Can anxiety feel like this?
August 5, 2013 6:31 PM   Subscribe

I find it difficult to articulate the way I've been feeling, but more and more I'm suspecting that things aren't right. I'm in my second year of grad school and I'm not getting things done fast enough, due to circumstances both under my control, and outside of it. I'm starting to think my problem might be anxiety, or depression.

I might have always had this tendency, but over the past year things have only gotten worse. I put off stupid, little things I need to do. Answer emails. Send in paperwork. Work on my proposal. Start a new lab protocol. I feel like I'm not in the lab often enough but I have to work up my nerve just to go in. The thing is, I don't necessarily feel consciously afraid to do these things. It's like there's a veneer over my feelings, like I skate by just ignoring what I have to do, and at the end of the day I realize I still haven't done it and I rationalize why I can do it tomorrow. Then I'm ashamed I haven't done it in a timely manner, and I feel irresponsible and lazy but I just can't do it. I'm suspecting that underneath the veneer is just fear, and anxiety.

I really identify with ipsative's comment on this related post. Sometimes there will be like a window of time when I just get fed up and do everything I need to do, but I have to do it right then. Otherwise I just CAN'T.

I don't understand why I'm like this. I'm jealous and upset that other people can talk to their advisor without feeling ill, or check their email whenever instead of having to drum up courage first. I've lost my motivation and it's so hard to do more than just get by. I'm stressed. And along with all of that, I worry that I'm really just making it up, that I'm just lazy and I really have no excuses for not getting things done. I've mentioned some of this to my advisor, but at this point I'm worried he thinks I'm either just making up excuses, or that I'm a horrible mess. In the past year my boyfriend was assaulted, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, I finally saw a therapist, I came down with mono, my grandmother died and I recently moved into a new apartment with my boyfriend. I've cried in front of my advisor three times.

Can anxiety feel like this? Depression? I talked to a therapist for maybe ten sessions last year (from maybe October to January?) but I'm out of free sessions until fall. I am seriously considering medication, which I never have before, and have an appointment to see a doctor at the end of this month. Does this sound like something medication could help with? I really think I need help. I know you aren't my doctor, but any advice or options you could suggest would be wonderful.
posted by dinofuzz to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
That sounds exactly like anxiety/depression. I would talk to a doctor or therapist to see what options are available.
posted by xingcat at 6:36 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

This sounds like depression, especially given the stress you're under. Please visit a doctor. You can get through this!
posted by windykites at 6:50 PM on August 5, 2013

A lot of people who have inattentive-type ADHD describe really similar feelings. There is a big ADHD thread where people described themselves that someone else might be able to remember and link for you.

I have anxiety and a lot of this also sounds like anxiety to me (e.g. have to work up the courage to look at emails that might be yelling at you or demanding answers for things that aren't ready yet.)

I do think medication can do quite a bit to help with both ADHD and anxiety.
posted by cairdeas at 6:50 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This sounds like grad school, basically. Get thee to a therapist. Also, crying in front of your advisor is totally a rite of passage. He/she has seen it before. Hang tough. Get some meds. You are not alone.
posted by baby beluga at 6:54 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It sounds like you are having a tough time. I have anxiety that is usually at a reasonable level but if the stressors in my life are getting out of hand it can sort of suddenly start making me have some of the same avoidant/anxious behaviors that you are describing. Usual things that help in the short term are eating better, resting as much as I can, getting a lot of serious exercise and just taking good care of myself. However, it's also very worthwhile to go a a docitor, you can just go to your regular doc, not even a therapist, and say that this seems to be negatively impacting your life. When I had my first anxiety freakout (which came along with some hypochondria) my regular doctor gave me a very short term prescription for some anti-anxiety medication that helped a lot. Sort of broke the spiral of my negative thoughts and helped me get back on track. I still take them occasionally (once or twice a month) if things get really terrible but most of the time it's not that bad. So, yes, that sounds like it could be the problem you are having but I'd check with your regular old doctor and tell them what you told us and go from there. Good luck, I am sorry this has been such a rough time for you lately.
posted by jessamyn at 6:57 PM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am seriously considering medication, which I never have before, and have an appointment to see a doctor at the end of this month. Does this sound like something medication could help with?

So, you've basically described my life. Not getting things done, feeling ashamed about it, still not getting things done. (Also what cairdeas just said about emails. Yes, do that, too.) I was experiencing just totally out of control anxiety a couple weeks back (on top of the anxiety you're describing) and took myself to the student health center. I'd taken anti-depressants before, but never thought 'Yes, this is really working.' (Not every person responds to every medication, irritatingly. I'd had no response and sort of partial responses before.) This time around, it's hard to know if it's actually working or if I'm just experiencing the placebo effect, but my apartment is seriously the cleanest it has been in years right now because I can actually follow my mother's advice of setting a timer for 15 minutes and cleaning because I don't then feel bad about what I haven't done after. (I'm a grad student as well. Mostly, I have kept up with school by sheer force of will and allow most other things to slide. But I get the not wanting to go in, or sitting at your desk doing nothing.)
posted by hoyland at 7:01 PM on August 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

If I'm not mistaken, this is the epic ADHD thread cairdeas mentions above.
posted by whistle pig at 7:08 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, anxiety can feel like this. So can depression, so can just plain old being overwhelmed. Meds could help with it (if it's depression or ADHD,) but a lot of people find that the only stuff that really "calms them down" is the kind of stuff you can't take very much of without causing problems (e.g., Xanax.) I strongly recommend you print out what you wrote here and take it to a counselor who can talk you through figuring out what treatment options might be the most helpful in your case.

