Unveiling the secrets of an anxious scientist
There is something lurking in the background of many labs. Anxiety, stress, depression… many people, like me, working in science suffer from mental health issues. When you start talking about it, it’s amazing how many will ‘admit’ to having some form of mental illness too. But, that’s the thing. We shouldn’t have to feel like we are admitting it. There is nothing to be ashamed of. And more than that, we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss it more openly in science.
When I first got diagnosed with anxiety and mild depression, I felt ashamed of it. What did I possibly have to be depressed about? I have amazing friends and family, a PhD in a great institute in a great lab, which I enjoy. I love science, so why am I anxious about it all the time.
Things go wrong in science all the time, but why was I the only one ending up sat in the women’s, having a panic attack.
But that’s the thing. I am not the only one. We just don’t talk about it.
As part of Mental Health Day, I ‘came out’ on Facebook about my mental health, and the support I got was overwhelming. It was also amazing how many people said to me, ‘I have the same problems too.’
As a PhD student, it is a stressful time – you are busy, under pressure, sometimes your work-life balance can get out of whack. But you continue on, pushing yourself, and when you feel super stressed or down you tell yourself to get on with it; that it’s completely normal. I often felt I couldn’t talk about it to work friends as everyone has the same pressures - and they are coping (at least outwardly) just fine. So I bottled it up, kept pushing it down, until one day, in a dramatic style, I couldn’t take it anymore and had to take a break from my PhD. Even when this happened I told very few people – feeling ashamed about it, that I wasn’t strong enough, that I was being stupid. /span>
In the last few months though, I have had some counselling, I have opened up to more of my friends and talk candidly about my problems with several people – including my supervisors. Yes, my supervisors. This was something I was scared about doing, but my fears were unfounded. They have been extremely supportive, and a welcome ear for me to talk to if I am having any problems.
People say that talking to others, and letting others know about your difficulties helps. It is a hard thing to do - telling others. But when you do, you feel like a weight has been lifted.
Things have got better for me. I still have days which I struggle on. Today for example, many small things over the last few weeks have built up, and after a disastrous western blot I ended up having a panic attack in the women’s toilets. Not my finest hour. I went home, I drank copious amounts of tea, and I tried to calm down. Tomorrow is a new day, I will redo the experiment. It went wrong, so what. It’s not the end of the world.
Slowly, I am starting to believe those words.
But, in the mean time I will continue to get through each day, taking each as it comes. Enjoying the ups when they come, and riding out the lows, and talking about my mental health.
I am thankful to have great lab members who have helped and supported me so much in the last few months. Know this: if you too are suffering, you may think you are alone in it, but you aren’t. From my experiences, I can guarantee if you talked to another person in your lab, or on your course, you will find someone in the same situation as you.
The one positive thing to have come from all of this is that I am much more aware of mental illness and the lack of communication about it in the scientific community. I am challenging that by talking more openly about my own experiences, and won’t shy away from telling someone I have anxiety. It’s something we all need to talk about more in science. Even if this post only reaches one person, and they open up about their mental health to a friend, a work colleague or family member… well, that’s a start.
If you have made it this far down - thank you for reading! I hope to post more, just general ramblings, problems, and how I got round them. We will see.
Finally, from one person to another: You are not alone in this. Things will get better, no matter how bad they seem at the moment. Like me, you may not believe it at the moment, but if you say it enough times with enough belief, you will.
Dr. Erica Hawkins (@ScientistErica) is a postdoctoral scientist working on starch synthesis in plants. This story was published on December 13, 2016, on Dr. Hawkins’ blog, 'A scientist called Erica’ (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.
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