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In the COVID-19 pandemic I am dealing with anxiety for the first time, and professionally floundering.

I'm usually good at prioritization, but the state of the world means emergencies, and anxiety magnifies the perception that I am the only person who can deal with them. Sometimes I am: I have high-risk family, have lost care for them, and my university is not making safety-centered decisions very well. I am joined by other new-anxious in not being able to buy safe help: parents of young children, colleagues with disabilities, and anyone who has family sick with COVID, many of whom are wondering where precisely the buck stops, except with themselves... My normal support circles are broken or only available over Zoom, which is less helpful than in-person access. Sleep, for many reasons, is now hard for me, yet vital zoom meetings happen at every hour. Compounding this, large projects I committed to in January are now much more difficult to finish, and past due.

Deadlines are deadlines, students get helped or they don't, grants forgone today add uncertainty to an already complex tomorrow. The law provides protections, but won't help with tenure cases, or provide funds to keep students fed. My field and academe in general are trending more competitive, not less. I am usually quite productive, publishing multiple papers a year, writing grants, etc. I am doing the 'right things': I exercise daily, have a therapist, am exploring meds, and have taken up meditation. I am lucky to be in the hands of good care, but that care is often stymied by the culture of academe. "No one you can delegate that to?" asks my therapist.

It does not help that those above me in the chain of command are largely uncomfortable with the idea of mental health, full stop. Advice to 'pull together, 'buck up', and 'chill out' has come, along with signaling that mental health is outside the preview of academe. This is even as they show their own symptoms of great stress. While industry settings often have clear ways to handle mental health situations, my institution has no such resources for faculty and staff. Academic settings also have less 'chain of authority' to directly assist individuals. "Talk to your boss" is not necessarily sound advice. 'HR' is not a useful resource either.

I am specifically looking for academe-focused strategies to cope and potentially even better succeed, with this anxiety. I am Jr. Faculty in one role, Staff in another, highly autonomous in both, at the same institution. Most of my commitments are to individuals outside of my department. I do not see this all 'ending' soon.

Those with anxiety pre-pandemic: do you have strategies I might try? How does one prioritize and strategize when everything is on fire? Can anxiety in fact be a superpower when applied correctly in academe?

Everyone: are there there things I should do to minimize impact on my academic career? I need to stay competitive with individuals who are younger and have less complexity than I do, as we will be evaluated equally.

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    In the long term, alcohol exacerbates anxiety. How long have you been talking to the counsellor, taking medication and exercising? It may take weeks or months for you to feel an improvement -- and it's like taking antibiotics, don't stop as soon as you start to feel better! Managing an anxiety disorder is a lifetime's work, and mental health has its ups and downs just like physical health.
    – astronat
    Aug 14 '20 at 22:11
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    A small point: forgive yourself (as opposed to judging...) in this situation. It is crazy. To accidentally pretend that things are not crazy will obvs make you more crazy. My advice would be "cope with the bad current state, and wait to think about things later..." Aug 14 '20 at 22:56
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    @paulgarrett, when is "later" coming?
    – user39093
    Aug 15 '20 at 1:39
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, I disagree, although boat programming closure was in my mind when I decided to post. Anxiety is common in academia, possibly as a side effect of the attention to detail required by our profession. Good questions in the past have asked how academics with anxiety remain effective. These reveal that academics have very specific anxiety-career nexus concerns, as our ways of measuring success, and culture require unique solutions. Now, many further 'down' the spectrum are struggling. I'm writing with a question academics everywhere are likely to be considering. Aug 15 '20 at 2:25
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I think this question should remain open. If it were asked on Workplace.SE the answers would likely be "Talk to your boss and get more resources/It's your company's problem, not yours/Find a new employer who treats you better". None of these are really helpful, given the way academia works. Thus there are aspects of this question that are specific to academia.
    – avid
    Aug 15 '20 at 2:47
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+250

I have suffered from anxiety for some time now, so I will talk from personal experience!

First of all, I can't stress this enough: it is 100% normal for you to feel anxious in this time. It is very important for you to aknowledge that for you to be able to deal with that; even if you think you have aknowledged that, it may be the case that your subcouscious is still feeling 'guilty' about it and making you 'anxious because you are anxious', and it is ESSENTIAL to break this cycle!

What has always worked for me in times of greater pressure was concieving achievable goals: sometimes, you can have the tendency to set an extremely exigent goal, and then you'll be anxious when you don't meet it, and it's important not to do this.

When you can't set a smaller goal (either by responsability or deadlines or something like that), it is VERY helpful to divide your goal into small, more achievable steps! When you have a very big goal, you have the tendency to think you still haven't acomplished anything, when in reality you have acomplished a lot; if you divide your goal into smaller steps, you will actively see them getting achieved and checked off your list, and you will see that you are actually being very productive.

