Anxiety and Agency

Anxiety can be, and is, a bad experience. It leaves bad memories. It is just a generally bad time.

Problematic anxiety, that is. Not all anxiety is bad. Here, I’m talking about the anxiety that won’t go away, that breaches the situational and bleeds into the rest of your life. That swallows relationships, accomplishments, and experiences wholesale. That undermines you.

And that’s, in my experience,[1] one of the worst parts of anxiety. It undermines you and your feeling of agency. It takes away your ability to own what you do. This leaves life grey, and brings with it a feeling of helplessness. It also makes you very, very vulnerable to others—something that carries all sorts of risks.

What do I mean by undermining the feeling agency? To start, I’m not claiming that when I suffer periods of anxiety I am not responsible for what I do. Every harsh word, badly written paper, bungled talk with my supervisor or to a crowd; all that is mine. Anxiety doesn’t stop me being an agent.

Rather, I experience it as a loss of ability to own what you do. In the worst periods I’ve been through, it seems as if action and intention are divorced. This bizarre disconnect takes over, in which I can see something going wrong, but can’t stop it happening even if I think I can see a way out. Everything spirals—the term I use for the feeling of how my anxiety manifests and progresses—and collapses in on itself.

And when you get to the end: to the flaming, burning wreck that is the talk or the meeting or the conversation, you can’t own that wreck. I mess up all the time. Part of the business of being a researcher and a scholar is making mistakes. My “favourite” was the fifth talk I gave as a PhD student, in which I went in completely unprepared for the audience to which I was speaking  (an occupational hazard for a multidisciplinary scholar). Everything went horribly, hilariously awry.

But on that day in 2009, I could go “yup, that’s my mistake. Damn, what a clusterf*ck.” But by early 2011, I’d come out of meetings with my supervisor going “how did that happen?” I’d spend the day in shock (or in tears), totally overwhelmed by the loss of control over myself.[2]

Anxiety—my anxiety—also undermines the good with the bad. It takes away your ability to own your successes. In my graduate years I published a swathe of articles on a variety of topics, from military ethics and biosecurity, to the philosophies of dignity and friendship. I also edited a thirty chapter volume on the ethics of war with my officemate. These are decent accomplishments for a graduate student trying to make it through their dissertation. But throughout,  each success was muted or simply taken away from me by the sense that it had all been luck and charlatanry. That it was only a matter of time before I’d be discovered.

Both sides of that coin are pernicious in the extreme. It is important to own mistakes and celebrate victories. Getting roasted by your peers should be cause for reflection; passing peer-review for the first time should be a great feeling for a grad student.

It shouldn’t be something that causes even more anxiety.


  1. A billboard-sized disclaimer. I’m not writing as a counsellor, or as a professional psychologist or psychiatrist. I’m not writing as a sociologist, an anthropologist, or any other person who studies anxiety empirically. None of my anecdotes are data, and none of the things I went through—go through—to break my own personal demons are recipes I can endorse for others. These are just the experiences of a former grad student, trying to process what he experienced and share it with others. I’ve argued that we have a responsibility for what we write, and I want to make clear that I can barely take care of my own mental health issues, much less give advice to anyone else.  ↩
  2. Of course, it really didn’t help that the ANU kicked my department out of the university that year. That’s another, much angrier story.  ↩
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