Explaining anxiety to an adviser
October 23, 2009 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Serious anxiety issues have caused be to break off contact with my adviser. How do I explain the situation to him?

I’m in a situation similar to the recent post called "work anxiety fixes?". I’m a grad student, most of the people I work with have been out of town for a while, while they were gone my mental health started getting out of control. I have not looked at my email or answered the phone for several weeks now due to the fear that doing so will result in an all out collapse on the floor panic attack. My only interaction with the outside world has been a trip to the store. I haven’t been like this for many many years, I haven’t been on any meds for a long time and did well with behavioral therapy but apparently I have some issues I need to address again because this is out of control and freaking me out. I have not talked to anyone who treated me before for many years since I moved and was doing just fine. Yeah I really need to get myself to the counseling center. That post that I named was a good wake up call. My adviser may not actually kill me and may possilbly understand the situation, these ideas really didn’t enter mind my mind for the last few weeks because I WAS TOTALLY FREAKING OUT and I still sort of am freaking out. But I think I can manage to get a email to my adviser. So the question is what should be in that email? Can someone give me some sort of template to work with because I really don’t know what to say.

Yes I know I should talk this over with a school therapist but the waiting time will probably be a week (based on the experiences of people I know) unless I tell them I’m suicidal (I’m not) and I’m looking for multiple opinions, can anyone relate.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should take steps to help yourself before e-mailing your adviser. Call for a counseling appointment now. Tell them that you're not suicidal, but it is an emergency. I assume you have insurance - what are your options for mental health emergencies? You can do this.
Dear X,
I realize that I've been unreachable for the past few weeks. I've been dealing with a mental health crisis and am only now getting a handle on the situation. Can we set up a meeting to discuss what I've missed? Thanks,

Good luck.
posted by pintapicasso at 12:14 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

pintapicasso has it right. Explain clearly, at the level of detail you're comfortable with, that you've being dealing with a mental health issue. A good advisor will treat that with the same level of seriousness as a physical health issue, and take appropriate steps to get you back on-track.
posted by xingcat at 12:17 PM on October 23, 2009

But I think I can manage to get a email to my adviser. So the question is what should be in that email? Can someone give me some sort of template to work with because I really don’t know what to say.

pintapicasso's suggestion above is fine. I'm sure other people could suggest other good ones and you could probably write one yourself that's just as good.

The main point is that none of this is as big of a deal as you are making it out to be in your head. I'm sure you've gone through all sorts of horrible scenarios in your mind that involve your adviser hating you or whatever, but realistically it's not that bad. That's just the anxiety making you overthink things like that, and you've got to move past it and just do what you have to do. So work on getting back into therapy, work on sending the email, work on leaving your house, etc. and forget about worrying about what could happen if you don't do everything right because the worrying is what got you there in the first place.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:30 PM on October 23, 2009

First off, get on that waiting list. The sooner you do, the sooner that week is up.

Your note to your adviser doesn't have to be long. It could be something simple like:

"Dear Mr/Ms. Adviser,

I apologize for not having made contact with you in the last few weeks. I have not been well. I'm working through these issues with a counselor. I'm hopeful that my panic attacks will subside soon and that I will be able to fully participate going forward.

I thank you for your patience, understanding and discretion with regard to this matter.

posted by inturnaround at 12:36 PM on October 23, 2009

This is very common in academia. I remember reading a whole article on it once -- how to come back after you've "disappeared" for a few weeks (or months!), but I can't find it right now. Students do it, I've done it occasionally as a postdoc, even professors do it at times.

Remember that your advisor is a) spending much less time thinking about your daily progress than you are, b) there to look out for you, and c) familiar with this situation, having surely had students briefly disappear in the past.

So you should feel free to say in the email something like "hey, I'm sorry I haven't been in touch in a while, I'd like to schedule a meeting so that we can get back on track." Again, speaking from experience with multiple advisors over multiple years: your advisor won't want to kill you over what you've done in the last few weeks -- they'll be happy to help you right yourself now.

After you've written this email, you should spend some time thinking about what's brought on the anxiety and if there are any ways your advisor can help. Less pressure in some ways? More regular contact? A bit more encouragement? Figure out what will help you, and don't be afraid to ask for it!

Best of luck. You'll make it through this.
posted by wyzewoman at 12:39 PM on October 23, 2009 [12 favorites]

This is a pretty common state of mind for me, and I'm a professor. How much my students guess, I don't know.

In any case, the advice given of a short, simple, to the point update would go a long way. Most professors don't sit around thinking of their students all day - in fact, there is a certain "out of sight, out of mind" element to it often enough. It's unlikely your advisor has been actively thinking "where is anon where is anon?" so much as the occasional "I wonder how anon is getting along maybe I should ask oh look something shiny". The advisor looms much larger in the students mind than the reverse.

So, your email may or may not be a surprise to your advisor but it will almost certainly be neutrally filed by them under "things I need to know which I now know and can work around".
posted by Rumple at 12:49 PM on October 23, 2009 [6 favorites]

Ditto wyzewoman ... it's really not that uncommon. Definitely get on the wait list at the counseling center, and keep in mind that you have done nothing "bad" or that people will get mad at you over. The sample messages provided are great -- simple, polite, and indicating that you are ready to get things back on track again. If you don't want to mention mental health in the initial email, you can say "personal emergency" if you're more comfortable.

*hugs* I have been in your shoes...or at least very similar shoes. The important things are to take action to get yourself back on track (emailing your professor, making an appointment), and also to try and remember that the worst case scenarios are VERY unlikely to happen. And even if they did, you would pull yourself together and make it through.

