Academic Anxiety: Thinking Patterns in Academia

On a previous post I wrote about the eye-opening statistic that 1 in 4 people experience mental health problems in any given year. I also talked about my anxiety disorder openly for the first time. Panic attacks, overwhelming worry and difficulty sleeping had been part of my daily life for about a decade. This post is going to talk about the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) I have received since February, the positive effect it has had on my day-to-day life, and the changes I think, on reflection, anyone hoping to have a career in academia can make. I want to stress to anybody reading- if you are struggling with stress or anxiety, seek help sooner rather than later. It can, and will, change your life.

From the time my GP referred me to Talking Changes in late January, to the start of April, I completed an online CBT course with weekly phone calls from a therapist. Each week I would work through a module and discuss it over the phone at the end of the week. There were six modules in total, including ones on topics like ‘Understanding Feelings’, ‘Facing Your Fears’, ‘Spotting Thoughts’ and ‘Challenging Thoughts’. The course was very accessible but also incredibly introspective- there was a lot of self-reflection and thinking about lifestyle choices! At the start of my course my GAD7 score (an anxiety test) was 15, meaning severe, and my WSAS score (impact of lifestyle) was 13. By the end of my course both scores were 1. Something has clearly changed!

The defining moment of the course for me was when I learnt about concept of ‘challenging thoughts’. This involved being conscious of the automatic, negative and distorted thoughts I had when my mood was low, and ‘challenging’ them. This helped break out of what is known as the TBF cycle (Thoughts-Behaviour-Feeling) which can often trap people in a constant anxiety loop. Challenging negative feelings and thinking patterns (red in the diagram) broke the constant cycle, which then combated negative feelings and behaviour. This was a process of introspection- finding out what was the ‘hot’ thought which was driving the cycle and challenging it. This ‘hot’ thought, i.e. something like ‘I will never get a job’, ‘this presentation will go badly’, ‘I will let everyone down’, is then looked at rationally. What evidence supports it? What evidence goes against it? Based on these two questions, what is a more balanced thought?

An example from my own personal mindset is this- a few weeks ago I was incredibly anxious about a conference paper. My ‘hot’ thought was that the paper would be a disaster. This gave me sleepless nights, chest pains and low mood swings. The evidence supporting the thought- I’ve had a few tricky questions before at conferences. The evidence against it- I’ve given over a dozen papers and nothing has gone wrong, I’ve been told my papers are good by total strangers, and I know my research well enough if I do get asked questions. The balanced thought- I’m good at giving papers and have prepared enough, and any questions I can’t answer will help me in the future when I want to get work published. Suddenly I felt more excited than nervous about the whole thing!

What really hit home is that a lot of these ‘thinking errors’ or thought patterns are commonplace in academia. You only need to ask any postgraduate student about ‘imposter syndrome’ to understand how widespread some of these patterns are. Some of the ones I think I experienced as a postgraduate are:

Catastrophising- every set-back or challenge in life is ‘game over’. This includes making a mountain out of a molehill by believing that something is a complete disaster when this may not be the case. Had a journal article rejected? That means you will probably never get published and your research is substandard. Supervisor has asked you to revise an entire chapter? You’ll never be good enough to pass your PhD. Funding application declined? Your career is over. It is so easy to slip into this thinking, and it needs to be challenged as soon as it occurs.

Black-or-White thinking- if something isn’t perfect, it is a complete failure. This includes failing to see all the positives and focusing on the one negative aspect. Messed up once in a presentation? Then it must have been a complete disaster. Twenty students left good module feedback and one was critical? Then the critical one must be right. This also links to having a ‘negative filter’ on life. This means seeing only the bad in something or dwelling on the negative while explaining away positives or thinking they were down to pure luck. A good example of this is not getting a job after a good interview and not acknowledging that getting to interview stage is an achievement in itself.

Mind Reading/Predicting the future- Mind reading in academia includes assuming that you know what other people are thinking or guessing their opinion without actually asking them about it. This includes trying (and failing) to read body language at PhD supervisor meetings, job interviews or conferences. One of the more serious versions of this is ‘imposter syndrome’, where postgraduates assume everyone is constantly judging their progress (or lack of it sometimes)- one day someone will realise I don’t know what I’m doing with my PhD research and throw me off the course. Predicting the future includes assuming that there will be a negative outcome to an event before the event has even occurred.

Labelling/Word Prisons-
we are our own worst critic. Words like ‘failure’, ‘idiot’ or ’embarrassment’ can hang heavy on our minds without realising it. This also includes having rules about how you ‘should’, ‘must’ or ‘have to’ behave and then making judgements based on these rules. I should be doing more work than I am. I should not be watching TV tonight when I could be working. I must get this article done tonight. Feeling guilty for having some down time or relaxing when you have deadlines is often related to word prisons!

These are all patterns of thinking that academia can leave unchecked. Challenging these thoughts can lead to a much healthier work/life balance, and often a clearer mind when deadlines are looming or time is tight (as it is easier to focus). The popularity of Twitter pages like ‘Academia Obscura’ and ‘Shit Academics Say’ is revealing on the state of mental health in academia. Although sometimes humorous, posts linking thought patterns like those illustrated in the above comic to course evaluations and module feedback forms have the damaging effect of normalising unhealthy thinking patterns. It promotes the idea that working in academia comes with a side effect of bad mental health, something which definitely needs to be challenged.

Undertaking cognitive behavioural therapy has brought my anxiety under control. It has empowered me by giving me the tools to understand my thoughts and feelings and address them in a balanced way. It has also made me realize how unhealthy academia can be when thought patterns are left unchallenged. I hope this post has illuminated how anxiety can be managed through treatment and how we all need to be more aware of the dangers of negative thinking patterns in general. Anyone seeking further help or advice can find it at the links below.

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