Thursday, November 17, 2016

Living with Anxiety Disorders in Astronomy

Today's guest post is written by Angela Zalucha, Principal Investigator at the SETI institute (website, twitter: @plutoprincessz). When Angela isn't using general circulation models to study planetary atmospheres, she is actively working to eliminate stigma surrounding mental health discussions to make our community more inclusive.

This is the second in a series of blog posts about what one astronomer has learned while dealing with mental illness (click here for part 1). It not be a substitute for help from a professional therapist or physician. If this is an emergency, call 911 or go to your local emergency room.  In the U.S. you may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or click here for a listing of international numbers.

In a few hours, I have to get on an airplane. I'm afraid to fly. Right now, I am logical. You can give me statistics about how flying is the safest way to travel, teach me the physics of lift, familiarize me with the safety protocols of the Federal Aviation Administration, or show me how a jet engine works, and I will think these things sound quite reasonable. But once I'm on the plane, I lose all rationality. Scientific reasoning in my brain shuts down. This type of anxiety is what would be classified as a “specific phobia” below.

The American Psychological Association1 defines anxiety as, “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)2 further explains, “Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. You might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The feelings can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.” Interference with daily activities, whether physiological or psychological, is a flashing sign that some form of professional help should be sought.

The NIMH states that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older, or 18% of the population. There are different kinds of anxiety disorders, as well as other disorders that are closely intertwined with anxiety. People with generalized anxiety disorder display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety-related symptoms2 (3.1% of the U.S. population; women are twice as likely to be affected as men)3. People with panic disorder have recurrent unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking; and feeling of impending doom2 (2.7% of the U.S. population; women are twice as likely to be affected as men)3. People with social anxiety disorder (sometimes called “social phobia”) have a marked fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to feel embarrassed, judged, rejected, or fearful of offending others2 (6.8% of the U.S. population; equally common among men and women, typically beginning around age 13)3. Specific phobias (such as fear of heights) affect 8.7% of the U.S. population (women are twice as likely to be affected as men; typically begins in childhood; the median age of onset is 7)3. Other conditions such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have a significant anxiety component in their symptoms3.

Back to the airplane example: my anxiety about flying was at one time more than just a minor inconvenience where I couldn't work or sleep on a plane like some people can, thus not making the most efficient use of my time. Before my my anxiety was managed, I would be looking at weather maps days in advance and worrying about atmospheric conditions. When I got off the plane I often hadn't eaten because I was so scared, and I had to spend the rest of the day in bed because I felt sick to my stomach. This anxiety was intruding into my work and personal life, which was a signal that I needed to see a mental health professional.

Like any profession, astronomy is stressful. Exams, a PhD thesis, job applications, proposal deadlines, public speaking, travel, and socializing in the workplace and at conferences are things we must do to advance in the field. For some people, any of these things alone can cause an anxiety disorder or compound a preexisting condition. Here I'd like to point out some anxiety-causing situations that I have encountered both personally and as an anonymous third-party that are associated with the profession of being an astronomer (in no particular order).

Graduate school can be a high anxiety situation, with the large teaching and research workload, comparatively low pay and insufficient benefits, high cost of living near a university, perhaps living far from family, pressure from other scientists (“so, you're in your fifth year, shouldn't you be graduating soon?”) or family (questioning your career choice), tensions between advisor or other people, intense qualification exams, writing the thesis document (dauntingly large for some), preparing for the defense, the defense itself, and post-PhD job search stress. My psychiatrist in grad school often asked me if I felt depressed (not technically anxiety, but related) after I successfully defended my thesis, because even if writing a thesis is a high anxiety event, when such a major aspect of your life is over, feelings of emptiness can occur (e.g., postpartum depression).  I also remember many fellow graduate students being immensely emotionally burdened during the uncertainty and competitiveness of post-PhD job search.

Conferences are another high anxiety event for two reasons: those associated with research itself and those associated with social anxiety. It seems that most of us work in a frenzy to get our presentations or research done right before the conference (or at the conference itself). Few people are comfortable with public speaking, and I feel the level of preparation (e.g. formal training) varies widely due to everyone's different educational and workplace background (it may or may not get better with time). On top of the stress of traveling to a conference (which might leave us jetlagged or not on our normal eating diet and schedule), socialization is necessary to build collaborations or make yourself known to employers. For first-time conference-goers or when at a conference outside your field (or a very specific case for me, where my PhD advisor and I are not in the same research field), trying to mingle with strangers, especially a group of people who have been great friends for 20 years, is frightening. We also have a societal pressure to drink alcohol (leaving some who abstain uncomfortable), but not to drink so much so as to lose professionalism.

Preparing job applications (including undergrad research positions, graduate school, postdoc positions, and faculty positions) and writing grant proposals are very time-consuming. Depending on the institution, your current position may not pay you enough or at all to write these applications, so you are trying to them on top of your normal work. For me personally, rejection leaves me so devastated that I experience a panic attack. People experience panic attacks in different ways, but the way I experience them is I feel like the room is spinning, my life is out of control, and I have to lay down and stare at the ceiling fan. Sometimes they are a result of a specific trigger I can point to, sometimes they just seem to hit out of nowhere.  If I fall asleep, I wake up feeling calmer, but I've just wasted two or three hours that I could have been working, doing chores, or having fun.  I would say more often than not, I need a “panic-resolving nap” in the afternoon.  I usually feel groggy the rest of the day. On a non-panic attack day, my anxiety increases as a function of time of day, so that late at night I am completely wired (coffee is off limits for me at any time of day). Even if I'm sleepy, I need medication to calm me down in order to sleep.

Not everyone may feel anxious in the situations, and I have probably left some out. Like other mental illnesses, we don't talk about anxiety disorders in the open, and so people do not get the support they need. When members of the field suffer, the productivity and potential achievements of the field as a whole suffers, and we need to recognize it. Anxiety disorders are not a mere inconvenience, but detrimental to our well-being. Like many mental health conditions, they serve as a barrier to access and engagement with our science.

1. American Psychological Association, Accessed 4 October 2016,
2. National Institute of Mental Health, Accessed 4 October 2016,
3. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Accessed 4 October 2016,

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