Some of you know that I have a Ph.D. They say it is a big deal. I enjoy hearing that. But, for those who are not familiar with what it entails to get a Ph.D. in the US, let me summarize.
A background to my anxiety
In most cases, being a graduate student means years of coursework, reading and writing hundreds (if not thousands!) of pages of academic work, presenting at conferences, local and international. It means teaching as an adjunct for so little an amount that you skip lunch. Sometimes dinner. It means you have to pass written exams, then oral exams, and then to “defend” your dissertation. You “defend” your dissertation, in case it might be something so unworthy that it needs be tolerated, forgiven, excused. You might or might not find an academic job- well, you might or might not want an academic job, after all those years of graduate study.
But being a graduate student is not your only identity. You are a daughter, a lover, an ex; you are a friend, an enemy, a teacher; you are a woman, a man, an adult; you are whomever they tell you you are, and whatever you wish you were. You are whatever you want everyone to think you are. And sometimes all this is too much. Sometimes all these expectations, everything everyone expects from you, and everything you expect from everyone, especially your own fragile self, becomes too much. And you suffer.
When I was writing my dissertation, I suffered from anxiety, just like many of my colleagues and friends, and strangers and neighbours, and perhaps so many others you will run into today. Of course, back then, I did not think that anyone else would be suffering from anything. I thought that I must have been the only person on earth with this problem. But I knew it was temporary. If only I could be the friend I thought they wanted me to be, a better person, a better niece, sister, daughter. What is more, if only I could find that perfect paragraph which would tie two chapters together; if only I could come up with that perfect theory to emphasize the case studies even further; if only this was my native language so I could write perfectly.
None of this could ever happen.
One day I heard something, and my life changed.
In my field, it is common practice to have in-depth interviews. The researcher spends hours, if not days, talking, eating, staying, sometimes even clubbing with their respondents (anything for science). You listen to your respondents. You cry with them, laugh with them, get really mad at them, or touched by them, while trying to stay as “objective” and “unbiased” as possible. I talked with narcissists, racists, sexists, fascists. I talked with the most selfless, peaceful, the calmest people. I talked with sad, joyful, calm, aggressive, shy and talkative people. Some of these humans touched my heart so much-real humans who were brave enough to talk with me about their pains, hurts, vulnerabilities when I was trying to hide my own fragility. All of them taught me much. But one of them saved me. She said, just like that, that the cure to all the pains in the world is to do something. And then she changed the subject.
What did she imagine this “something” to be? What did she mean? I thought about it for a while, because, one, I did not know anything else but teach and think; and, two, if what she said was true, I could survive my own anxiety, and perhaps others could benefit from this advice too?
And so it was that easy. I did not stop thinking, obviously, but I did start acting. Right away I started to do things. And it worked.
Here is how it works
First, you tell me if any of these sound familiar, and then I will tell you what is actually going on.
- You have been meaning to tell your friend how you actually feel about them, but you are waiting for that perfectly romantic moment when you are sure the result will be to your advantage?
- Your family hurt you. Or your lover. Your husband, or your old boss. They hurt you so very much. They hurt you so much that you find yourself crying in the middle of the night. And they do not know what they have done, how much you suffer. You do not want to tell them anything because it will not solve anything (which might very well be true, by the way). But you cannot get your life back until you get rid of your depression, or anxiety, or whatever the hell this is. When you start feeling better, you will do things. You will leave the cheating husband behind and start dating again. You will get back to family unions, once you are able to forgive them. You can go look for a job once you can forget how humiliating your experience was with your old boss.
- You have been thinking about quitting your job, because, admittedly, you feel miserable. But you cannot leave without finding another position somewhere else, and you are not finding anything else because you are not looking. You are not looking, because you are waiting until you perfect your resume by learning that extra skill, language, certificate, whatever.
- You know you should be defending your dissertation, but damn, there’s always another book to quote, another article to read, another source to cite. You want to know everything about your subject so that when you finally write the dissertation, it will be perfect, and you will not make a fool of yourself.
- Or, you have already graduated and would love to get the thesis published. But you know how competitive these things are. You know numerous colleagues and friends who have graduated years ago, but they could not get their work published. You know they were better than you, so you simply cannot imagine getting this done before making sure that it is perfect.
Okay, sound familiar?
If so, allow me to say what is going on:
You are fearful. You have been enslaved by fear, that is what is going on.
But the thing is, we are more than how we feel right now. Feelings are not facts. Even thoughts are not facts, because, come on, we have lots of distorted thoughts, don’t we? Life is more than how things are. And you cannot and will not experience what a great thing this life is, as long as you wait until everything is perfect.
Things might not be perfect when you act right now, but they will never be less than miserable if you do not act.
Fear and anxiety are not the same. But they feed each other. And acting helps in both cases. When you do something, anything- like writing that first sentence of the book you have been wanting to write- that act means that you are not defined by nervous expectations anymore. You are a doer. You were borne to do things. Your accomplishment gives you a wall to lean on. A ground beneath your feet. That single act is the meaning of everything.
I am not telling you to stop thinking or to act irrationally. Do well. But do you. Do not do something only because everyone tells you that that is the way to live your life. You do not have to do anything big, extraordinary, “fun”. Do something for you. To make you a happier self.
For the sake of those years we all have spent, doubting ourselves constantly, measuring us to a random standard, trying to learn more, read more, think more, wait longer before we act on what needs to be done.
Do something right now for your own mental health.
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Editor’s note: The information in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programme.