Another very important thing is to know that, if you don't achieve one or more of your goals, the world isn't going to end. Maybe you had a conference coming and you had a breakdown in the midst of all your responsabilities, and you couldn't prepare for the conference: your anxiety will tell you it is the end of the world, that you have failed and that you evaluation will be negative, and whatever else you are afraid of. But this is NOT true! Everyone, anxious or not, fails many of their goals frequently; it is only human to do so! So if you do fail, just tell yourself: "this is normal, this is okay, this is not the end of the world; I have tried my best and, therefore, this is the best possible outcome, so I should not feel guilty about it." Even if 'your best' was giving up on it, it WAS your best because you had so much on your plate, so it is normal to have to leave something behind!

Something that also helps a lot, that is obvious but not many people pursue when feeling overwhelmed by work, is to allocate some time per day or week in your schedule to a hobby you enjoy: this will not only allow you to relax and reduce anxiety by making you think of something else, but it will also help you revitalize and have more energy: anxiety, unfortunately, is very very energy consuming, making it a vicious cycle: you have too much to do so you are anxious, but it consumes your energy so you acomplish less than what you would if you were more relaxed. Therefore, replenishing your energy is absolutely essential, and a very good way of doing that is obligating yourself to do something you like (actually block a time slot for that on your schedule, it really helps).

I would also suggest seeing a doctor, because you may want to look into something to help you sleep (there are a lot of natural pills that help you relax and that do not cause any dependency at all, such as valerian extract); altough it is a temporary solution, it may help you a very great amount in this time of your life.

I really am rooting for you in this time of uncertainty. Best of luck with everything!

EDIT:

Also, if you are into exercise, it helps you release endorphins and will physically make you more relaxed! If you're not into typical forms of exercise (like gym, running, etc), you can try other activities that also make your heart rate faster, such as dancing, walking fast, playing with a cat or dog, etc etc!

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I expect research output overall to be down this year into next. Surely some people will cope better than others, and different types of research are more or less directly impacted (e.g., that requiring solo work at a computer, versus that requiring access to shared facilities that may be/have been closed, versus that requiring face-to-face contact with human subjects). Others will have additional direct challenges to their time: childcare may be closed and children may be learning from home rather than school, for example.

@paulgarrett's comment is exactly what I was thinking of as an answer:

A small point: forgive yourself (as opposed to judging...) in this situation. It is crazy. To accidentally pretend that things are not crazy will obvs make you more crazy. My advice would be "cope with the bad current state, and wait to think about things later..."

...except I think this is the main point rather than a small one.

Besides that, it sounds like you're trying all the right things (eh, maybe not the booze, but if it does help you relax and if it's in moderation and not purely as medication then there's little harm).

I think the most "solvable" problem you have (or, at least, one I can provide some advice on) is this part:

Compounding all this, I accepted several large projects in January which are now past due. (...) Writing, especially, is very difficult, which puts me further behind, which leads to more anxiety.

You're probably best off doing some prioritization (from @avid's comment: "What actually needs to be done by when? Can projects be reorganised to be more achievable? Can deadlines/deliverables be re-negotiated? Try and focus on completing one task/project at a time") and scheduling. There is no way you can make up for weeks of reduced productivity in an instant. Instead of worrying about everything you need to do (a circumstance I find myself in often; not new to COVID for me), set an immediate-term schedule for yourself.

The granularity might be something you experiment with, but try to set specific, achieveable goals for the next week, the next day, or the next hour. Do your best to meet them, but don't beat yourself up if you don't. Reevaluate your progress the next time you set goals. Try to focus on what you've accomplished.

It may be helpful to tier your short-term goals into:

  1. Things you will accomplish (today/this week) no matter what (except emergency, of course)

  2. Things you reasonably expect to accomplish

  3. Goals to aim for in an ideal world

Probably the things you slot into "3" might look like a normal week for you pre-pandemic, or even far less than normal, and that's fine. Focus on making bits of progress on your projects that you can feel good about. Be prepared to have days and weeks where you only accomplish the tasks under (1), then forgive yourself for not doing more, remind yourself you've at least achieved your personal minimum, and move on.

In closing, though, and echoing Paul: forgive yourself, you're under a lot of very understandable stress in a crazy time.

