Should I talk to my Professors about my anxiety?
September 22, 2010 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Should I talk to my Professors about my anxiety? Or do I continue to suffer quietly and underperform?

Senior year started around 3 weeks ago, and I'm finishing up my Bachelor's degree in Engineering. I'm taking a few courses and doing a senior design project. Since school has started I've been unmotivated, stressed and depressed. As of this week, I’m fairly sure I’m having anxiety attacks. I feel tightness in my head, my heart is constantly racing, and it feels like it might explode. I feel lonely, and scared, and I don’t even know why. There are a lot of issues I'm dealing with right now that are too long to get into. I’m female, in case that matters, and going to a university in the US.

I will be getting in touch with the counseling center of my university tomorrow, and will hopefully meet with the psychologist there. However, my anxiety (or whatever it is that I’m going through) is really affecting my ability and performance in this design project (as well as my courses, but that is not what this question is about). I'm working with 2 Professors and a few other students in this design project. We are evaluated on a weekly basis and are given a list of tasks to accomplish each week. I've been underperforming and my Professors can tell. Their feedback has been along the lines of "your work quality is crap" (which is true). I’m considered one of the stronger students in my department and have had a great reputation. I’ve worked with both Professors on projects in the past and have gotten As in all of the courses I’ve taken with them. I love school, I love my department and my major, and I’m a hard worked. I’ve been a straight-A student for the past 2 years. However, at the moment I'm finding it hard to even think about schoolwork.

After I talk to the school psychologist, should I talk to my Professors? Should I mention anything? Does it even matter that I'm going through a really tough time right now? I can't quit my design project, it's a graduation requirement and it's a yearlong gig, and I have to graduate this year (can't postpone graduation due to monetary issues). But I'm not sure how talking to my Professors will help. They can't treat me differently than the other students in my group (and I don't expect them to). I'm not looking for sympathy. Or maybe I am, I'm not sure. My gut has been telling me to go talk to them but I’m not sure why, or if I should.

So, what do I do? Should I talk to my Professors? If so, what do I say? Does it even matter? For clarification, I'm talking about the Professors I'm working on this design project with (which is extremely important in my university), not the Professors for my courses. I'm not too worried about my performance in my courses at the moment.

Thanks for any advice and I'm sorry for my incoherency... I'm pretty sure I'm having some form of an anxiety attack as I'm writing this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, talk to your professors. They're people, too. With human emotions. You may find that one-on-one, it feels no different than talking to one of the school psychologists.

Be sure to tell your professors that you're going to the counseling center. Start with it. Well, make it the second thing, after you say "I'm having some troubles recently, that you've already seen affect my work..." It'll let them know that you KNOW something is going on, AND you've figured it out to some extent, AND you're doing something about it. It shows that you care about yourself and your health and your work. That you're not just slacking off.

Follow your gut.
posted by knile at 12:04 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

It seems like it couldn't hurt to let them know that you realize you've been struggling due to anxiety and depression, especially if you focus on saying that it's been a problem thus far in the project but that you are taking concrete steps to address it.

You might want to wait until after you've talked with counseling just so you can tell them what those concrete steps might be. Good luck!
posted by ldthomps at 12:05 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing ldthomps. I'm part-time professoring right now, and I would absolutely want to know if someone in my class was struggling rather than slacking off. Don't discount the fact that the professors have likely a) seen things like this before and b) can possibly point you in the direction of services or resources you can use to help you through this trying time. In one sense, professors are there to help you navigate the administration of the university. Ask them for their input/advice in this capacity.
posted by LN at 12:15 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

I can tell you from firsthand experience (and a lot of it) that it is important that you share what you're experiencing with a counselor, your professors, even your dean. I would send an email to the professors overseeing your design project, your class professors, and the head of the department or the dean of students. Something like this:

"Hi, Professor __________.
Lately, you may have noticed that I'm having difficulty concentrating and fulfilling my class/project duties. I am experiencing a lot of anxiety and possibly panic attacks, and will be seeing a counselor/psychiatrist at the college conseling center. I hope you understand that I am trying to perform as best I can, and I hope that counseling will help me in this process. Please contact me if you would like to talk about this, or if you have any questions.

Thank you!
Sincerely, idthomps"

It is much easier to have everything out in the open than to hide it as if it's something to be shameful about. Secondly, the sooner you notify your professors, the sooner they'll know it's an issue you are aware of and are addressing, rather than avoiding it and saying later on, "Well, I was having anxiety attacks and that's why my project was lackluster."

If you go to the counseling center (please do) you can ask them to send an email to your professors confirming that you are seeking help.

