mentally paralyzed, but I need to write and present a talk in two weeks: help?
October 31, 2012 7:06 AM   Subscribe

I have major writer's block compounded by panic, anxiety, plummeting self-worth and a whole host of problems, but I have to deliver this talk in two weeks. Snowflakey details within. Please help.

Postdoc in social sciences/humanities. I don't know what's wrong with me. For some months now I've been slowly slipping into a fog of confusion, apathy, head paralysis and anxiety, I can't seem to do anything - I can't write, nothing makes sense on the page to me, I read and nothing goes in, I can't seem to remember things or make mental connections, I can't face email, I can barely get out of bed in the mornings, I'm absolutely plagued by my sense of utter worthlessness and a gripping panic that I'm wasting my valuable university appointment, and I am frequently visited by absurdly detailed fantasies of running away, jumping off a building and other acts of self-harm. I'm socially functional and interact with people sometimes, and am lucky to have a few very wonderful and supportive friends - but mostly feel like I'm acting a part most of the time - I'm sure I do it well enough that no one but a few people know how much turmoil is behind the relatively put-together exterior. But every morning when I wake up, a gigantic cloud made of all this stuff immediately descends on me, I feel like I'm basically being pressed into my bed, and everything that I have to deal with roils around in my head - it's hard to describe this, it's like the sound of static you get when there's no reception on the radio, or maybe the roar of ocean waves in your ear - but much less calming, and made of a whole load of confused thoughts, and occasionally it seems to physically hurt my head.

Background: I was dealing with anxiety a little like this earlier this year, but manage to push through it and get through to the summer, which I unfortunately also spent working on research because I felt like I couldn't really take a break - I'm already behind on all my goals. Now I feel like I'm running on empty. I'm in a postdoc program which by all counts should be a fantastic opportunity, and it's killing me that I'm handling it so poorly. It's also a program full of expectations, some of which are almost as high as my own expectations of myself.

I have to write a talk to be given in a couple of weeks. This talk is incredibly important to me, it will be in front of a lot of important professors and scholars in my field. I can't get out of this, and I have to give it. It should be on parts of my dissertation, which since completing I now think is worthless and I don't understand how I got this PhD. I've pretty much totally lost confidence in my topic and research. I've been trying for the last month to write this talk, and now I have two more weeks, and am basically nowhere. I am completely and utterly freaking out, which as you can guess is not helping me to write it. I feel like I can't find an argument to use in the talk, I keep spinning and skim-reading or going through my immense amounts of notes instead of writing, and the talk has no outline and is full of everything and nothing at the same time. I can't believe how hard it's been for me to just this, I've given talks and conference papers before. Meanwhile all these important professors are telling me how much they're looking forward to my talk. It will be the first one I give on my work as a whole to an audience at this university, and I know it's billed as informal and friendly, but given that I can barely hold a few thoughts together in my head, the very prospect of talking about this work is utterly paralyzing. I'm absolutely dreading the Q&A, and ideally I want to prepare for that too. I feel so utterly alone in my struggle, I feel like no one really understands the enormous extent to which I am not dealing with my life well at all: I feel that I have hardly read anything and barely know anything, but everyone seems to think I am amazing and have great scholarly potential and am a fantastic writer, and the amount of fraudulence I feel each day is just unbelievable.

So I guess what I need is suggestions of how you write in circumstances like this - has anyone been blocked up this severely and managed to pull through it? How can I find the will to write and prepare this talk? I feel like I do everything I can - I try to eat well, I try and do pomodoros (which sometimes turn into 25 minutes of staring at my screen), I run and try to think calm, I step away from my desk when I can't think anymore (though that's no longer useful, since I just spent three days trying to get away from the paper, sat back down today and absolutely couldn't produce anything). I really need help. I keep telling myself to snap out of it and then get angry and frustrated that I can't seem to. I need to get through the next couple of weeks and produce something, and then I'm going to take a little time off to try and get my head straight again (if it ever will) - but I really just need some coping strategies or even just some encouragement right now.
posted by starcrust to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you didn't get your PhD in a vacuum. People respect you and find your contributions worthwhile.

And yes, you do need help. You're having suicidal ideation and you're anxious and depressed to the point of non-action. You do have the ability to change this. You can get better. It's not your fault and it's not something that reflects on you as a person.

You are most certainly not alone. Please see a doctor about this.
posted by inturnaround at 7:28 AM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Does your school have free or low cost therapy for students? It sounds to me like you need someone to unload to. I bet if they do you're not the first student they've met who feels like this. It also might be worth going to see your doctor about a depression screening because stuff like thinking of running away or harming yourself isn't normal or something you should have to just live with or power through.

