Category Archives: Personal

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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Anxiety in the academy: a personal account

The first panic attack is, in my experience, not the worst. The worst comes at the point in one’s life when you can feel the onset of the attack before things really fly apart at the seams, you know what is happening to you, and you can do nothing to stop it.  For me that was July of 2012, feeling the onset of what I knew would turn into minutes of agony as I huddled foetal against the pain of seized muscles and heaving lungs, screaming gradually turning to a clear refrain of “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.”

On December 14, 2012, I submitted my dissertation; I’ve since received glowing examiner’s reports and am due to graduate in a matter of weeks. Yet what I experience isn’t great. I don’t feel good. I don’t even feel particularly accomplished.

I feel relieved.

That’s, the main, because the memory of my time as a graduate student is marred by what a series of counsellors have referred to as severe acute situational anxiety. In addition to performance anxiety around my dissertation and a crippling sense of impostor syndrome, during the final months of my dissertation process I suffered from a series of relatively spectacular panic attacks. The worst of these attacks… well, see above.

I’ve reason to suspect I’m not alone. Whether it is caused by a toxic, or even abusive relationship with their supervisor; the stresses of other relationships being amplified by graduate studies; financial distress; or some combination of so many other reasons, a high proportion of students suffer from mental health issues. According to a study (warning: paywall) out of UC Berkley, 67% of graduate students said they felt hopeless at least once a year, and 54% felt so depressed they had trouble functioning day to day. These aren’t necessarily indicators of anxiety, but they are indicative of the mental health of today’s graduate student.

It shouldn’t be like that.  Yes, graduate school should be really hard. It should have moments of anxiety, from exams, to teaching, to journal submissions, to the dis itself. Anxiety is a natural response to uncertainty and stress in some cases. People do have bad days.

But it shouldn’t be all the time, and it shouldn’t be actively harmful. Graduate school shouldn’t be a source of abusive relationships and practices, or something that causes or perpetuates mental health problems or mental illness. Yes, becoming a highly trained specialist is the end, the telos of graduate school. It is an exceedingly demanding time in a person’s life. But if you are a broken piece of work at the end of it, then something has gone wrong.

And what is wrong isn’t the person involved. Suffering from mental health issues as a graduate student isn’t a weakness, and it isn’t correlated with achievement (or lack thereof). To pretend otherwise places a stigma on mental health issues and causes more suffering. We need to be honest and compassionate about what graduate students, undergraduates, and members of faculty go through.

Anxiety, moreover  isn’t a sign of weakness—it is the sign of a deficient educational system. Even if young researchers do good work, for that good work to come at the cost of healthy people seems a questionable tradeoff at best. Education and scholarship matter, and our institutions reflect that. But they aren’t the only things that matter.

We owe it to our students and our peers to assist and support them in breaking their cycles of anxiety. We owe it to those who arrive in the future to manage our institutions in a way that treat people better, and help them when mental health problems do occur. It makes for healthier people, healthier communities, and for better work. Anyone in higher education should be looking to discover knowledge and impart it to willing, hard working students. But that shouldn’t come at an unacceptable cost, and I’m willing to step forward and say that if I hadn’t gotten really lucky, the costs would have been way too high for me.

I have serious and continuing anxiety issues, and I spend a lot of my energies these days undoing that damage. I feel better, my work is better for it, and I’m confident that one day I’ll be able to look at my dissertation—a dissertation that others have deemed to be a solid contribution—without feeling slightly queasy. In the meantime, I think it worth exploring what can be done to make sure fewer people get pulled under by the darker elements of student—and indeed university—life.