Sunday, April 14, 2013

Grad School Burnout - Mild Or Severe Depression, Anxiety and Stress Symptoms in Graduate Students

Education that is "a way of life" may create vulnerability

Grad school is a long haul educational enterprise. Many Doctoral programs last 5 to 7 years, on top of the five to six years typically required to get the BA and a Masters degrees which precede it. Students who aspire to graduate degrees usually have a history of dedicated scholarship which extends back into high school or even elementary school. For many Grad students education has literally been "a way of life"... sometimes the only way of life that is well known or familiar.

Linda Curci of the Caltech Counseling Center suggests that:

"Burnout is a process that happens gradually over time. It creeps up on a person through an accumulation of random minor negative thoughts, sporadic lost hopes, and a series of small disappointments in oneself. Burnout is a painful process that includes emotional exhaustion, a loss of pleasure in interpersonal relationships, and a diminished sense of self worth. Burnout is the result of trying too hard for too long in a situation where the odds are against meeting one's expectations. People who burn out are intelligent, dedicated people who have high expectations for themselves."

Grad school can be an emotional and psychological "trial by fire" and burnout tends to happen when you've been pushing too hard for too long and

The warning signs of burnout are:

  • Loss of interest in or questioning the meaning of your studies and research.

  • Chronic fatigue - exhaustion, a sense of being physically run down and emotionally flat

  • Anger at those making demands

  • Cynicism, negativity, and irritability

  • A sense of being besieged

  • Feelings of helplessness

From the point of view of a psychologist however, there is a bit more to be seen in some of the typical symptoms.

Perfectionism - As Curci suggests, one common area of difficulty lies in the impossibility of meeting expectations and all too often these exaggerated expectations are inner demands rather than outer ones.

Perfectionism, can create an inability to start or finish major tasks. Perfectionists are their own worst critics. Nothing is ever good enough and this constant self-criticism leads to paralysis or avoidance which sabotages progress.

Perfectionism is always a defense. Individuals with perfectionistic expectations hope, (wish), need, to protect themselves from all failure or criticism. This criticism which is imagined to be emanating from others is usually coming from within. This can create a vicious circle of fear-driven effort which no amount of external evidence of success ever seems to correct... if only because the possibility of failure cannot ever be reduced to zero.

Suffering in silence - Grad students are individuals who have accepted to put themselves under the yoke of a program of training. They have often given up or put aside valid needs and desires in the name of their studies. They have left countries, communities, families, and personal relationships to follow their studies and often set aside personal interests and pleasures to fulfill program requirements.

The pain and anger caused by these losses is real but because the demands have been undertaken "voluntarily," individuals often feel they have no right to complain... or to grieve. These strong and relevant feelings, when unacknowledged can eventually insist on being experienced psychologically and emerge as depression, or as anger and cynicism towards a program which has been responsible for so much pain.

Fear of graduation? Grad students, as noted above, are often individuals who have dedicated themselves for most of their young adult life to a particular academic world. As the end of a program of study comes into sight questions may arise about how to live in the real world. A whole different set of competencies may be felt, frighteningly, to be lacking.

Supervisory strain - While Grad school programs are often well organized to support academic development, supervisors vary in their ability to be helpful with the more personal challenges of their students. In fact if the interpersonal relationship is not optimum the supervisory relationship may even be an additional stressor.

Ill-Health and Computer crashes... The psyche's hardware and software solutions to stress - Even when the strain of grad school is not extreme enough to create a full-scale burnout, it may manifest itself in chronic or minor health problems, particularly those which are significantly related to stress such as headaches, migraines, stomach problems, asthma, sleep difficulties...and if it's not you getting sick, maybe it will be your computer...

Strategically timed computer crashes can be caused by inattention and neglect as the over-stressed psyche looks for ways to create time out.

Cumulative strains - Even if you have been sailing through Grad school for the most part without excessive perfectionism or personal sacrifices, the long term stress of grad school may interact cumulatively with other stressful events such as unavoidable major losses or personal setbacks and funding crises to throw even the most balanced student over the edge into depression or burn-out

Leading a whole human life - The world needs the passion and enthusiasm of those individuals who are willing to push forward into the highest levels of knowledge in their domains, to broaden and deepen what we think and know. It is a loss to us all if students burn out or drop out in despair after such significant investments in their studies.

But the excessive and exclusive focus on their values as scholars may lead Grad students to neglect other aspects of their humanity. Often what is most needed is compassionate and encouraging human contact and reassurance that they are valuable and valued in the world as individuals outside of their studies.

Some general notes on depression

Common signs and symptoms of depression include:

  • a persistent sad or "empty" mood

  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed

  • loss of appetite or weight loss

  • sleep problems

  • fatigue, despite adequate sleep

  • feelings of pessimism, guilt, worthlessness, helplessness

  • indecisiveness, difficulty concentrating

  • psychomotor slowing or agitation

  • thoughts of wanting to escape, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts

At its extreme end depression can become so severe that it can create suicidal feelings or thoughts. If you experience suicidal thoughts or feelings, it is very important to:

  • Make taking care of yourself your top priority.

  • Talk about these thoughts with someone. Don't suffer in silence.

  • Contact your institution's counseling center for an assessment or referral to community or other mental health services.

If these symptoms seem all too familiar, you might like to take an on-line depression screening test or contact your counseling center or a mental health professional for an assessment.


Linda Curci, (Caltech Counseling Center)

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