Best of luck. If anything at all, please do not try to hide how you're feeling from others. It will create an avoidant, persistent habit that is much harder to deal with. I hope everything works out for you!
posted by rachaelfaith at 12:20 PM on September 22, 2010

For the love of god, yes, talk to your professor. If that's an anxiety-provoking idea, see if you can contact them through the campus counseling center. I had the same problem and did nothing about it because I was too shy/depressed/anxious. This was the single worst decision I have made in my entire life.

Do it. Don't overthink it, don't plan it out weeks in advance, dread it and keep putting it off, just talk to them, immediately after your next class with them if at all possible.
posted by Merzbau at 12:21 PM on September 22, 2010

Oops, not "Sincerely, idthomps". I guess I spent longer than I thought I would writing that, and thought idthomps posted this question. "Sincerely, YourName".

posted by rachaelfaith at 12:22 PM on September 22, 2010

Yes, talk to them.

What you're going through is remarkably common. And, it gets better. Hang in there.

The semester is still very young, and you have lots of time to fix things.

It will help if you have some better idea of what you want your prof to do - maybe some design help, or life advice, or whatever. But you don't need to. The important bit is that you bring this problem to their attention sooner rather than later. Just doing that much will be a huge relief, if my experience is anything to go by.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:29 PM on September 22, 2010

Absolutely talk to them.

And cut caffeine intake to zero, if you haven't already. That should help with the heart racing/anxiety side of things.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:38 PM on September 22, 2010

Keep in mind that the counselors are the ones you want to go into detail with, and it would be best to give vague descriptions to your profs that focus on concrete ways you can pick up the slack. They will probably be sympathetic and they've probably dealt with this before, but they are not paid to be mental health professionals and you do not want to put them in that position. Stay professional. Have the counselors write to your profs on your behalf if you can.
posted by slow graffiti at 12:44 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

In addition to talking with your professors, you should (I expect the counseling center can help with this) find out what administrative office to talk to. There will be some administrator (at my school it was the Dean of Students) whose job is to support students who were struggling in school (for any reason, including mental health issues). Filling that individual in on your situation as soon as you can will help you tremendously if you need any additional support or accommodation during the rest of the year.
posted by periscope at 12:46 PM on September 22, 2010

Do not talk to your professors first. As a professor, I assume that you are trying to get leniency because the work is "too hard" for you. I would probably just say "too bad".

I have had too many students try to take advantage of me, and I don't let it happen anymore. Unless you have documentation about what's going on, I'm not going to give you any sort of accommodation whatsoever.

On the other hand, if you talk to the counselors first and can get some documentation about your anxiety, the disability services at your university can draft up whatever documents you need to get whatever accommodations they deem appropriate. And I, the cranky professor, will gladly do pretty much whatever the disability services tell me to so that I don't get sued.

If you know any of these professors personally, perhaps you could talk to them without the documentation, but if you don't, be ready for them to just say "too bad".
posted by King Bee at 2:06 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hi. I'm a professor. I know a lot of professors. You should talk to your professors.

I love it when my students talk to me. I wish they would all talk to me, whether they are struggling or not. I'm here because I like to help people, and I can help people in my position. I can't help them unless I know what's going on, though.

Stress and anxiety make you feel like you're screwed. You are probably a world-class champion at imagining the worst case scenario right now. What you're not so good at is recognizing your options. So find other people to help you with that. Counselors, deans, and, yes, professors.

You're a strong student, and your school wants to see strong students graduate and succeed [and send some money back at some point in the future]. There are people who will work, put in time and effort, to make sure you get through this... if they know there is a problem. I've seen a professor go to bat for a strong student to find money so that student could stay in school. I've seen professors work out plans to let students complete work for classes when something unexpected, like intense anxiety, got in the way during the semester. I've seen lots of people helping other people.

Talk to these people (counselor, dean of students, chair of department, and your professors) to tell them what is going on and to ask if they have any suggestions. Don't ask for accommodations, but ask for advice. Worst case, they can tell you to see a counselor. You have that covered, and that's awesome. Best case, they can help. A lot. Don't expect them all to be helpful, but some will be. You might be surprised.
posted by whatnotever at 2:26 PM on September 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yes, do let them know after you've gotten advice from your counselor. You don't need (or want) to be overly specific or detailed; just let them know you're having a tough time and getting help for it. See if they have any suggestions for reworking your design project so that it'll be easier for you to get back on your feet. There's usually also a departmental advisor that you can also ask for help on this; they might have a better idea of how to rework your graduation requirements so that you can take care of yourself and still meet your educational goals.

