cannot decide what is the right move, to press ahead with the PhD and hope I continue to improve or to leave before it starts and continue my recovery in the familiar surroundings of my current home and job. I am obviously afraid that embarking on a PhD will inhibit or worsen my recovery and I will end up with a second breakdown.

I know no-one can make that decision for me but I have very little idea what the demands are going to be over the next three years. I don't know if I would ever get a funded PhD position again or if I would even try again (as I'm not getting any younger!). The idea of starting something new, meeting new people, going to conferences, testing people (children) for the project, etc. is a scary prospect.

For those of you who are currently doing or have finished a PhD, do you believe someone with an anxiety/panic disorder would be able to cope with the demands of (psychology based) PhD? Or do you have any advice or thoughts in general?

Thank you :$


Is there any chance that you could apply to defer the start of the funding for a semester to give yourself a little longer to recover? I'm assuming you'd be able to get a letter from your doctor to confirm that you have health issues, and given your subject, I would imagine that the supervisor would be understanding, if the conditions of the funding allow for it. The other thought I had was that maybe it would be possible to contact the student wellbeing / counselling service now, and get some advice from them about what support could be put into place for you so that you didn't feel as if you were stepping into the unknown without any back-up.
In some ways although it seems scary, maybe starting something new would actually be a positive experience for you. How convinced were you that a PhD was right for you before you became ill? If you were really keen, I think I'd be inclined to go for it if the idea of deferring doesn't appeal. But it's hard to advise you as what's right for one person isn't for another. Similarly, yes doing a PhD is challenging and some find it very difficult to cope. But there are other posters on this board who have successfully completed PhDs despite having similar problems to yourself before they started. You might want to do a search for Keenbean's posts for an example of success as s/he is also in pyschology.


Hi there ZenOfChaos! Welcome to the forum. Sorry to hear you've been having a hard time of it lately. I finished my PhD in Psychology (clinical stuff) about a year ago and am now doing a post-doc. I have bipolar disorder, which has given me no end of hospital admissions and difficulties over the years, and generalised anxiety disorder as well. However, my PhD experience was overwhelmingly positive overall. The great thing about a PhD is that it can be flexible to accommodate your circumstances- i.e. you work in the way that is best for you. Of course, you need to work certain hours to do your testing and so on, but the rest is down to you. Some people work steadily throughout the PhD, others fluctuate between periods of great productivity and times when they take it a bit easier etc, everyone is different. I was quite open about my bipolar with my supervisor and the rest of the team, and that was a good path to go down- I would recommend this way of approaching the situation if that's possible for you. There were other PhD students in my department with depression, anxiety, OCD etc, who were all coping well with the demands of the PhD. The main thing would be to set yourself up with a good support system. I saw a university counsellor all the way through my BSc, MSc and PhD, and the uni mental health advisor too (in addition to my consultant and GP), and that was a huge help to me. Are you receiving medical help already? I think your priority would be to get yourself feeling as well as possible to start with, and prepare yourself by sorting some support out. The beginning of the PhD can be a bit anxiety-provoking, but this settles down once you've got a better idea of where you're heading. I find it also helps me to keep really busy- the PhD was great for giving me something to focus on, although I guess that's different for everyone. If you feel able to- I'd give it a shot, there's nothing to lose by having a crack at it. I can honestly say that my mental health was much more stable through my PhD than the years before or the last year, so that's gotta mean something! Good luck, whatever you decide. Best, KB


Thank you so much for the replies. You have both offered some very good advice. I plan to email my supervisor this morning and make him aware. I don't know what to expect from it, but I don't think I can make this decision without his input. From the dialogue I have had so far he seems like a great supervisor.

Some days i feel positive about the whole thing and others its the opposite. Maybe I could just cut out my amygdala's and have done with it!!!!:p

I don't have any help at the moment apart from my OH (and the valium I keep in the drawer!). I also have the problem of moving home, since the uni is 50 miles from where I live. Although this morning I considered commuting until I get settled. I actually went to view a rental property yesterday and we agreed to take it, but the idea of moving makes me feel sick right now!



I have panic and anxiety-related issues myself... it's a complicated situation and I don't want to give too much away just in case anyone I know somehow recognises who I am but I just wanted to let you know you're not alone. I'm in the first year of my PhD and recently my difficulties did begin to get worse. However, I now have them under control (for now). I must admit there have been times when I've seriously thought that doing the PhD was just 'too much' for me, I even posted on here a few months ago speculating whether or not I should quit (and people were very helpful). I still worry I haven't progressed as much as other people and I don't know enough about my subject area and I'm also concerned about potential conferences etc. as being in crowds and public speaking can both set my anxiety levels off. However, I have made the decision to stay and work at it. Now though, I'm happy that I stayed and nervous but also looking forward about what is to come. Yes, the PhD is stress-inducing, hard work and challenging but that can be a good thing and I've learnt a lot from the experience. Ultimately the decision is yours and, obviously, your health must come first. But, for me, I'm glad I'm doing it most of the time and I'm actually in quite a good environment. I think it's good you have emailed your supervisor (I kept my problems from mine for a long while but I don't think, in hindsight, that was the best thing to do). Also, could student services/the disability office maybe help you out at all? I hope that helped you.


Dear Zen,

Like "Anon" I was initially hesitant to tell my supervisor when my husband began having psychotic episodes, and long periods of hospitalization. Part of it was wanting to keep "work" and personal life separate, another part was I didn't want pity, and the third reason was fear of the stigma attached to mental illness. In retrospect, telling my sup was the right thing to do. I was pleasantly surprised by the support I received. (Some of these professors have been around a long time, and have seen a lot of things happen to PhD advisees along the way.) Concerning the stigma, the irony is that the more we discuss such things out in the open, the more it lessens the stigma. All I can add to the good advice you've already received here is to work at your own pace, and be good to yourself. I hope you have a great PhD experience!