Written by an anonymous contributor in collaboration with the AMHC team
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A social support network is incredibly important during graduate school. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful set of colleagues who I could count on to chat and listen, and these relationships led to some of my most positive grad school memories. Still, our chats and connections were mainly about “everyday” topics. When it came to my social and generalized anxiety, I found that for the most part, I was on my own. In all honesty, the responses of my colleagues often worsened my situation. In this piece, I describe some less than-helpful responses that I encountered, and provide some suggestions that may help you to be a better ally to your colleagues who struggle with anxiety.
Disclosing About Anxiety
Scenario 1: Your colleague discloses that they are struggling with serious anxiety problems. They tell you that they are not sure if they can handle graduate school anymore, because it feels like things are spinning out of control.
Unhelpful Response 1: “Aren’t you being a little overly dramatic? It’s not like things are that bad for you, you’re doing great! Look at all your publications!”
This response is unhelpful because it is dismissive. My colleague is clearly indicating that they don’t think my concerns are serious. This is obviously incredibly invalidating and discourages the person with anxiety from opening up again in the future. In the example above, this invalidation is couched in a compliment (“look at all of your publications!”) which also indicates a misunderstanding of how mental illness works. Performance and mental health are not necessarily linked. In fact, many graduate students who struggle with anxiety disorders are high functioning. That doesn’t make our suffering less real. It just makes it much, much harder for us to open up to others. You can make this easier by validating and acknowledging what the person is going through.
Finally, consider that by responding to a disclosure like the one above by complimenting the person, and reminding them of their accomplishments (even if sincerely meant), has serious potential to backfire. You may in fact be tacitly encouraging a dangerous norm by suggesting productivity is more important than health, which could drive the person to feel that they need to push through the pain.
Unhelpful Response 2: “Oh my god, me too! Seriously, I feel like if my supervisor sends me one more thing to do, I’m going to have a panic attack! Grad school is the worst!”
I classify this as a response that normalizes anxiety, and, in my experience, this is probably the most common reaction I received when I tried to open up about anxiety. My colleagues responded in a way that indicated my concerns were serious (which is arguably better than being dismissive). But, their responses also communicated that I should see my mental illness as a normal part of the graduate school experience. It is easy to see why you might try to comfort someone by sharing a similar experience. After all, feeling less alone can be very helpful.
Indeed, there are even contexts where such normalization can actually be a good thing. For instance, as part of cognitive behaviour therapy, it can be helpful for therapists to remind clients that everyone experiences anxiety and unhelpful thoughts. In addition to destigmatizing the anxiety, this can show clients that they can use their own built-in coping mechanisms to develop healthier cognitions.
However, for me, in the grad school context, such normalization from colleagues (and even from my therapist) was 100% toxic. Unfortunately, the culture of many graduate school programs tends to suggest that disordered thinking and behaviour are all “part of the game.” People regularly use words like “anxiety attack” and “panic” to describe the everyday life of grad school. Unfortunately, this can again be invalidating for people who struggle with actual anxiety disorders. For myself, I often felt my colleagues did not really hear me when I explained what I was going through, because they were just nodding along with what they thought was the usual story about dire grad school “panic.”
In my case, this normalization also prevented me from seeking help that I truly needed.
On several occasions during my graduate school career, I opened up to people around me about my anxiety, and how it was affecting my quality of life (e.g., inability to sleep, socialize, or complete tasks). However, when these behaviours were normalized by those around me, I started came to believe that there was nothing wrong with me at all. I actually believed that it was not possible to be a graduate student without being miserable and afraid to get out of bed. To the extent that my anxiety symptoms prevented me from getting work done, I assumed that this was because I was lazy and incompetent. I desperately needed someone to tell me that my anxiety was not normal and that I did not deserve to feel the way I did.
The normalization of anxiety is a systemic issue in graduate school, and I certainly don’t blame my friends for their responses. To some extent, the knee-jerk response of “I’m panicking too!” speaks to the unsustainable levels of stress that many graduate students face, as well as individual and institutional barriers to healthy self-care. However, it’s also important for individuals to take responsibility for their words and realize that not all stress is mental illness.
So, how should I respond when a colleague discloses that they are struggling with anxiety?
Although there is no “one size fits all” response here, a good starting point might be something like, “I’m sorry to hear that you’re not doing well. Grad school is stressful, but you don’t deserve to feel that way. Thanks for sharing with me. Have you looked into your options for getting professional help?” You can also point out to your colleague that they are not alone – after all, the growing number of personal stories here at AMHC demonstrates that mental health struggles and graduate school often go hand in hand! But try not to diminish the seriousness of your colleague’s difficulties. Finally, if you actually have the capacity do so, you could also offer some support yourself. Perhaps you could offer to be an accountability partner, or set up a once-a-week work date to help motivate your depressed or anxious colleague. But don’t offer to help if you aren’t absolutely sure that you can commit. You are also a stressed out graduate student, after all! Mental health allies that step up and then vanish can be worse than no allies at all.
