Overcoming Anxiety

How my first year of graduate school pushed me to reach out for help
FEB 2020
Jessica
D.
MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography / Applied Ocean Science and Engineering

This post is part of a special issue: "Mental Health Matters: Asking for Help & Reaching Out".

Hey there! I’m Jessica, a current 3rd year graduate student and PhD candidate, and I have anxiety. I choose to say this in the first sentence because it needs to be out there in the open and talked about. I still struggle with this “label” because of the negative attitudes towards mental illness, but I know someone else out there will benefit from my vulnerability. I thought I was alone for too long in my struggles, but that is far from the truth. My type of anxiety is categorized as generalized anxiety disorder which affects over 3% of people in the U.S. Too many PhD students (40%, in fact—6 times higher rate than in the general population) struggle with anxiety and/or depression. 

Why don’t we talk about this more openly? Unfortunately, there is a stigma against mental health issues, and to be honest, they are not treated with nearly as much compassion as physical injuries. When I’ve panicked or spiraled into sadness, I’ve had people tell me to “Just calm down,” or “Lighten up!” When I broke my ankle, no one asked me to just “walk it off.” Just because something is invisible, doesn’t mean it is less important. Although mental health is not as outwardly apparent as physical health, it does not mean it should be ignored. It is vital to our well-being.


A photo of me in Siberia in 2019, when my coping skills were tested by a new country,
failing fieldwork, and being thousands of miles from home.

My battle with anxiety started at a young age, even though I wasn’t aware of it. In my pre-teen and teenage years, I faced many challenges, including growing up with an alcoholic parent and my best friend passing away due to a skateboarding accident. During high school, my parents went through a divorce, which only aggravated my father’s alcoholism and increased tensions in my family. 

At 13, the panic attacks started. At the time, neither my family nor I knew the symptoms of anxiety, so they weren’t addressed. We tried a few therapy sessions and I joined Al-Anon for teens, but I never learned the right coping skills. My anxiety and self-destruction raged on. This was invisible to everyone else because it seemed like I had everything going for me: I was captain of the varsity swim team, top of my class, and working part-time. Behind the scenes, however, I was putting myself in dysfunctional romantic relationships, undereating, and hating myself. 

During college, my grandmother, my godmother, and my father, all passed away in a span of 3 years. I was in denial, refusing to admit that I was struggling, taking only enough days off to attend the funerals, and returned to funneling my energy into my classes and research, distracting myself from grief with work and extracurriculars, just like before. I jumped right into graduate school, deciding against a gap year, since I thought that going for my PhD was the best way to put myself first, not realizing that I continued to let my mental health suffer.

In February of my first year, I heard my wake-up call. Although I was making good progress in my research and classes, I was having daily anxiety episodes, experiencing stress-filled days, having sleepless nights, and was the heaviest weight I had ever been. I witnessed my familial and romantic relationships fall apart. I felt utterly alone. 

I unhealthily relied on my partner for stress relief, and when I saw I was bringing him down with me, I knew I needed professional help. I sought out a therapist at MIT and then was referred to one on Cape Cod (which is where my lab is located). I still see my therapist and am grateful to say that I am the happiest I have ever been. I meet with my therapist more frequently when stressors in my life ramp up, and less often when I’m doing well—but never less often than once every two months. 

On our first day, she recommended trying meditation. I thought, “How could I have time to pause for 10 minutes a day when I have so much to do?” But those 10 minutes were what I needed. I had not been taking any time for myself, and that was exactly the problem. I needed time and space to recharge, to heal and to energize myself for everything else in my life. The first step to putting myself first was just promising myself 10 minutes a day.

My daily experience is completely different from what it used to be less than two years ago. That is mostly because of the habits and skills I have built since then, including medication. I like to think of my new mental health habits as my brain’s daily dose of vitamins, energizing it for the rest of the day. 

Meditation is now one of the favorite parts of my routine (my favorite meditation app is called Headspace). I try to do it at least a few times a week and I don’t scold myself for not practicing it every day. 

Another one of my favorite strategies is writing lists. When I feel my thoughts start to spiral downward with worry, instead of keeping everything that I’m worried about in my mind, I brain dump everything into a list. I then organize these tasks by priority and get rid of the ones that I shouldn’t worry about. I keep paper on my desk, in my backpack, and next to my bed. When I don’t have paper, I write it down in the notes section of my phone. 

Most mornings and evenings, I also journal. I write down what I’m grateful for, acknowledge successes big and small, and acknowledge things I could have done better that day by setting goals and intentions for the week ahead. A major part of my shift in mindset has also come from surrounding myself with positive influences like podcasts, the right types of people (for me) on social media, and reading motivational books. 

Self-care can mean something different for everyone, and the best way to do it is by doing what works for you. On some days that’s lifting heavy weights in the gym or going for a run; on other days it’s staying in and feeding the soul with TV shows, soup, and sleep. My anxiety still comes in waves, but now I have the tools to manage it when I’m overwhelmed. I hope my story gives perspective on the fact that many of us face invisible battles and have stories often difficult to share and that you don’t know about. And if you are going through something right now and trying to heal, remember that recovery is a continuous process, not a destination.