Work stress and depression happens, man… (Another personal story)

Hey. What’s up? Are you feeling super stressed? This post isn’t for 90% of my friends, but if you answered yes, then this post is for you. I’m writing this because  in my limited time in academia, I’ve met other people who have dealt with high stress. I don’t want to name names, but I do have one memory of working at College library with another math major and he told me that sometimes wanted to put a bullet through his head just to end it. And I thought this was funny because when I was in his year, I used to have the exact same thoughts.


Well, now I’ve collected my thoughts on work stress and I want to say a few things to anyone else who has stressed over their school work before too.

  • Stress in academia happens and it occurs in a variety of forms and degrees.
    • Stress can also lead to depression or other serious mental health issues
    • If you are going through something, your struggles are personal, real, and sometimes there isn’t a magic, simple answer to your problems
  • In my own case, I had insomnia, stomach pains, and dark fantasies about hurting myself
    • But I got better through a complex combination of resting, self-reflection, and finding the right people to open up to about my personal problems
    • In particular I checked into my school’s mental health clinic and I once had a therapist
  • Looking back on this difficult time in my life, I think the experience taught me a lot about myself and on occasionally this experience has helped me to empathize better with other people
    • I like to tell myself that while I don’t believe one should discuss their personal struggles with everybody they meet, finding the right people to open up to can be empowering – there’s a certain strength in vulnerability.

Here are some other grad students that have tackled the subject of stress in academia, but there are a lot of resources online if you look:

I’d also like to add that a lot of large universities have mental health care clinics and support groups. Here is a link to a grad student support group at UT:

But the CMHC at UT also has a variety of other counseling and mental health services!

Below, I’d like to share an experience of my own and what I learned. I’m hoping that on some level you can relate and use this to inform your own life.


I’m a happy guy, no really! I am. But there was a low point in college in my 4th year where I stressed out of control and my thoughts became a little dark. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed and I pushed myself too hard. For me, math and getting a PhD had been my goal from the start of college and it had became so ingrained in my vision for my future self, that I would make sacrifices for it. I would skip visits home to my family on holidays and I would decline hanging out with friends from school just so that I could focus more on my studies. My deep emotional investment into my future life as a researcher was serious to the point where I called studying my job and if I had even minor setbacks in school, I would take it personally and try valiantly to correct for whatever had set me off course of my academic success.

But when I reached my 4th year in college, I hit my low point. I remember juggling a lot of grad courses, and I wasn’t doing too well in them (Please see earlier post). To add to this, like most of my peers that year, I was applying to graduate schools.

But twist! I was completely surprised to discover that a few of the professors whom I had expected to write me letters of recommendation instead warned me that I may not be talented enough to make it in math!

To be fair, it was only a couple of the professors who told me this and they weren’t telling me this to be mean, but I think they were simply offering a frank opinion of my abilities. Most of them still agreed to write me letters of recommendation, but it was implied that they couldn’t write me strong letters. I don’t think any of them expected me to get into a strong program.

Some of these professors were people who I had taken multiple math courses with, graduate courses with, or I had worked on projects with. To hear these people who were my role models of success in academia tell me that I may not be good enough to be like them, was devastating. That year I was rejected from most of the grad schools I applied to. I think the number was close to 20 schools.

I remember feeling like my carefully laid plans for my future were falling apart in ways that I was powerless to stop. I felt stuck. I felt lost. I became unable to muster the concentration needed to study math since all I wanted to think about was “Am I really not talented enough for this career?” and “Why is this happening to me?”. Around this time my thoughts became darker. I began to blame everything else except me. I would tell myself that “If I don’t get into grad school it’s because my professors didn’t pull hard enough for me”, or “These professors are only holding me back because they don’t know me well enough to see my real potential”.

Looking back, I think that the urge to blame others is a natural thing to do when one feels stuck, but for me, it did nothing to address the feeling of powerlessness that was at the core of my worries. As I spiraled into a worse mental state, I began to fantasize about killing myself. In that dark place of my mind, killing myself just felt like a fast way to end the confusing waves of emotions and loss of identity that I wrestled with daily.

I didn’t believe that anyone but another mathematician could understand my problems, so I held onto my stress without telling my family or friends about it. My internal struggles reached a boiling point when I finally opened in the office hours to two different professors who I was taking classes with at the time. I complained about my letter writers (which in hindsight is a very immature thing to do) and I opened up about my feelings. Both of these professors kindly suggested that I seek help at the UW-Madison Mental Health Services. And that’s I wound up in the mental health clinic, checking myself in for therapy for the first time in my life.

At first I was completely skeptical that a therapist could relate to my problems as a struggling mathematician, and I wasn’t wrong. Math was an area that he was unfamiliar with. However, I underestimated the value of simply having non-judgmental person willing to listen to me while I spoke openly about my problems. Through my therapy sessions, taking time off,  and careful reflection, I learned to balance my life with stress relieving activities. I learned to be more flexible with my future goals, and I gained a new attitude of wanting to assume as much responsibility as I can for my career failures.

Today, I’m in a PhD program at a strong school. I still don’t know if I’m talented enough to handle academia or it’s pressures, but I have my physical and mental health, and the peace of mind to be flexible with my future plans. I hope that if you are someone stressing under work pressure, you know that even if our experiences are not similar, work stress happens to people in research careers, and it is a serious issue for some of us. Now that I look back on my own experience, I think feeling depressed about your talents or your career is nothing to be ashamed of. And for me, I found that opening up about this horrible time in my life has helped me relate to some other students I’ve met in academia.

I’d like to end this with a quote on the strength of vulnerability. I generally dislike when people attempt to distill a complex problem into a simple quote, but in my case I think this fits my current attitudes:

“I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” ~Brene Brown

 

 

 

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