If you are having severe panic attacks, can you contact the campus health center or another urgent care center (after you have made your appointment with the counseling center) to see if they want to prescribe you a mild anti-anxiety rx to get you through until your appointment?
posted by dumbledore69 at 12:51 PM on October 23, 2009

OH GOD you just described me. I often drop out of contact with people because of anxiety, and because that anxiety makes me scared of checking email.

What I've done is to actually have someone *sit down with me* to check and write the necessary email. Just making that first step toward reestablishing contact can be really freaky when you're dealing with anxiety.

But you're right that your adviser is not going to kill you, and will even probably understand. Here is how I might word something along those lines: "Sorry I've been out of touch, but I haven't been feeling well. I'm dealing with anxiety issues that make it difficult for me to handle email and phone calls, etc. At present I'm working on getting some help for this, and I'd like to meet up with you soon to discuss ___."

What also helps me is to keep it short and sweet, and then just press SEND before I can start second-guessing the whole thing.

As soon as the big, vague worrying fear of checking and sending your email is exposed for being the not-so-scary thing it actually is, you will probably feel some immediate relief. Small steps like these -- making a phone call, running an errand, sending an email that needs sending -- are the stepping stones that will ultimately lead you out of this.

Good luck.
posted by Ouisch at 12:56 PM on October 23, 2009

I managed to do this after several months - almost a year, to be honest - of radio-silence. I am not going to go into details, but suffice it to say, the world did not end after I re-established contact.

My e-mail, which I can't actually find, otherwise I would quote it directly. I believe it went something like this:

I apologize for not being in contact for the last few weeks. I will be available after 10/29* to meet with you regarding this. If we need to meet sooner, please contact me via e-mail. Thank you."

*where 10/29 is AFTER the day you have an appointment with the counsellor.

I had to become the aggressor, which was very hard for me, with regards to communication (because I did not have a great, but rather, somewhat...'absent-minded' advisor). I only really made progress in the last few months because I found an excellent therapist. She is excellent in part because she knows the world of academia.

In the mean-time, what I did was have a trusted friend read my e-mails (while I was in the room.) I had him summarize them verbally to me, which usually led to me reading and responding to the e-mail at that time.
posted by cobaltnine at 12:59 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd also recommending checking out your school's group therapy options. The time I spent in my doctoral student support group (talking about issues such as these and strategies for dealing with them!) was tremendously helpful.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:05 PM on October 23, 2009

Some very good advice here. You are not alone in this. This is so common in academia that it's quite likely that your advisor has been through this situation before with other students. Just explain your situation clearly withholding whatever details you're not comfortable divulging and I'm sure you'll be OK. Best of luck.
posted by ob at 1:06 PM on October 23, 2009

If you feel uncomfortable telling your advisor about your mental illness you might just want to say that you have been "ill" and are recovering. You don't have to tell your advisor exactly what's wrong. Saying you're "ill" should suffice. He might ask questions, but you can say that you'd rather not discuss it.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:10 PM on October 23, 2009

I believe the article wyzewoman refers to is this one from Inside Higher Ed, which details how to gracefully return from "academic AWOL," including advice on how to approach professors.
posted by sciapod at 1:22 PM on October 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

In the mean-time, what I did was have a trusted friend read my e-mails (while I was in the room.) I had him summarize them verbally to me, which usually led to me reading and responding to the e-mail at that time.

I'll second this as a common strategy I use to get past mental blockage/anxiety.

Also, don't feel like you have to reply to an email to send one. Sometimes it is easier to start with a fresh email which does not have all the quoted text baggage or minefields.
posted by Rumple at 1:25 PM on October 23, 2009

(Yes, sciapod, that's exactly the article I meant. I couldn't remember the term 'AWOL', and instead was searching on "radio silence" -- which brings up this very thread!)
posted by wyzewoman at 2:59 PM on October 23, 2009

I immediately thought of the same Inside Higher Ed article that wyzewoman and sciapod did - as you can see from the comments, this phenomenon is definitely familiar to academics.

I dealt with the same thing when going back to complete my master's program, but it was really not as big of a deal as I was making it. It helped that my adviser was a quasi-emeritus professor who is very laid-back. I guess when you've been a prof for 30+ years, you've seen it all.

One thing that I've heard and read over and over is that it's important to communicate, even if you have nothing "good" to say. And don't overpromise! I struggle with this myself, feeling the need to "make it up" since I've been out of contact, but that's just going to set you up for more stress. The sample emails people have posted are good - just a note setting a reasonable time for follow-up without promising anything.
posted by clerestory at 3:44 PM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Just a suggestion: when you do see that counselor, in addition to anxiety, perhaps you should ask about avoidant personality disorder.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:01 PM on October 23, 2009

Yes, lots of good advice here. I think about all of the times that students have arrived at my door beating themselves up over having to drop a class, or hand in an assignment late, or take an incomplete, etc. They are stricken, and they look to me for absolution or a scolding. I'm thinking of undergrads, so I know your situation is a longer-term relationship. Even so, I think the dynamic is fairly similar. Honestly, I don't take it personally, nor am I deeply disappointed in them in a fatherly way. Sometimes I feel bad that they are in such self-inflicted pain, and want to try to talk them through it, but I'm not invested enough to be judgmental of their situation. In fact, one of my favorite students last semester was a guy that I had to fail. I still failed him, but that doesn't mean that I think any less of him. If he had come to me earlier, we probably could have worked something out.
posted by umbú at 8:31 PM on October 23, 2009

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