My Struggle with Anxiety During Grad School
In my grade 12 yearbook, I was voted “most likely to get the most education.” I resented this nomination at the time, but fast forward ten years later, and here I am with two postsecondary degrees. People now ask me when I’m going to go for my Ph.D.… I smile and say, “I don’t think a Ph.D. is for me.”
What I don’t tell them is why.
I was always a perfectionist in school. I skipped grade 3, graduated high school valedictorian, and attended grad school recruiting lunches during my BA. In grade 10, I had also applied for the International Baccalaureate program, got in, and, after a week at my new school, freaked out and returned to my safe, familiar old school. I beat myself up for that decision (and other similar ones), not understanding why I had done what I did.
By 2014, I was in Victoria about to start my MA in History. That summer I went to Costa Rica with a suitcase full of required reading for my upcoming fall courses. I completed none of it but instead spent my time trying to surf, drinking cheap beer, and biking around with my friend, Deanna. It was a wonderful vacation—exactly what I needed. However, when I returned, the anxiety began to mount. Insomnia, excessive reassurance seeking, and nervousness about the looming fall.
My first day of graduate class was also my birthday. My mom was visiting and, after my morning seminar, we met up for sushi. I don’t remember our lunch date or even what happened afterward; all I can recall is setting off the house alarm twice and realizing that, yes, I was stressed. Unfortunately, the stress continued to build over the semester as I suffered from a mixture of imposter syndrome, perfectionism, and an inability to convincingly answer the question, “What are you doing your thesis on?”
By November I had started stress vomiting whenever I went home. I avoided social gatherings for fear of someone bringing up classes, scary professors, or, inevitably, their MA research.
Over Christmas break, I started seeing a university counsellor. Thankfully the following spring semester was easier – I enjoyed my classes, learned to give myself mental health days, and worked part-time off-campus. By the summer, I worked full-time and, for the most part, partially regained my sanity.
What I lost that summer was any progress on my final paper. AND I began a long-distance relationship that would both provide me with a new source of joy and drain on my limited bank account. September to December was a long-distance writing sprint broken up by trips to Toronto and a stressful, underpaying job.
Come December 5th I had completed my 40-page Major Research Project (on children’s letters to Pierre Trudeau, a topic I was passionate about) and thus, my Master’s. My boyfriend was moving to Victoria in the spring, and I had a full-time job beginning February 1. Despite all of this good news, the two months following the end of my Master’s would be two of my darkest. I had reached “the end,” and was still dissatisfied, afraid, and poor. I had to cobble together odd jobs to fill December and January. I was still pushing myself.
During that period, I fainted twice, continued to stress vomit, and developed acute social anxiety. I was forever worrying that family, friends and my boyfriend were upset/disappointed with me. After this dark time, I found that a combination of a mindfulness course, intensive counselling, and a transition away from grad school to more predictable full-time employment has started to help.
Over the past year, I have made a lot of time to look after myself. It hasn’t been constant improvement, more cyclical in nature. I still have the occasional sleepless night (e.g. last night) or anxious morning, but I’ve gotten to know myself a lot better. My Master’s provoked acute anxiety. However, it wasn’t a disorder out of thin air, but, rather, emphasized something that had been with me my whole life. Things got so bad that I couldn’t simply ride out the semester or switch high schools--I had to slow down and seek help.
I have yet to realize the professional benefits of my Master’s, but one thing I am grateful for is that during this time, I got to know myself and my anxiety really well. Had I avoided the 16-month degree, I might have only experienced such anxiety later in life. In fact, I still might. I’m terrified I’ll be a terrible mother or never be fully financially secure. However. I’ve developed the tools to deal with those situations when they arise.
If you’re going through a similar time in your life (grad school, anyone?) or looking to work on your anxiety, the following helped me:
Counselling: The first two counsellors I saw didn’t help much, but I persevered and ended up working with a wonderful lady.
- Mindfulness: I did an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program.
- Exercise: A walk, swim, or run doesn’t solve everything, but both research and my personal experience suggest trying it out!
- Communication: Being honest with family, friends, and my partner is key.
- Journaling: Writing your feelings down puts them into perspective. Make a point to journal when you’re anxious, AND when you’re calm, otherwise you’ll associate journaling with negative moods/mindsets, and your journal will look like the sobfest that mine started out as.
- Love: Telling myself I loved me seemed weird at first, but try it...
If you would like more information on anxiety management including simple, step-by-step instructions on how to deal with symptoms related to specific anxiety disorders as well general strategies, check out our Self-Help Toolkit for Anxiety Disorders or look at a list of strategies in our Tools section.
About Esther R.
Esther R. lives in Victoria, BC where she enjoys decorating her home, riding her bike, and spending time on/by the ocean. She finished her MA in 2015 and has since been working in government - in two beautiful heritage buildings!