Anxiety and the PhD.

So, here I am, I have won a scholarship to study for a PhD. in my chosen area of emotions and mental health in the police.  My thesis title is:

Emotional In-authenticity: the psychological impact of emotional labour on police officers.

Yep, that’s right, I am widening my study from my MSc. dissertation.  As it happens, I did really well and got a distinction for my dissertation and for my MSc.

Okay, you’re right, this blog isn’t about how well I did in my studies…

..but I do need to give you some context so you can understand how high functioning anxiety plays out; and how it can be deceptive to the casual observer.

I think I can call this ‘high functioning anxiety’.. it’s pretty sneaky.  You shouldn’t really know how I am feeling.  You see, the little anxiety monster that runs around my head shouting, drowning out my own voice, tells me that if I show any sign of anxiety… I’m a failure.   In fact, anything less than perfecto! is failure.

So I am really practiced at putting on this convincing act of everything being just okay.. (you can guess why I study emotional labour – class act!).

But anxiety it is also a lot more clever than that (anxiety is, by self purport, smarter than it’s host) because it tells me that anything I did do right, was a fluke – and I will struggle to ever meet the same standard again, because really, I am just not that good.

So despite all my hard work and my results, every new dawn brings a new sense of self-doubt.

I try my best to rationalise my way round my anxiety, I mean, I am meant to have some intelligence; but you see, this is where I am disadvantaged by my creative soft spot – my happy day dream head turns into frenzied fantasy as I imagine every possible worst case scenario that could result of my last action/sentence/blog/tweet/breath…

A quick scenario for you… I have just submitted my first assignment for my PhD. taught element.  I have worked so hard at this, and I actually kinda like it.  I love the topic; I am so passionate about how police officers are allowed to deal with their emotions, and how this impedes their psychological wellbeing.  I care so much about this, it is a pleasure to read and to write about.  I also love the act of writing – the creation and completion of a piece of work.  I like how sentences sound, and how they communicate with other people in the world, it makes me feel connected and tangible.  I feel I have created something I like.

So I press the submit button.  And feel sick.  It is almost instantaneous.  My stomach is in knots.. my heart beat is raised through the roof, and I can feel my skin turn cold and clammy.. I feel the faint, pricking of adrenaline in my arms, and everything has just gained an impressive visual definition.





Kinda like the last time someone pulled a knife on me..

I reach about in my head searching for the thing that has set this off, wanting to emotionally touch the bad element of my assignment that will mean that I WILL FAIL.  I want to look at it and reassure myself that I have made it up, or it isn’t that bad, and I have over emphasised a negative point.

But I can’t, because I can’t find it, as it doesn’t exist.

But hey, let’s not stop there (because this is high functioning anxiety, and if I am going to be good at anything, it’s anxiety!).   This is not just a failure.  No, this is so bad that I will be considered unfit for carrying on with my PhD.  I will be summonsed to my supervisor’s office (my legs are actually beginning to ache with the flood of adrenaline, as I visualise my route to their office and standing in front of them; impeccably lit by the ceiling to floor window) and they will state their disappointment.  They will be devastated.  And I will be devastated for them.  This is after all MY FAULT, I have let them down. *whimper* I am sad.  Then, I am ceremoniously marched off campus and into my dull future.  No PhD. No Scholarship. No employment.  All I have to do is tell my husband…

Okay… so this is classic catastrophizing.  But I am so well versed in visualising my agonising demise that I have managed this scenario (in HD) in around thirty seconds..

So, I try it on again; just for size.. and, as I like to make sure that it is the perfect scenario for my sad little ending, I polish it a bit.  Add a couple of scenes (running into fellow PhD cohort, having to explain to my students why I can’t teach them – a thunderstorm for atmosphere – rain running down that very long window…) and repeat.

I know this is a really stupid thing to do, but I can’t explain to you that when you are in the grip of this fear, that it is very hard to shake.  Give me all the breathing and CBT in the world – fear feels like fear, no matter the cause.  And humans are programmed to react.

Okay I really am gonna breath now *sigh*..

As it was, I passed: 67 – and do you know what I thought?  Where did the 3 marks go that meant I missed a distinction!

Whatever.  This is exhausting; I wish I would give myself a break.

However, this is anxiety, and any moments I get for potential down time result in fear filled, gut wrenching agony that I am no longer relevant, and have no value in this world.  So, I work.  I work to seek reassurance that I am worth the space that I take up on this earth.

And so it goes on.. don’t get me wrong.  Life is a lot better now.  If you look at the above scenario, then apply that to my last death investigation, or shooting – you can see just how bad my little fantasy head can get.  It wasn’t just my PhD I could fail, I could fail at preventing a loss of life; and it wouldn’t have been campus I would have been marched off, but marched into my own trial and had my human failures highlighted to all who come to watch the spectacle (yes, I have convicted myself in my head many times for not being good enough – queue near break down, see blog post 1&2).

I now consider myself one of the luckiest people alive.  I can’t begin to tell you what a privilege it is to be able to study my chosen subject to such depth, and hopefully have a part in some change for good.


But to all those peeps out there with their own anxiety monster creating anarchy in their head; and to those that are seeking to understand those that do; trust me, it doesn’t matter what your triggers are or the context of your circumstances that lead you to curl up in a ball on the floor.. fear is fear, and when it triggers your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system it is very difficult to talk yourself down.  These are our warning signs – our security system; and we are programmed to react.  And it takes a lot to carry on like we are doing just fine – but I know we do, because anything else would be… well, you know what the monster says… but knowing this is my monster and this is how it works me, well it does help.  And it does help knowing I’m not the only one hosting in my head.. maybe I should start a support group: ‘monsternet’… any tips on social anxiety at networking events..?

So if you do suffer with high functioning anxiety, know you are not alone, and please give yourself permission to take some time out.  Even for a second, just take a moment to exist, rather than to pursue the next goal.  You will get there.

As for me… well, there’s the next assignment and a few presentations to think of.  But I did give myself time to write this blog, which for me is progress..

3 thoughts on “Anxiety and the PhD.

  1. Fantastic article SJ, I believe that I suffer from the same affliction. If ‘monsternet’ is ever started, please count me in as member number 1.


  2. Hi SJ. I agree with you (no surprise there) about the psychological and psychophysiological aspects in response to fear.

    I’d also add that I think the dominant method of dealing with emotion regulation; think something different (cognitive reframe) can be less than helpful with fear. I almost wonder if we need to do the antithesis. We let it run.

    Let the fear run. Let it go all the way to the cataclysmic end. Then, run the next cataclysmic scenario and so on until they are all done. Maybe at this point try the reframe and let the fear run again, this time to establish other non cataclysmic events/endings.

    Now the intensity of the fear is passing, it may be easier to reflect; how realistic are the cataclysmic options? What is the likelihood that the cataclysmic ends will happen?

    I know that this is easier in a reflective state/occasion and ‘in the moment’ it will be harder. After all saying mid PhD presentation ‘I’m just going to pause while I allow my cataclysmic failure to pan out so I can work with my emotion constructively’ may not be that credible.

    One to continue working with and thank you for sharing.


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