In my personal case, incidentally, it turned out to be ADHD, plus symptoms from bipolar disorder and OCD. I'm on 7 psychotropic meds, but I still have to use skills I picked up from CBT, books like this, etc., and go to therapy, to keep it under control. Your results will almost certainly vary.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 7:11 PM on August 5, 2013

(I specifically think a counselor may help more than a doctor because counselors are more used to having to differentiate between "stressed out" and "needs meds and should talk to a psychiatrist type." Doctors, especially primary care doctors, are a lot more likely to just hand out a script for a random SSRI.)
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 7:13 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

That's the one, whistle pig!
posted by cairdeas at 7:16 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

but a lot of people find that the only stuff that really "calms them down" is the kind of stuff you can't take very much of without causing problems (e.g., Xanax.)

In case it is helpful to you I will give my personal experience. I have had anxiety off and on since I was a child, and I have had three months-long episodes in my life where my overall life stress got so high that my anxiety became debilitating. I'm telling this so you know I have experienced really severe anxiety for extended periods, not just something mild or whatever. I also have a pretty high tolerance to a lot of substances (e.g., if I take pain medication, I often have to take more of it than most people to feel anything at all; I have to drink more than other people to start feeling anything, etc.)

Xanax is a benzodiazepine, and is one of the stronger ones, Ativan is also a benzodiazepine and one of the milder ones.

In my last period of feeling that I had such extreme, pervasive anxiety that I was not fully functional, the combination of Ativan and an SSRI made a noticeable difference. I was still pretty anxious a lot of the time but my ability to function was way better. Of the Ativan, half a pill was enough for me most days (that would be .5 mg). I took it for a few months. I was scared to come off of it because you hear stories about it being difficult. The biggest problem for me coming off it was insomnia. That went away after a few days.

I agree with Fee Phi Faux Phumb that many people run into problems when they take "a lot of" benzos for a long time. But many people don't need a lot of them, just a bit is enough. Honestly, I haven't taken many drugs in my life at all, but some days I fantasize about taking 3 or 4 Ativan pills and just blissing out. But that's how you get into trouble, so that's why you use them as prescribed to take the edge off, and get the rest of the way with other things.
posted by cairdeas at 7:28 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I could have written this post, ten years ago, in my second year of grad school. I had (and have) no idea why it was so hard to motivate myself, why I was so scared to do everything, why I was suddenly failing at so many things. It was a really terrible time.

My labmate, and soulmate/arch-nemesis, went through the same thing at the same time. He eventually went on SSRIs. I did not. Looking back at how much medication helped him, and how much I struggled, I think: I don't know whether I had depression/anxiety/any sort of diagnosable mood disorder. I don't know if meds would have helped. But if I had it to do over again I would seek help from a physician when things first started to get bad.

Whatever you end up doing, I hope your situation gets better soon. Good luck.
posted by gerstle at 9:08 PM on August 5, 2013

Best answer: Sure, yup, this sounds anxiety and depression in a mix that pretty much everyone seems to have in grad school. But as much as I want to validate that it is totally totally normal for grad students to end up feeling like this, I also want to emphasize that just because it's normal doesn't mean you should just suffer through it! I've been having anxiety problems myself (yes, also a grad student), even though generally things are going really well for me in grad school right now. Yet somehow I got to the point where I had a constant stomachache and was having a couple hysterical crying meltdowns a week. I talked to my (beloved, much-trusted) doctor and she said:

-- MORE SLEEP. 8 hours, not 6 hours.
-- MORE EXERCISE. Like at least 5 times a week for 1-1.5 hours.
-- MEDITATION. Particularly of the mindfulness variety.
-- THERAPY. Short-term, cognitive type therapy at the student counseling center.
-- MEDS. I was already on a low dose of Lexapro for PMDD symptoms, and she added an Ativan prescription for times when I have those crazy sobbing meltdowns.

