Anxiety in (Grad) School


Disclaimer: This post is just a single anecdote of my experiences with feelings of anxiety and my personal way of coping with it. I am my no means an expert and highly recommend that if you think you may be dealing with feelings of anxiety or have an anxiety disorder, that you seek help from a professional. 

I’ve been in grad school for almost five months now (holy crap, it feels like years!) and it has been quite an experience. Though I’ve bitched and complained both here and on my Tumblr, overall it’s been a positive experience. After all, it feels like everyday I’m learning something new about my research field, meeting fantastic people and getting more and more involved with the science that I love…

Of course, it definitely hasn’t been a very smooth ride. My first quarter seemed like it went absolutely horrendously. In fact, many, many crappy things happened, but for the sake of brevity I’ll just focus on one instance: the fact I almost “failed”* the one class I was taking that quarter. In fact, I actually did end up “failing,” but the professor showed mercy because I was teetering on the border and boosted my grade up that extra few points I needed. That’s not the point though. Whether or not I passed didn’t matter. Up until now I was good at school. Even though I was already having a rough start with research and a bunch of other grad student related things that quarter, school was something that was supposed to come easy to me–the one thing that I would succeed in this year. Apparently, not anymore. I was horrified and disheartened and my ego took a good beating.  So, you can guess that when the next quarter came a-knockin’ after winter break, I was less than happy to go back to school. *”Failed”: For Caltech’s chemistry department, a graduate student needs a B or above in a class for it to count towards their degree requirement.

That is an understatement, of course. When the new quarter arrived, I noticed that for that first week or two I was in such a horrible mood–constantly irritable. Every single day, I felt extremely overwhelmed and wanted nothing more than to pack my bags and quit. Who needs a PhD, anyway? I would think. This just isn’t worth it. Though I am admittedly a bit of a crybaby and at times have been known to over-exaggerate, I knew this wasn’t normal. I was going to my dream grad school living what I would like to think was a dream life. I’m not supposed to be breaking down and crying in the shower. That’s not who I am and I obviously needed help. So, after sucking up my pride, I made my way to the counseling center on campus.

Welp, over the past couple of weeks of talking with my counselor, I have discovered that I have probably always been a very anxious and stressed out person due to matters that are too personal to talk about over the internet. It was just my default state of being and I knew nothing else. I even had my own ways of coping that made it seem like I was a normal and functional human being. However, this new period of my life–entering grad school, moving in with my boyfriend, moving away from home–seemed to throw my entire sense of being for a loop. Now, essentially my built-in anxiety was amplified into a whole new monster that I just wasn’t used to dealing with.

It sucks. And my case is probably mild compared to what many others have to go through. Anxiety can turn a mole hill into a mountain and the quiet rustling of leaves into a hidden monster in the darkness.

I’m still going to counseling, every week, to learn how to deal with it in the most effective way possible. For the meantime, though, for it not to interfere with my life I have made some temporary tricks in order for it not to interfere too much with my life, especially my school/work life.

For the record, this post is as much advice for all of you as it is for me…and as always, your results may vary.

Realize that your feelings are valid

For me, the hardest part of going through a bout of anxiety is being angry with myself for the type of thoughts going through my head. I know things will probably not turn out as bad as I’m picturing them, but that doesn’t stop me from panicking. Self-compassion is key for situations like this. Realize that there is something triggering your anxiety and you should not be ashamed for having all of these racing thoughts. You’re not overreacting. You’re not being a crybaby. And your definitely not being overdramatic. You are reacting to some trigger the only way your body currently knows how.

Find a quiet place to destress

In my most anxious state, any noise or bright lights cause me a lot of discomfort. If I stay in an environment that doesn’t relieve me of those stimuli, I just get even more irritable and more anxious in a type of hellish snowball effect. Obviously, this is not the most productive of moods. So, as soon as you can, I would suggest to take a moment and go somewhere quiet in order to calm down and get a better control on your emotions. If you are allowed to leave work/school for the day, I suggest you leave campus and perhaps go home. If you do unfortunately have to continue with your day,  what I do is try and walk outside to a quiet corner of campus for half an hour just to give my brain a rest. If I feel up to it, I return to whatever I was doing. However, be sure to listen to your body. If you feel like you just won’t be able to recover, try your best to leave early and rest.

