A Thesis with a Side of Depression by Isabel Rojas-Ferrer

We all know the running grad student gag: anxious, depressed, poor. We’ve seen the episode of ‘The Simpsons’ where Bart imitates a grad student. The thing about stereotypes is that they sometimes highlight very important truths. In fact, graduate students are 6x more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression when compared to the general population, resulting in what has been labelled a ‘mental health crisis’ within the academic community. Not only do many graduate students suffer from anxiety and depression, but they have to write a thesis during this highly pressurized time, and survive the ‘publish-or-perish’ culture in academia in order to graduate. Many graduate students surpass the writer’s block associated with anxiety and depression and become successful and thrive in academia, but sadly, some do not.

Like many of my peers, I suffer from anxiety and depression. I’ve experienced periods of incapacitation and hospitalization; simultaneously I have a Masters, am almost finished with my PhD, and am a published author. Fun fact: my family and my friends never suspected I was incapacitated as I kept smiling, making people laugh, taking care of my appearance, turning in my work, being ‘deceptively’ successful. 

Presenting: My anxiety and depression 

In academia, there’s always something to do (e.g., taking a class and getting good grades, teaching, research, writing, networking, seminars, conferences) and there just never seems to be enough time to do it all. Even when you’ve finished a task, there’s immediately another that takes its place. Thus, my anxiety usually starts with the idea that I have no time to do anything. I start finding ways to save time: no making tea in the morning, unhealthy take-out food, no cleaning, no exercising, no skin routine, no 15-minute cuddles with my dog in the morning. I focus all my energy on my academic career and have no time for myself. My caffeine intake increases and I start going to sleep later in the night while taking a lot of naps during the day as a way to get more work done. This is what I call the ‘exhaustion phase’; I am mentally exhausted, but my body is still invigorated; my work has drained my mind. Eventually, due to sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion, the ‘anxiety phase’ starts and the overthinking begins. My mind becomes busy and starts focusing on every negative thought I have. I now become distracted and the quality of my work starts declining. Because of my heightened state, I become highly sensitive to sounds and social interactions. For example, I cannot tolerate cicada buzzing sounds during my ‘anxiety phase’ and I rarely leave my apartment. Still, my work is suffering since I am pushing my mind to the limit and not getting the results I want. Finally, I become overwhelmed and my mind becomes chaotic; this is what I call my ‘depression phase’. During my ‘depression phase’: I vomit bile every morning, my psoriasis flares up, I suffer from sleep deprivation and panic attacks, which can result in a visit to the hospital psychiatric unit. Consequently, I can no longer work. Overall, I would not recommend the experience. 

Currently, I am a PhD candidate in Biology; I have already written one thesis, published two first-author articles, and submitted my doctoral thesis while anxious and depressed. More specifically, I study cognitive ecology where I try to understand how animals behave and learn based on how experience affects individuals. One thing that I have learned from my studies its that behaviors, decisions, and personality are subject to stochasticity. Essentially, individual differences arise from every random experience an individual has overcome. Trying to understand how and why just one individual behaves a certain way would take a lifetime of research; so why not treat myself as my own study subject? In order to help understand my own anxiety and depression, I sought medical help – I urge you to do the same.  While undergoing treatment, I had a fast approaching deadline for a manuscript and was recommended cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of therapy based on the idea that we condition ourselves to reinforce negative thoughts which can lead to stress, anxiety disorders, and different types of depression.

As a scientist, I decided to combine my knowledge of theoretical cognition and my lessons from CBT to make five simple rules in order to successfully write while managing mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. I hope that my lessons learned will help you too.

  1. One goal a day

My ‘exhaustion phase’ is characterized by the notion that there is not enough time to complete all my goals for the day. The quality of my work starts to decrease as my to-do list for the day increases. My writing becomes faster, but not necessarily better. In order to combat this, I decided to work smarter and not harder by only allowing for one goal a day. For instance, on Monday I shall write the outline to the introduction of my manuscript. On Tuesday, I will read just one paper. On Wednesday, I will start a document organizing my literature. On Thursday, I answer emails. Finally, on Friday I plan for the next week. If I finish by the end of the day, then I have marked something off my to-do list. If I do not finish by the end of the day, then I know that I have taken my time to perfect the task. If I end earlier than I had anticipated, then I move on to household chores or sometimes I take the rest of the time off. Often, I decide on my goal depending on what I’m mentally comfortable with or capable of at the time. By doing this, I am allowing my mind to rest and have more faith in the quality of my work as I am not in a hurry to finish it (I have all day!). Overall, this is positive reinforcement for your brain! 