If it makes you feel any better when i wrote my masters thesis I could have wrote a lot of what you wrote above and being in therapy really helped. It helped to have someone I could talk to without worrying about social niceties or that i was ranting. Keep in mind too that you didn't get to where you are academically without being smart, and capable and doing good work. The amount of people i know personally in academics who have had doubts about themselves is stagering and in all the cases of know of their worries are completely unfounded and brought on by stress and worry. In my experience doubting yourself and your abilities is incredibly common.

It also sounds like you're doing a really good job of taking care of yourself in a difficult time, I think is great that you're getting enough sleep and food and going for runs. It seems to me you might just need more help than you can give yourself and that's ok.

If you ever need to talk feel free to memail me as well.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 7:37 AM on October 31, 2012

Speaking as someone who took 10+ years to figure out why my academic career, ability to concentrate and creative ability ground to a disastrous halt in university... please see a psychiatrist. I turned out to have a dissociative disorder/complex PTSD and I could have saved a lot of time if I'd had appropriate treament. My "writer's block" was dissociative avoidance of traumatic triggers associated with writing, attempts to express myself, impossible self-expectations and, yes, horrific doubts about self-worth, achievement and fraudulence.

For the moment, mindfulness meditation and grounding exercises to help manage the pain, torment, overwhelm and frustration associated with sitting down to write. For the long haul... competent psychiatric assessment.

And please feel free to memail me if you'd like to talk further.
posted by stuck on an island at 7:40 AM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Please inquire with university counseling services to see if they extend services to post-docs, or to get a referral. That should be your first step and first concern, even above this talk.

I don't think advice beyond that is much more helpful. As someone who pushed through anxiety in a similar situation, everything but therapy was a temporary fix. It came back full force, and it sounds like that's happened to you as well.

Side-advice: running is not great if you are stressed out. It increases cortisol. Try gentler forms of exercise for awhile, ideally yoga with an emphasis on meditation.
posted by peacrow at 7:43 AM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

As far as this one paper goes, here's something one of my professors told me. (Disclaimer: he was actually kind of a wanker I think, and I think you take your work too seriously to approach it like this every time, but just to get something together now.) Sit down with a friend if possible, or just sit down, and identify five points you want to make in the time you're given. Consider it OK if you make those five points. And then just do whatever comforts you, like making handouts, or planting someone to sit there and look receptive-- so your eye doesn't light on someone picking their nose-- and maybe ask a question.

I'm sure you've seen people melt down while giving academic talks. If it happens, people will understand because for the most part, they've been there. I saw a professor who was reading her talk completely flip out because she found that the pages were not in order and/or some were missing. I saw another guy forget to look at the room and take the people in before starting, so a few minutes in, he looked up, saw the crowd and went into reverse. Both these people were prominent scholars and they did not die because this happened.

And after you get through this, yeah, counseling. Meds.
posted by BibiRose at 8:01 AM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Everyone is giving you good advice about dealing with the anxiety long term. You need to talk to a counselor or therapist -- I have had this same issue in the past, and counselors, especially at university health services, are experts in this area.

As far as the talk goes, do you have a trusted friend either sort of in your field (a friend from grad school?) or just a smart friend in general? Could you ask them to spend a few hours with you to help you with your talk? If it is on parts of your dissertation, and you already have your Ph.D., then you must have defended it in front of a committee of established researchers. This means 1) your work is definitely up to snuff and 2) you may already have slides or talking points from when you did your defense laying around. If 2 is true, you should try to dig those up, and base your talk off of that. If you get a friend to help you, even if they are not in your field, show them what you have done so far, show them the chapter of dissertation that your talk is based on, and just start talking to them about your work (like you're talking to, well, a friend). Maybe try to explain some of the figures in the paper. Ask them to take notes. Even if they don't exactly know what you're talking about, getting something on paper will be useful. It will help you hone in on the most important aspects of your work.
posted by bluefly at 8:02 AM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with advice about therapy, etc. etc., but for the more pressing question of how to get through this talk in two weeks:

It should be on parts of my dissertation [...] I've given talks and conference papers before

What would you do if you had an hour to prepare for this talk instead of a few months? Could you pull out your dissertation defense talk (or a similar conference paper), look it over, and ad-lib some comments about the relationship to your postdoc project and current department's interests?

If so -- boom, you have something that's passable if not ideal. If you want to curl up into a ball for the next two weeks, you can. Maybe you won't impress someone important as much as you could have, but it would still be better to give the talk than to cancel it, right?