Struggling on a Collaborative Task
Scenario 2: You are working on a project with a colleague and they indicate that they will need 3-4 weeks to finish up the next part of the task. You are surprised because it is only a few hours of work at most.
Unhelpful Response: 4 weeks! I really want to get moving on this thing, can’t you do it faster? Come on, this won’t take that long?
While your frustration may be understandable (sometimes our careers depend on other people getting things done on time), it’s very possible that your colleague is struggling with generalized anxiety that sometimes prevents them from being able to complete simple tasks. Over the last few years of graduate school, my anxiety about whether I would successfully be able to complete my projects spiralled out of control and actually prevented me from being able to work on them. I needed to budget extra time for tasks because I knew there would be days when my anxiety would prevent me from getting out of bed, or from writing more than a few sentences.
The next time you don’t understand why something is taking so long, take a minute to consider whether there might be factors that you don’t know about. Again, many of us high-functioning individuals are hiding a deep history of suffering and pain. Ask yourself whether your impatience is justified. And if the project really does need to be finished in just a few days, then perhaps you can work out an arrangement to divide the labour a little differently – for instance, if you agree to take on the small but urgent task, perhaps your anxious colleague will agree to take on another part of the project that is more work, but less likely to compromise their mental health.
Onset of a Panic Attack
As mentioned earlier, the term “panic attack” is bandied about far too easily among graduate students. Contrary to what many believe, a panic attack is not simply the inevitable end point when stress rises to unmanageable levels. It is a qualitatively different experience, involving symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, choking, dizziness, fear of dying or losing control, hot flashes or chills, and other frightening physical sensations. Because panic attacks can vary from person to person, it’s difficult to say exactly what the experience might be like for your colleague with an anxiety disorder.
For me, these episodes include an overwhelming feeling of fear, physical sensations of chest pain and a racing heart, and a strong feeling that if I do not find a way to control the anxiety, I might physically explode or pass out. I have also had milder attacks that I mistakenly interpreted as possible heart trouble. This can come on because I’m worried about missing a deadline, after receiving a harsh or critical email, or when I am having trouble finding things in my workspace. When I’m stressed out (which quite frankly is often in grad school!), almost anything can bring it on, even having to make simple decisions.
It’s possible that you could witness one of your grad school or post-doc colleagues having a panic attack. Again, responses that normalize the episode (“Just relax, everything will be fine”) or dismiss it (“Aren’t you making a big deal out of nothing?”) are going to be less than helpful.
I remember a particularly busy time of the semester during my Master’s when I was ordering food at a café with a group of colleagues and friends. I began to feel stressed out by all the options and wondered what would happen if I got to the front of the line without having picked something out. Picturing an embarrassing scene, I told the friend next to me that I was feeling overwhelmed, my anxiety was spiking, and I was concerned about losing control. My friend’s incredibly helpful response made all the difference and has stuck with me years later. She simply said, “Ok. We don’t have to eat lunch here. Would you like to leave? I’m happy to go somewhere else with you.”
This response was meaningful and helpful for a few reasons. First, my friend validated my feelings by acknowledging that leaving was a reasonable option given my anxiety. I did not feel laughed at for admitting that I could not figure out what to order for lunch. Second, she offered social support – she didn’t just suggest that I go sit down somewhere, but she offered to physically come with me and go somewhere else for lunch. Finally, my friend did not try to control me by saying something like, “Go sit down, I’ll get your food for you.”
Interestingly, this last aspect – desire to maintain control – may be something that varies from person to person. In this article, which contains a lot of practical tips for helping someone during a panic attack, the author shares about how her partner appreciates decisions being made for them during times of extreme panic. But many people in the comments – like me – indicate that this would not work for them at all.
Our suggestion: if you know the person well enough and an appropriate time arises, simply ask them what works for them. “I noticed that you weren’t doing very well last Tuesday at the brown bag seminar, and I wanted to support you, but I wasn’t 100% sure how. Is there something specific you’d like me to do next time something like that happens?”
It’s not that likely that you would witness a colleague having a panic attack, but it could happen. Just like in the other scenarios described above, attempting to validate the person’s feelings while offering appropriate social support is a great place to start.
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Do you have an anxiety disorder? How have your colleagues been helpful to you? Or have you been able to offer effective support to one of your colleagues? We’d love to hear your tips and experiences in the comments!