An additional thought: it's possible that you will have this happen to you again, in a less forgiving context than a university. Someday you may have to tell your boss that you're in counseling for anxiety. I think it is good practice to learn what it's like to ask for this sort of help, now, when the worst you might suffer is not getting this a professor's recommendation for graduate school.

For what it's worth, I also went through a similar panic in my senior year of college and chose not to ask for help. In retrospect it made getting less anxious more difficult, since doing subpar work and trying to hide my unhappiness made me even more anxious and unhappy.
posted by millions of peaches at 5:51 PM on September 22, 2010

I agree with King Bee. It will make things easier for you and your professor if you go through the counseling and disability office. They will know exactly how to proceed in this situation.

I'm a softie and I almost always accommodate my students whatever the situation. But when you use the official channels it makes it a lot less burdensome for me, removes the element of doubt from the equation, and ultimately protects you and me (professor).

I hope you make it through the semester, remember grades aren't everything, your well-being comes first, always.
posted by vincele at 7:13 PM on September 22, 2010

Another professor here. King Bee is right that a lot of students try to take advantage of us (especially if we're on the young side). I can't even count the number of times a student who has done no work, or bad work, all semester has come to me at the end with a story about how they need an A or they're going to lose their scholarship or something. But. That's not what you're doing. And you're aware that you should not receive special treatment, and you're clearly not asking for you poor performance to be ignored or your grade to be raised.

So go ahead and meet with them. Tell them what's going on and tell them what you don't expect - be very clear that you're not asking for any special treatment, you just want them to know what's happening. I'd frame it as a question of respect - you know it won't affect your grade, but you want them to know that the quality of your work is not a reflection of the way you regard the class or the assignments. They'll probably appreciate it, and they'll probably have some suggestions. Believe me, academics know about anxiety. Good luck!
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:55 PM on September 22, 2010

I would go through your university protocols. Get documentation from the counselor and either give that to your profs, or if your college has a dedicated office for disabilities, they will be able to tell you the appropriate way to get accommodations.
posted by elpea at 8:10 PM on September 22, 2010

I struggled with social anxiety and depression in college. It got to the point where hiding the reason for my odd behavior from people I saw daily became so anxiety-inducing in itself that I either had to tell my professors or risk breaking down. I told them.

Having done this, I'd second the advice that others have given you: yes, tell your professors. Open the lines of communication, because talking to your professors is a good thing. Be succinct and straightforward about it.

But just be sure you're mentally prepared for the possibility that some of them may not be as understanding as you're hoping for. One of my favorite professors suggested that I "just get over it," as if doing so were easy and a matter of instantly turning a switch on or off in my brain. The lack of understanding stung coming from someone I admired so much professionally and personally. But, as people are saying above, professors are only human, are not therapists, and are wary of being taken advantage of -- with good reason.

On the flipside: it was also a professor who helped me seek help, broke me of the anxiety by getting me involved with the class in a way that was comfortable, and totally changed my life with her efforts. So...there's that.
posted by houndsoflove at 12:27 AM on September 23, 2010

... But I'm not sure how talking to my Professors will help. They can't treat me differently than the other students in my group (and I don't expect them to). I'm not looking for sympathy. Or maybe I am, I'm not sure. My gut has been telling me to go talk to them but I’m not sure why, or if I should.

Follow your gut. You can substantiate with documentation from the counseling center later. You're working on the project now, and the knowledge that you are dealing with issues of mental/emotional health at the moment is pertinent to their evaluation of your contribution. If you are going through a rough time, there's a good chance that they will be willing to make allowances for you. It's important to remember that you are probably being harder on yourself than your professors would be, and that being up front with them is almost guaranteed to relieve some of that pressure.

You've established a good track record within your department and with these particular professors, so they should know that this sudden academic decline is uncharacteristic of you. They may already be wondering if something's wrong. Professors I've spoken to about such matters have been very sympathetic, even (and especially) when I've felt that I wasn't deserving of their help.
posted by Devika at 3:38 AM on September 23, 2010

You might want to talk to your professors. In general we appreciate knowing that the reason your work is not as good as it could be is because you have a Real Issue. Then we know that compassion is in order -- while we tend to have little sympathy for people who are just blowing our classes off.

You should know that I'm fairly new at this whole thing. I have a sense that older faculty are less likely to be sympathetic because plenty of students have tried to take advantage of them. On the other hand, as a young faculty member I find myself being a bit of a hard-ass sometimes just to make it clear that yes, I am in charge here.

On the other hand, people don't get into professing because of their love of trying to sort out other people's psychological issues. So for any counseling you might want or need, please go to the people who are trained in that!
posted by madcaptenor at 11:47 AM on September 25, 2010

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