Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Grad School's Mental Toll

There's a moment during your first panic attack when you're absolutely certain you're going to die.

Kermit does his "chem grad student"
Source: mlkshk Tumblr
A 'perfect storm' of sorts arose during my fourth year in grad school. A failed blood donation, where I passed out and couldn't get back up; chalked up to lack of sleep. Or waking up with horrific nightmares after just a few hours; too much coffee, maybe?

At the time, I would wake up at 6:00AM to take the first bus into campus, fortified by a "breakfast" of junk food and soda. I'd work 5 hours, eat a frozen microwave meal, work 6-8 more hours, then stumble home for a burger and a beer. Between coffees and colas, I was averaging seven caffeinated drinks per day. I developed facial tics, put on weight, and felt chronically ill.

Now, sprinkle in some "life events." A building move. A group switch. A death in the family. A sudden, out-of-the-blue contact from a long-forgotten relative. Financial woes. Managing an undergrad. Writing an ORP, two papers, and fellowship applications at the same time (not recommended). All occurred in about 3 months, around the holidays.

I distinctly recall the first time I felt creeping doom: I was driving back to lab after dinner, and my vision blurred. My heart began to race, and I felt trapped in my own car. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to pull over, and after about five minutes the symptoms subsided. So. . . I drove to work, anyway. Ugh.

A few weeks later, more bad news: a potential postdoctoral gig fell through, with no replacement in the wings. The economy seemed headed ever further downwards; no one got jobs. My lab work had stalled, with a few (small) fires to boot.

One evening, I got up from the dinner table after a long discussion with my S.O. and realized, quite suddenly, that I couldn't walk. I lowered myself to the ground, heart thumping, knees wobbly, a rush of grey spots clouding my eyes. I began seeing darkness. That's it, I thought. That's how it ends.

I laid there for some time, writhing. I tried to sit up, but couldn't. When I could finally stand, we went immediately to the ER - not covered under student insurance, btw. I spent the night hooked up to a EKG, and was advised to seek counseling in the next week.

What followed was completely new to me: Group sessions. Medication. Crisis intervention. It took me several months to get back to normal working hours. I felt trapped in seminars, and took seats near the exit. I didn't drive much. Every few days I'd have short spells like the initial attack, but never as serious. I suppose I was lucky.

It was time to completely redo my life. I reduced my working hours. I took walks, and started routinely exercising again. I ate healthy breakfasts and forced myself to take extra vegetables and fruits. I wrote letters and long emails. I began a renewed effort to look ahead, and didn't dwell on the present. I made time for myself every day. I prayed.

Things got better with each progressive year. I defended. I lined up a postdoc. I got a job after a lengthy search process. Luckily, I had a loved one with a "real job" to help me. I don't wish to consider what it would have been like to go it alone.

Grad students: if you feel like you can't take it anymore, or don't feel like yourself, seek help! Don't feel stigmatized, and don't hesitate. Certain decisions can't be taken back. Always have someone to confide in, and always make time for yourself, even if it's ten minutes a day.

There's a lot more life to be lived on the other side of grad school.


Note: I wrote this as a response to Chemjobber and Vinylogous Aldol's "Grad School Mental Health" discussion. For more posts in the series, check out their sites.


  1. Thank you for sharing. It's comforting to know the survivors out there that felt what we feel as grad students. I have also been hooked to an EKG last Christmas (2011), followed by outbreaks of hives over new year (stress apparently, no known allergy to date). Have also hallucinated in the lab at 2 am. It is really, really reassuring to know that I'm not the only one! Thank you SAO, you hero.

  2. Thank you very much for sharing. This experience is far too common in grad school.

  3. There was something I completely overlooked yesterday when I read the post.
    That's the importance of the physical "stress" that can be connected to the mental health. A PhD student is usually working late in the night, eating crap in the university, not doing sport and in most of the case (I bet 99%) drinking like hell. This can also affect the mental health and the stress.
    So yes, your suggestions are useful for having a normal life.

  4. The most stress I've ever had in my life was the self-imposed stress of writing my dissertation. My sleep was spotty to non-existent, I couldn't eat. Luckily that was a short period of time and was solved by finishing the thesis. I never want to go through that again and I can't imagine having this type of stress for a longer period of time.

  5. I want to post this, something I found in my personal journal from back in school:

    "I feel like death, and like I'm stuck between two rocks.

    I've been sick for the last several days, likely due to stress, as my thesis is due in two weeks. I feel like I am not going to have it ready in time, and I think I am going to remove two sections.

    I feel like everything I do is inadequate. My boss gives me back these revisions where he wants more experiments, and I just don't have the time to do them. I feel like I am going to fail everyone. I had a massive nervous breakdown yesterday and I'm barely keeping it together today. I kind of want to cancel my defense.

    I can't keep up. I'm sick of people telling me "oh, its ok, you'll do fine". That's BS. I'm going to meet with my boss tomorrow and hopefully I can keep it together and not fall apart in the meeting. I'm extremely frightened of him saying he won't let me graduate this quarter."

  6. Grad school can really be that stressful with all the demanding stuffs, from the work loads and all the writing task to dissertation writing--from thinking of best thesis topic ideas until defense. It was great to know that you were okay now. I'm sure a lot would really appreciate your simple but important advice.

  7. While doing my undergraduate degree in English, I had to write a 40-page paper in order to graduate. I ended up with shingles. I am thinking of graduate school, but I am unsure if I can deal with the stress.