Why Dissertation Anxiety Can Be Good For You | Issue 294

Summary: Stop fighting anxiety—leverage it to finish faster. Learn how.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes that grow your persistence and creativity.

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By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

Contrary to popular opinion, anxiety is not always a bad thing. In fact, your dissertation anxiety could become your pathway to finishing. 

That's the message from Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the City University of New York in her new book, Future Tense. She marshals research that demonstrates that learning to notice and respond effectively to anxiety makes you more persevering, creative, and productive. 

Anxiety is all too common among doctoral students, as surveys and my coaching experience has shown. If you're ready to leverage your anxiety to benefit rather than stall your progress, here are five things Dennis-Tiwary wants you to know: 

1. Fallacies about anxiety are counterproductive.

Unfortunately, prevailing myths about anxiety worsen our choice of coping methods. Anxiety is not always destructive, she asserts, nor is it a system malfunction that needs fixing. 

When we view anxiety as necessarily bad, we get anxious about being anxious. We rush to avoid or suppress it, making it worse and blinding us to healthy coping strategies. 

The key is to get curious about anxiety, including how to use it for its true, evolutionary purpose—to protect us and energize us in healthy ways. 

 

2. Anxiety motivates hope and perseverance. 

"The problem isn't that we feel too anxious—the problem is that we haven't mastered how to feel anxious." ~ Tracy Dennis-Tiwary | Tweet this

The discomfort provoked by anxiety is an evolutionary advantage, not a bug. As a form of mental time travel, it allows us to anticipate potential pitfalls as well as triumphs. It's essential for hope as well as perseverance, motivating us to optimize outcomes and connect with others. 

Data support her contention that how you choose to perceive anxiety impacts your outcomes. Research participants primed to reframe anxiety as an advantage performed better under pressure, felt more confident, and showed a steadier heart rate and lower blood pressure. 

 

So the next time something sparks your dissertation anxiety, you can choose to reframe it as a prompt instead of a trigger. Think of it as a call to anticipate and work toward the best possible result. 

 

3. "Anxiety primes us for social connection and creativity."

 

Most people assume anxiety contributes to stress. However, cutting-edge research indicates it can also buffer by priming us for social connection and connectivity. 

An anxiety attack spikes the release of hormone oxytocin, also called the "love" or "cuddle" hormone, which induces us to seek social support. In turn, we reduce psychological and physiological distress. 

"Humans evolved to rely on others for solace. We perform 'emotional outsourcing' during challenges so that our brains undergo less strain." ~ Tracy Dennis-Tiwary 

Seeking "reality checks" and comfort from your peers and friends goes a long way to recalibrating your system, as you may have already discovered. Now you know why that works! 

Interestingly, a touch of anxiety boosts your creative and problem-solving juices. Even when provoked by anxiety, activated states result in increases in both the quantity and quality of ideas compared to depressed or relaxed states. 

 

4. Anxiety only works because it causes discomfort. 

 

You only feel anxiety about things that matter. If you did not feel bad, you would not feel a push to do what's necessary to protect yourself. 

As you stretch yourself and succeed against obstacles, you can feel anxiety plummet—a kind of reward known as "negative reinforcement." Learning to function optimally means paying attention to the rise and fall of anxiety as we work with and through it, Dennis-Tiwary explains. 

To do this, instead of suppressing your anxiety by powering through, pause to tune into it. Consider it a signal rather than noise. 

What is your anxiety trying to communicate? Go through a mental checklist of what is bothering until you identify the source of your anxiety. Then she recommends taking a solution-oriented approach and watch your anxiety dissipate. 

In short, start using anxiety as a prompt for positive coping behaviors. 

[NB: At times the "message" is more noise than signal, i.e., a habitual worry without substance, note other experts. In those cases, let the thought go and pivot to something constructive. As the Zen proverb says, "You don't have to believe everything you think."] 

 

5. Don't confuse normal anxiety with anxiety disorders.

 

Anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion that ranges from low to high. It only becomes a disorder when it disrupts our ability to function at work or at home. In those cases, seek professional help. 

"Treating all anxiety as a disease hinders us from finding ways to manage and use anxiety to our advantage," Dennis-Tiwary observes. 

Accept that anxiety will pop up on your dissertation journey. It is part of being human. However, if you get curious about its message, you can start channeling anxiety to stay on track and create your best life in academia and beyond. 

"Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are." ~ Theodore Roosevelt | Tweet this

 

Recommended Reading 

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, Ph.D. (2022). Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even Though It Feels Bad)

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GAYLE SCROGGS, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor, ABDSG. 
An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at gayle@essencecoaching.com for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources essencecoaching.com

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (www.MentorCoach.com), a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.

 

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