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    I would add: take a step back and look at the long-term plan too. What actually needs to be done by when? Can projects be reorganised to be more achievable? Can deadlines/deliverables be re-negotiated? Try and focus on completing one task/project at a time, rather than doing bits of several - you'll probably feel better for seeing something properly 'finished', rather than many things 'in progress'.
    – avid
    Aug 15 '20 at 1:35
  • @avid I mentioned prioritization, but I think it's helpful to spell it out so I've incorporated your comment.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 15 '20 at 1:39
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    @Industrademic I'd probably add a new step 1 then: stop working 16 hour days. There's usefulness putting in a couple of those to meet a short-term deadline, but there are (almost; I'm a biologist so used to allowing an exception for every rule) no people who can maintain that pace for long.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 15 '20 at 2:37
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    @Industrademic I'll go back to what avid made explicit in a comment, too: you'll probably have to cut some things out to make progress on some of the other challenges. Will you disappoint some people? Probably. Will they understand anyways? Yes, if they're decent people; if not, well maybe their opinion isn't worth much after all. I promise you that if all you see are other people being stoic and unaffected, it's mostly just that they're doing a good job of hiding their stress, not that they are beating it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 15 '20 at 2:41
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    You sound tenured. ;) That said; I well agree. Aug 15 '20 at 21:22
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I exactly know what you go through. Let me start by telling that it is one of the hardest challenges to try and stay calm during this kind of crazy situation.

In these kind of situations, where everything is on fire and al I have is a can of gas, I always tend to take the advice of Chess Grandmaster Joshua Waitzkin. He tells a story of a woman in one of his courses in the video game called Chessmaster.

While crossing a street, a woman gets angry with a biker who almost hit her. She begins to scream at him, missing the taxi coming down the street in full speed. The taxi hits her badly. She gets to live, but is badly injured.

The moral of the story, he says, that sometimes a bike comes out of some direction unexpectedly. What we need to do is to shake it off, stay calm, and deal with the matter in hand.

What I feel from your post is that your mind is full beyond capacity. This is exactly the mindset of the woman who almost got hit by the bike.

So, considering the anectode above, and the fact that you are looking for an acedeme-focused strategies, what I'd suggest is to deal the matter in hand. If something can be delayed (such as the deadline of one of your big projects), then delay it. Can you spot something that needs to be done immediately? If so, then I think you should start doing it and nothing else.

There are a ton of tasks you are concerned about. Are there any which you can lay off and not get into serious trouble, maybe giving students a not-very-rigorous homework, then I think you should do it right now.

I see, and completely understand that you don't want to delegate. But do you think you can do a better job with this mindset compared to any person you delegate? Simply put, you are overwhelmed with tasks. Instead of doing everything half, you can choose to fully complete one or two tasks in hand, and let the rest be dealt with your delegate.

All in all, I think, your family and your mental health should be the number one priority. Simply because if you lose any of them, then all the other problems you mentioned become far from being solved.

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Not sure if it is exactly what you need, but a good book that kept me motivated during my PhD in face of setbacks was The Obstacle is the Way (which can also be found on LibGen), based on (a popular interpretation of) stoicism and the associated Daily Stoic newsletter. I believe it also prepared me very well for this kind of situation.

To large extent it's based on the book Meditations written by an ancient Emperor about being a good leader in face of stress and difficulties. Similar themes arise in Frankl's Man's search for meaning (the guy learned to thrive mentally in a Nazi concentration camp); although I haven't read the latter two books myself yet.

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    Thank you. I read Marcus Aurelius pretty extensively during graduate school, but at a brief read this appears to include much more. I'll give it a read. Obnoxiously, my schedule is so tight as to make non-work reading a rarity, but I have very intentionally set this weekend aside for time with family and non-work reading. This qualifies, I guess. Sep 6 '20 at 15:24
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I would contact the disability resource center at your university. They'll need medical documentation, but once you have it, they can probably get you an extended deadline on your projects and any other accommodation(s) you may need for your anxiety. Good luck.

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    My impression is that OP is an employee (faculty member or similar), and that this answer assumes they are a student.
    – avid
    Aug 14 '20 at 23:37
  • I did make that assumption, and my apologies to OP if I was wrong. Out of curiosity, are there similar disability accommodations for faculty? When I called the DRC at the university I want to apply to, the asst. director told me that grad. students are considered employees as far as accommodations are concerned and accommodations are processed through title ix. So I'm guessing that there might be a similar policy for actual employees, but I don't know for sure.
    – Gemini
    Aug 15 '20 at 0:33
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    I guess faculty are entitled to whatever support is mandated by local employment law (e.g. ADA or similar). If someone needs a new desk to accommodate a wheelchair (say), I would expect this to happen without too much fuss. However, deadlines are deadlines: if your grant application is due Friday, or your conference keynote is next Tuesday, you aren't going to get an extension.
    – avid
    Aug 15 '20 at 1:11
  • I'm staff; the disability resource center has no parallel for staff at my university. That may change; I am hardly alone.My accommodations are indeed only those stipulated by law. Nothing about those will impact my obligations to individuals in my field, who may or may not be co-workers.Deadlines are indeed deadlines, and the present moment favors individuals with simple circumstances. Aug 15 '20 at 2:07

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