  1. Track your thoughts, track your progress

When I start my ‘anxiety phase’, I start to overthink and obsess over certain thoughts. I was taught by my therapist to write down my pervasive thoughts, the triggers or stimulus that caused these thoughts, and debate them logically. Basic associative learning and conditioning tells us that there has to be a sensory stimulus in order for a change in behavior to occur. Writing down my thoughts brings awareness to the causes (i.e. stimuli) and the reactions (i.e. behavior) of my anxiety and depression. By understanding the association between my triggers and my anxiety I am better able to manage my mental health. Consequently, I progressed from writing down my pervasive thoughts to writing out my behaviors and my daily achievements. Organization has become a byproduct of my strict mental health regimen. 

  1. Trigger your cognitive pathways

As a cognitive ecologist treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, I believe in triggering cognitive pathways (Image: https://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/cool-brain-facts-myths/brain-101/). The neurological basis of learning is founded on neural circuits or neural maps. For instance: when an animal sees another animal, that information will go to (1) the thalamus, if it there is no danger then the information shall continue to (2) the cerebellar cortex and the animal will remain calm. Alternatively, if there is imminent danger, the information will go from (1) the thalamus and directly to (2) the amygdala and cause a fight or flight response. All of this to say: We can trigger certain pathways in our brain to help control our anxiety. I started integrating this into my daily routine by marking my peaceful moments with scents (i.e. incense) and words (i.e. mantras) that could trigger the neurological pathway that calms down my anxiety. 

  1. Just one person 

One of the results of my ‘depression phase’ is my inability to trust my own decisions. I am obsessed with the idea of doing what is ‘right’. The ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset is a common trope of anxiety, where one believes that if something is not done in a specific way, then it does not have value. To simplify, if the outcome of a situation is not what was expected, then it is ‘wrong’. By distrusting my own decisions, I started distrusting others and self-isolating. Over time, the my isolation negatively reinforced my social interactions pathway and positively reinforced my distrust in myself and others. For this reason, I decided that when I am in my ‘depression phase’ I would not make decisions for myself, but instead trust one other person to either make my decisions or highly influence them. 

  1. Don’t overwhelm yourself 

Life can be overwhelming without the added stress of mental health issues or graduate studies. As I mentioned previously, graduate school is not conducive to a healthy mental state. Graduate students are constantly working, but rarely have the immediate gratification that many people may need to continue their studies. Because we lack that immediate gratification, students tend to overcompensate by: trying to get the best grades, write the perfect article, learn how to code, do community outreach, always trying to avoid failure, which leads to feeling overwhelmed. The problem with feeling overwhelmed is that it can lead to feelings of exhaustion, inadequacy, and general unease. Our bodies cannot thrive under such stress, and ultimately, being overwhelmed can cause a decrease in productivity. With this in mind, I try to simplify my life and my goals by limiting the number of tasks that I need to do, taking my time doing said tasks, and listening to my body when it is tired. 

To be honest, sometimes it’s hard to follow these guidelines, but most times they are just ways to get back to a healthy mindset while still trying to complete my work. Often I hear students say that they have no time to dedicate to their mental health. I get that. I was the same, until I realized that if I don’t actively care for my mental health then I will have to make time to resolve my mental illness which is an all-encompassing recovery process. Essentially, if I don’t make time for tea, then I’m going to have to make time to go to the hospital. My characteristic patterns of response to my mental health are unique and I had to make a road map which parallels the uniqueness of my anxiety and depression. I urge you to make your own roadmap and reflect on what your own five rules might be in order to best care for your own mental health. Anxiety and depression manifest differently for everyone – the best way to take care of your mental health is by understanding it and knowing which strategies are most effective for you.

I would like to dedicate this article to my therapist, Dr. Collen Bingham. 

Isabel Rojas-Ferrer is a cognitive ecologist and PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa born and raised in Puerto Rico. She has a BSc in industrial microbiology from the University of Puerto Rico- Mayagüez, and a MSc in ecology, evolution, and systematics from the University of Missouri- Saint Louis. She has worked in projects on rhythmic meter in birds, bee memory, and fish sociality. Currently, she tries to understand what causes individual variation in animal decision-making. Isabel has collaborated with Soapbox Science and the Journal of Animal Ecology to bring awareness to mental health, equity, diversity, inclusion, and science communication.