She told me that anxiety is something she takes very seriously because people can get to such a bad place so quickly with it. Because I trust her I took that seriousness on board myself, so I decided to go into sort of self-protective almost-hibernating mode and make dealing with it my priority. Here's what I've done so far and how it has worked out for me:

-- MORE SLEEP. This is so hard for me to convince myself to do. Right now I should be sleeping. But I have been using the iSleep Easy app from Meditation Oasis on my iPad to put myself to sleep. And boy was my doctor right, it makes everything feel more manageable to not be perpetually slightly sleep deprived. You can live with chronic sleep deprivation, but you can't be well that way. I'm realizing that I go through life burdened with a thin haze of irritability and heaviness because I'm not getting enough sleep.
-- MORE EXERCISE. This one is the winner in terms of quickest payoff. I've always hated exercising except for managing to drag myself to yoga a few times a month. I got a monthly unlimited pass at my yoga/wellness studio and have been exploring their offerings in different kinds of yoga, pilates, and zumba. I find zumba and vinyasa to be particularly effective in getting me out of my head, making me sweat like crazy, and leaving me feeling clear-headed and energetic afterwards. But I didn't feel good from it until I really did start exercising like 4-5 times a week -- and then it quickly got addictive. If you are going to try only one thing to make yourself feel better, my vote is for a huge boost in your exercise habits. For me it has been amazing.
-- MEDITATION. I tried an introductory Buddhist meditation class and hated it. For now I've been sticking to the Meditation Oasis apps on my iPad, which I love. I went to see a stress reduction counselor at our student health center and she recommended making mindfulness meditation a habit both in the morning and the evening, like brushing my teeth. Even five minutes, always in the same place. I haven't really taken on this habit yet. I have been finding the meditation a good way to fall asleep.
-- THERAPY. I've started seeing a therapist at the student counseling center. Basically I figure this is where I work on how to deal with anxiety at its root, whereas the other things are for managing the symptoms. My therapy goals are to learn to recognize feelings of anxiety before they become debilitating, to improve my awareness and understanding of the triggers of anxiety, and to learn to live with uncertainty without freaking out about it. I am enjoying the process but I assume I will have to wait to see a payoff.
-- MEDS. I was already on Lexapro and honestly haven't even tried an Ativan yet. My therapist says often just knowing you have that option can help calm you down when things are near crisis level. My doctor said not to be scared of taking an Ativan once in a while to avert or get through meltdowns. I will definitely take one if I need one.

In addition to these things, I cleaned up my desks on campus and at home so that I have a clean, uncluttered workspace, I have been carrying healthy snacks so I don't go through busy days hungry, and I've cut back my social commitments so that I do get to see people but I don't do much partying or going out (I haven't been shy about telling people I'm struggling with anxiety and just need to stay home and take care of myself).

So basically my summary with respect to your question: Yes, a doctor can probably help you, and it's great that you're going to see one. But the good news for you now, since you don't have immediate access to a doctor or therapist, is that the things that provided the biggest immediate bang for my buck are things you can do yourself. The top two, by far, are getting more sleep and getting more exercise. I cannot overstate how much these things are helping me get back to feeling like a functional person again! I was reluctant to give up the time needed to make them happen because I often convince myself I need to spend every minute working. But it's very clear to me that when I give myself a couple extra hours of sleep and spend an hour or two exercising several days a week, the focus and productivity boost makes up for it multiples times over. Seriously.

Hugs and best wishes. There's nothing wrong with you for feeling this way, but you *can* feel better!
posted by ootandaboot at 11:08 PM on August 5, 2013 [11 favorites]

+1 with Fee Phi... see if you can get your GP to refer you to a psychiatrist to prescribe psych meds. Using the wrong meds or using them too long or stopping too suddenly can be worse than no meds at all. Psychiatrists are specialists in figuring exactly what to try for your issues.
posted by parkerjackson at 5:32 AM on August 6, 2013

I don't understand why I'm like this. I'm jealous and upset that other people can talk to their advisor without feeling ill, or check their email whenever instead of having to drum up courage first.

If your grad school is anything like mine, this is true of way, way more people than you think, and the others are just covering it effectively. Keep in mind that you are also probably covering it more effectively than you think. Seriously, this problem is pervasive in grad school, especially when it comes to contacting advisors.* It definitely is anxiety, but it's anxiety that's very common in grad school and is absolutely produced by the structural conditions of grad school. Don't think you're alone in this, or blame yourself for it.

Your school may also have other forms of counseling on campus that are separate from the actual therapist sessions, and it's worth investigating these. Some of them will no doubt be terrible, but some of them may be useful, especially since they're aimed at students. I know the health center at my grad school runs sessions on time management; my understanding is that since they're run through the health center, they deal with stress issues as well as things like how to set up your calendar. Something like that might be helpful both in thinking through what's wrong and in providing concrete solutions.

*I have an amazing, enthusiastic, and respectful advisor who is never anything less than encouraging and helpful (and who, yes, has seen me cry), and I still sometimes find it stressful to email him. If you knew me, you would never guess this. I also know people who have anxiety dreams about their advisors regularly, but who seem totally comfortable with them from the outside.
posted by dizziest at 7:18 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a 5th year science graduate student. I know how you feel. A daily yoga practice really turned this around for me.
posted by corn_bread at 8:43 AM on August 6, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who answered or MeMailed me - it helped a lot just to hear that other people have felt the same way. I talked to my doctor and I've been taking 300 mg of Wellbutrin for the past month or two. I've been feeling better, slowly getting a bit more done, thinking that the medication could be helping. I definitely haven't been crying as much. I joined a gym a month ago and finally made myself start going, and WOW, has that made my mood go from "neutral" to "quite good"! I'm trying to be gentle with myself, do things I like to do and treat myself well.

Thanks all!
posted by dinofuzz at 5:51 AM on October 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

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