I struggle very similarly -- in fact am procrastinating writing my own dissertation at this very moment -- but have never actually flopped. Because when I get to the point above, most of the anxiety goes away, and I'm able to focus on using my new ideas (all those disorganized notes you mentioned) to iterate on the previous work, and the result is often 80% new instead of a rehash.

It sounds like in your field talks might be delivered mostly as text-based monologues... but maybe it would be helpful to play around with organizing your ideas in a flowchart to establish the connections you want to make? Good luck.
posted by ecsh at 8:05 AM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Been there in a related way, and to a certain extent, still am. One thing I learned is that there is absolutely no "One solution fits all" for this. A long term solution may require therapy, medication, confrontation with past things, a change in setting, a change in routine, or a combination of these or other things.

For the long term, start with the basics. You need, absolutely need, decent sleep, exercise, water, decent food (some of which you're doing). Every day. When those take a hit - especially the sleep - everything else starts to slide. Those, and as others suggested, a therapy route before (as a last resort) going down the medication road.

This bit jumped out:

"...and I don't understand how I got this PhD."

You cannot "luck" a PhD. OTHER PEOPLE AWARDED YOU a PhD because:

1. You put the work in.
2. You had the analytic and research skills.
3. You teased out PhD-worthy results.
4. Experts in the field determined it, and you, were PhD worthy.

Yeah. You did that, Starcrust. You have the skills and did the work and got the PhD-worthy results. You proved it. And experts verified this.

But the illogical part of your mind, which is currently working against you in a shitty and really unhelpful way, is blocking you from accepting this irrefutable, logical, FACT. It'll be the bit saying "But ... No ... But ..." when you read that five point list a few seconds ago. In the long term, you'll need to sort out this unhelpful demon (start with therapy, or get thee to a library and dig out the right books on it), or at least work out what's causing it, and therefore ways of keeping it caged up so it doesn't intrude on your thoughts.

For the here and now, ditch the pomodoros if it doesn't work. The time clock limit thing is good for some, another level of pressure for others. And an underlying thing in your post is time pressure.

Baby steps. Ignore clocks, watches, time, in all forms. Write one sentence. One sentence is good. Then a quiet yay, and try another sentence. Repeat until you need the restroom or food.
posted by Wordshore at 8:45 AM on October 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

You are suffering real anxiety and depression. This does not reflect badly on you as a person or a scholar. Your perception of your work and your worth is not accurate right now.

Find someone to help prepare the talk. A smart friend who loves you and/or a colleague who you really like and trust. You are not thinking straight and the perspective of another person will help you put together a talk which will be acceptable (if not necessarily pleasant for you).

(I would also look into short-term pill fixes. Would a prescription for one or two Valium pills help on the day of the presentation? How about sublingual GABA, which works instantly but doesn't have such a heavy "tranquilizer" effect as things like Xanax and Valium? GABA might be good for you in general, since it's an inhibitory neurotransmitter and it sounds like you are having a lot of distressing thoughts.)

And please get your anxiety and depression treated. You are worth it, and you will feel so much better.
posted by feets at 8:46 AM on October 31, 2012

starcrust, I feel like you've written what I've been feeling over the past six months. I'm not yet a Ph.D. but I'm in my final years and should be writing my dissertation. I've dreamt of self-harm and imagined myself stepping of the balcony of my apartment, because, in the end, don't we all end up in the same place, and that way I wouldn't have to deal with all these stresses and obligations?, etc. etc.

I finished up my fieldwork in the spring, and at that time, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I had given a couple of talks on small parts of my research and gotten good responses to them. I discussed my overall plans with my supervisor and she was happy with what I told her. But whenever I sat down to write, I would get blocked. Things would get on paper but they'd stop making sense part way through the day. When I tried to return to it the next day, I lost all sense of where I was supposed to be heading, and nine time out of ten, had to start writing from the beginning again.

I've started to doubt whether I actually gathered any useful data and whether I have the capability to analyze it in a way beyond saying, "isn't this kind of interesting...?" I've been avoiding contact with professors and fellow students because I'm terrified that they'll find out I've been coasting all this time, or that I'll be confronted with the reality that I'm not that good or that I'm even further behind than even what I'd imagined.

I set deadlines for myself and watch them fly by, not having written even a dozen pages that still make sense to me. I don't have a talk looming like you, but the day of my last award payment is hanging over my neck like a guillotine ready to fall. On top of this, I have a young family that I need to take care of and that I can't feel like I can neglect, even for work.

