Given the high-stress, competitive environment of higher education, many might consider “academia” and “anxiety” to be synonymous. But in fact, 12% of all Canadians experience an anxiety disorder in any given year. Symptoms of anxiety include repetitive thoughts, a constant negative evaluation of one’s environment, chronic fatigue, and feelings of being constantly overwhelmed (graduate students, does any of this sound familiar?). More extreme symptoms include rapid or irregular heartbeats, nausea and vomiting, and full-blown panic attacks.
Descriptions of these symptoms can be found as far back as Aristotle and Hippocrates’ times. As societies have become increasingly modern, each generation claims they live in the ultimate Age of Anxiety. In our era, we now understand that racing thoughts and related physiological responses can, in part, be traced to over-reactivity of the amygdala structure in the brain. However, exactly how full-blown anxiety disorders develop from a complex etiology of neurochemistry, genes and environment remains to be completely understood.
Indeed, with such prominence in human history we must wonder, was there an evolutionary basis for anxiety in the first place? Some researchers propose that anxious hominids were more adept at recognizing unexpected dangers, which conferred a selection advantage under certain contexts. The anxious early human was also probably keen to avoid high-risk behaviours, such as running perilously into a herd of wildebeest, or hunter-gathering a bit too close cliff-side. As it turns out, these precautions have a positive effect on keeping your genes in the gene pool. But what of modern times? Can we find a silver lining to our contemporary anxious gestalt?
The dichotomy of anxiety
Seminal studies by Yerkes and Dodson established that moderate levels of anxiety improve performance in animals and humans. More controversial studies have directly correlated anxiety and mood disorders with high intelligence quotients. Others have proposed that the neurobiological events associated with mood disorders overlap with the cognitive mechanisms required for creative thinking. Fittingly, it is no secret that some of the most successful artists in history – including T.S. Eliot, Vincent Van Gogh and Adele – have battled anxiety or depression.
Surprisingly (or not), scientists are no exception in this matter: Isaac Newton waited ten years to publish his theories of calculus because of crippling anxiety, depression, and agoraphobia. Charles Darwin was persistently bed-ridden with anxiety while writing his Origin of Species. Overall, historiometric analysis estimates that nearly 1 in 3 eminent scientists have experienced clinical anxiety and/or depression. Thus we are faced with a conundrum: does our profession select for individuals pre-disposed to anxious dispositions? Or does the scientific environment inherently breed anxiety across many temperaments?
Changing the culture of anxiety in science
For modern scientists, our current cyclical funding environment and the ever-mounting pressure to publish big contribute to a chronically high-stress environment. Overlay this with training years that intersect with key personal transitions in life, and it is no wonder that academics are stressed. In a 2013 study on student mental health, over 50% of graduate students polled said they felt stress ranging from “above average” to “tremendous” on a daily basis; 80% reported feeling overwhelmed in the previous year.
In a lab setting, normal or temporary symptoms of anxiety can make for a more inquisitive, attentive scientist, and a better collaborator and presenter. On the other hand, unchecked anxiety leads to exhausted and unfocused trainees. This translates into lower lab productivity, longer degree completion times, and increased attrition rates. So where should we draw the line? As a scientific community, there are several things to consider in managing graduate student anxiety:
- Understand the line of the work you’re getting into. Obtaining a graduate degree is a significant investment; the choice to pursue one should not be taken lightly. There are often long working hours and experiments that may fail anyway. But on the bright side, graduate school can hone one’s abilities to problem-solve and think outside the box (and hopefully make some exciting discoveries in the process).
- Communicate. Finding a work-life balance as a trainee has its own learning curve. As such, supervisors should communicate clear expectations of trainees. Likewise, students should consider how their working styles might mesh with potential supervisors and lab mates, and whether there exists a good support network in the lab group.
- Address the “stigma”. Many graduate students who suffer from mood disorders feel pressured to do so in silence. Thankfully, graduate departments are starting to recognize the need for more accessible mental health resources (see “Multiple Choice – Mental Health Resources at U of T“). However, the scientific community as a whole needs to join the conversation.
For although research science commands a certain work ethic and determination, there is a darker culture that reinforces the high-stress environment. In a 2013 TED Talk on Innovating Science, physicist-biologist Dr. Uri Alon contemplates this problem: He points out that while scientific knowledge is considered objective and rational, more often than not we are taught that this knowledge is always obtained in an equally objective and rational manner. As scientists, we are expected to act as such.
Ironically, most of us know first hand that research doesn’t always follow clear, logical steps. Yet in the current research environment, Uri explains, you’re often primed to feel like a failed scientist when your experiments don’t work exactly as predicted, especially during your trainee stages. And then you can become lost in “the cloud” – a cloud of uncertainty and dread regarding where to go next. However, if you become too focused on the perceived failures, your negative feelings can blind you from discovering alternative possibilities. Yes, your knowledge base may have been proven incomplete, but this also means that you get to discover something entirely new as you fill in the gaps towards a new solution or hypothesis.
Thus Uri argues that traversing the cloud is normal, even essential to scientific progress: “If we begin to accept some of the emotion and subjectivity in science, we can begin to treat the cognitive dissonance” that we’ve set ourselves up for. In essence, we should start to detoxify the feelings of failure for a better scientific output as a whole.
Finding balance in the path forward
This author can attest that being stuck in “the cloud” for too long can drive you over the edge. There was a significant period during my PhD where I became convinced I was, or would become, a scientific failure. I was forgetful, panicky, and exhausted every minute of every day, for several months. My thesis suffered. Eventually I stopped sleeping. Regrettably, it was only the insomnia that convinced me to get professional help. Fortunately, in doing so, I learned how to restructure chronically unbalanced thoughts, whether faced with a failed experiment or planning for a possible future in academia. While I am back on the scientific horse again, it remains an on-going process, and I wish I had addressed my problems with anxiety and stress much earlier in my studies.
In reflecting on these personal struggles with anxiety, I’m compelled to consider Janus, the ancient Roman god of Beginnings and Transitions. Janus is depicted as having two faces – one always looking to the past, and one forever keeping an eye on the future. Anxiety is similar: you are never quite in the present, trapped in an endless loop of what-ifs. Based on my discussions with many colleagues, I know that I am not alone in experiencing this within academia. But it wasn’t always that way. The stigma against recognizing a mood disorder and asking for help needs to be changed, for it is never indulgent to invest in your mental well-being.
As it turns out, science may benefit from a little of that investment, too.
- Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada http://www.anxietycanada.ca/english/
- Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). “The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation”. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18: 459–482. doi:10.1002/cne.920180503.
- Stossel, Scott (2014). My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. NY: Knopf Publishers.
- National College Health Assessment (NCHA) Survey, 2013. http://www.cacuss.ca/health_data.htm
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