Have a regular change of scenery

Sometimes being in one place day in and day out can stress me out. So, when I’m feeling boxed in, I try my best to find other places where I can do my work be it at my office, the library, a coffee shop or even my living room. So, I recommend trying to find a few places to alternate between. It should help clear your mind and also prevents you from building up negative connotations with your preferred work space.

Have a “no work zone”

This is probably the most important one for me, personally. As a grad student, I’m essentially expected to work 24/7. At school I have research to do and classes to take. Not to mention that I have to finish homework, read academic papers, apply to fellowship and whatever doesn’t get finished at school transfers to my home life. Therefore, having a place that I don’t have to associate with work is extremely important when it comes to relaxing and releasing all the built up stress from the day. I live by the “no work in the bedroom” rule. However, as that may not be possible for you depending on your living situation, I recommend finding one place nearby where you can go to at least once or twice a week where work is left untouched for even just an hour be it in your own home or a nearby park.

Try and schedule your day

Nothing makes me more anxious than having a bunch of things to do and no plan of action. This has been especially true for me in grad school because there always seems like there is a billion things to do, yet all of them are of equal importance. Therefore, scheduling blocks of time to complete certain tasks for the day is what I recommend. After all, having a set time to do a certain homework assignment or class reading can not only keep you focused on the task at hand but also help prevent you from ending up feeling overwhelmed.

Write down what your feeling

If I have a certain instance in my day where I feel down or anxious or even just sad for no reason whatsoever, I try really hard to make a mental note of it or write it down. Originally, I did this because I wanted to be able to mention it to my counselor the following week without forgetting any details. However, I soon realized that it is also helpful in reflecting why I was feeling a certain way that time which can be an important thing to know, especially if you’re trying to cope with it.

Take breaks

I have a very bad habit of what I like to call “hyperfocusing.” I can sit for hours at my computer doing homework or researching something. It’s great when I’m trying to get things done. It’s not so great if I’m having a bad day because it just ends in a lot of stress and ultimately panic. Therefore, make sure you take breaks to give your mind a rest. If you’re like me and have trouble remembering, set a timer to remind you every 15 minutes to half an hour.

Talk to a counselor

It took me a good month to go and see the counselor. I was scared that maybe my feelings would be seen as “silly” and “ridiculous” or that going to a counselor would make me seem “weak.” This is not true at all and it’s so unfortunate that there’s such a stigma for seeking help for your mental health! Going to a counselor was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made. Though sometimes it’s rough to talk about what I’m feeling, at the end of the day, my counselor is there to help me figure out how to deal with what I’m going through and prevent it from interfering with my life. Though I can understand why someone would be hesitant to seek help from a professional, please consider it, especially if your anxiety becomes burdensome in your every day routine.


16 thoughts on “Anxiety in (Grad) School”

  1. Thank you for posting this! As a licensed counselor, i’m really happy to hear that you normalized that experience of having a tough time during grad school. I’m so grateful that you sought out counseling as a way to cope with your anxiety. Counseling can be so helpful even for minor issues. Thank you for advocating for my profession. A schedule works great for me and I love the idea of a “no work zone.” Keep pressing on dear! Have a successful week.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s as if your ripped a page out of my journal. I’ve been going through nearly identical experiences in grad school. My situation is improving however my anxiety and depression are still there.

    Thank you for posting your story. It makes me feel less alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome! In writing this, my hope was that people like us start realize that we’re not alone in this giant mess called grad school. There are tons of us going through anxiety and depression, and it’s a shame it’s not talked about more often.

      I’m glad your situation is improving! Just take it one day at a time. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m writing my dissertation for my undergraduate degree and thanks to this I just realized that my anxiety is acting up right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about quiting and not going to grad school anymore. It’s been hard being the new girl at the lab. I seriously don’t know why I didn’t identify it sooner but THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS.


  4. Love what you shared. As a “mental health professional” (a mediocre one at least!), I think that grad school functions off of dysfunctional market forces that end up squeezing the life of out excited grad students who think they could become professors when, in fact, the chance of doing so is often in the range of 5-10%. The mental health issues (and likelihood of not achieving the TT dream) should be easier to talk about in these environments, though professors are de-incentivized from doing so. Thanks for sharing!


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