I feel constantly tired, like my head is in a fog. There are days when I can't get out of bed, and wander in and out of restless sleep during the day while constantly checking the e-mail on my phone, hoping that there's no message from my supervisor. I feel my chest tighten when I see a message from her, and the feeling doesn't subside even when it's about something insignificant.

For the last two months, I've been seeing a psychiatrist at school almost weekly. He prescribed an anti-depressant, which I was very apprehensive about taking. I feel like the therapy and meds have finally kicked in in the past week, and though overall conditions for me haven't changed, I feel a bit better able to cope with them, or at least ignore them without becoming an anxious wreck. I know this doesn't help you now, but please see a therapist or psychiatrist, and consider medication. I'm still in the early stages, but I'm starting to feel like I should have sought help years ago.

In the meantime, take each day as it comes. You've got a lot of knowledge packed away in your head and computer, and you've got to let it bubble up when it wants to. Even though you might feel like you're not making any progress, your mind is probably chipping away at the problem a little by little. It would be nice if it would let you in on the process, but that's not always how it works. Have faith that there's something happening in there, even if it feels like everything you're doing is getting washed away. Don't tighten up and try to force the right words out. When you hear them scratching at the door, open it slowly so you don't scare them away.

What I've found that works sometimes is just to sit down and type, in a sort of Artist's way style. Don't think. Just write everything that comes into your head. Let all of the anxieties and worries onto the page as they come. For me, sometimes it starts like a diary entry. I write about breakfast, or how achey my hands are from typing. I might complain about that person who bumped me on the subway, or about how much I hate myself. From time to time, this writing starts to shift into my research. Lots of it makes no sense, but I'll occasionally discover myself writing a sentence or two that gets me thinking. If I'm lucky, this becomes a page or two of useful text.

Reading that paragraph now, I wish I could take my own advice. I haven't done this myself for a while, but I'll give it a try this afternoon. Good luck to both of us.
posted by mariokrat at 9:46 AM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

The technical term for your problem is “psyched out”. This is actually especially common to people in your sort of education-is-my-job situations as university seems designed to turn everyone it touches into a neurotic mess. Of course knowing this doesn’t really help, but there are some steps you can take to relieve the problem beyond counseling- I think half the reason universities keep a mental health department is because of all the adults trying to be productive around anxiety.

Right now your body is helpfully protecting you from what it perceives as a horrible calamity by locking you down with the sort of stress reaction more suitable if you felt compelled to hang out in bear caves or jump off high things. It’s also an (un)helpful ego protection mechanism- people with your problem are commonly being prevented from working because contrary to reality your brain thinks not doing it at all is better than half assing it.
To get around this anxiety you need to trick your brain into thinking you’re doing the same work for something other than a horrible calamity or act like the calamity already happened. Tricks you can try, which I’ve used successfully, include:

1) Try to do it extremely badly. Write with profanity. Write paragraphs talking about how it is stupid, stupid, stupid, write with intentional typos. Somewhere along the way the actual writing will sneak out.

2) Have an understanding friend type up notes for you while you puke and cry, ideally one who asks you some questions to keep you talking and distracted. If you’re too anxious, puke and cry into some recording software.

3) Write this as if you were writing for someone else. This one’s not quite as reliable, but if you’re one of those people who can walk through fire for other humans but panic when you’re asked to look after yourself, pretending you’re helping someone else who is having a panic attack about their talk allows you to step outside the rigid little framework your traitor brain built for you.

4) Bore yourself calm. Remove ALL distractions (or remove yourself from the distractions) including turning off the internet. Then shackle yourself to the chair for an hour. You have full permission to spend the hour crying and punching the desk, but you’re allowed to do only two things- work or be bored.

5) Do absolutely everything else to get ready for your talk. Pick out your outfit/pack your suitcase. Choose a template for your slides. Practice in front of a mirror (recite the pledge of allegiance/bene gesserit mantra/lyrics of your favourite song as a place holder). You can even do up your slides with lorum-ipsum- basically treat it like efficiency measures for a talk that is going to happen one way or another. Another version of this trick is working backwards.

6) Bribe yourself- Three sentences (even crap sentences) and you get a treat. Finish just an outline and you get dinner out. Etc..

7) Mother yourself. Do all the things a sick person gets, the soup, the blankets, the comfy fuzzy socks, etc… Tell yourself this mean-bad-project is just like a flu you have to suffer through.

8) Write your talk, lying to yourself that if you can actually write it you will then claim laryngitis and someone else will do the talk-y part, and all the work you’re writing is an outline for them to fill in for you.
posted by Phalene at 9:49 AM on October 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

Oh god. Everything in this thread has been so helpful in a lot of different ways. I'm marking as best answers things that I literally want to print out and wallpaper my sad little office space with. Wordshore, your five-point list indeed dredged up all the 'buts' and the 'nos' and 'you don't understands' which my brain is so good at producing - and made me realize how trigger-happy my inner critic is. I can't silent her though. Phalene, what you wrote made me actually laugh, which felt extremely weird and also very awesome in my present depths of misery and self-loathing. Thank you so much, I am going to try each of them out. Between posting this morning and now, I've written all of two bullet points and there's probably a dent on my table from all the head-banging. I can't seem even to decide on what my talk should be about, and get to doing an outline, before the inner critic leaps up and throttles me and either shouts 'you don't know enough to talk about that, you have no data and the topic is too big and important, and you are nowhere near smart enough to take it on', or 'that's ridiculous and stupid, everyone knows that, it's all been said before, it's boring and no one cares, not even you'. I'm going to keep trying: my aim is to get some kind of outline by this evening.

I have a talk I gave earlier this year which in the event of total meltdown I could make better and refine etc. It would be an awful, half-assed cop-out, though, because my program director (with whom I have a weird, neurotic and for me self-flagellating relationship) has seen it and is expecting me to give something new, and he is I think already incredibly disappointed with my performance so far.
posted by starcrust at 10:20 AM on October 31, 2012

Ah, I have so totally been there. Yeah, see a therapist, but in the meantime, here are a few coping techniques.
- Switch from coffee to chamomile tea
- Wake up early and try to write while nobody is looking; if what you write is bad, it's not like you wasted daylight on the effort
- Preemptively write off the entire effort. "Yes, this talk will be a failure. But it'll be worse to not give it. So, the entire point here is just to show up and act like I gave a good faith effort. So if I were going to give a talk, what would I say?"
- Open up a word document and write out all of the bad thoughts that make up that roiling static: "I suck, this is worthless..." When you've drained that out, you'll receive a few moments of clarity -- use that for the presentation. When the bad thoughts sweep back in, go back to the word document.

I am frequently visited by absurdly detailed fantasies of running away, jumping off a building and other acts of self-harm

Let me just say this -- don't let this project kill you. Walk away from your Ph.D., work at some minimum wage job, whatever. Don't let it kill you. You can either stand up to those visions of perfection and tell them that you may not be perfect but that you're just fine and that you have as much right as anyone else to swing your bat across the academic plate, or you can give in to your doubts and quit. Either way, do not let this talk, this dissertation, this career, kill you. It is just not worth it.

It should be on parts of my dissertation, which since completing I now think is worthless and I don't understand how I got this PhD. I've pretty much totally lost confidence in my topic and research.

You do know this happens to everyone, right? I didn't even finish my Ph.D. (see above paragraph) but from the get-go, the professors were warning us that at the end, what you know best are its flaws and the question(s) you should've asked. Maybe that could be your jumping off point: "as you all know, after finishing your dissertation, what you know best is the questions you should've researched and the questions that your own research raises. Here are the questions that I think merit further investigation now." "But as we strive to answer those questions, here are the five pieces of information that my research does offer to give us a headstart." I don't know if that works for your field.

Again, I have really been there, where no matter what you imagine saying, all you can think about is your own authority to say it and what a fraud you are to plan on standing up there. The thing is that you do know a few things, not many, but just a few. So just say those few things. Say the few things you do know or believe.
posted by salvia at 10:34 AM on October 31, 2012

I think other people above have dealt with the long-term stuff well, and phalene's suggestions in particular are awesome for getting this talk written. But one more suggestion that I have seen work in a similar situation is the following:

Get someone who has read your PhD, or someone who owes you a favour or likes you enough to read it now. Ask them to outline a talk for you which in their opinion would give an overview of what the PhD was "about". This will (a) reassure you that someone else can see merit in your work; (b) give you a different narrative from the default one you have come to think of your work as having (and which you are probably bored of now) and (c) give you a starting point for the talk so that you aren't facing a blank page. (Even though once you start you might end up revising until there's nothing left of your friend's recommended structure anyway).

I did this for a friend who was asked to give a plenary at an international conference on her award-winning dissertation, and who was convinced there was nothing worth saying about it and that she had got the award by mistake. I skimmed through the thesis, read the intro and conclusion more thoroughly, and it was immediately obvious to me what the important new contributions of the work were. I outlined what I would say if I were presenting her work to that audience, and she ended up giving an awesome talk. (Also, what I thought was most interesting was not exactly the same as what she had thought was most interesting, so it was different from talks she had given in the past).
posted by lollusc at 6:12 PM on October 31, 2012

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