How to Handle Stress, Anxiety, and Overwhelm in Academia

by | Jun 24, 2019 | academic project management

How do you feel when you get to work in the morning?

When you look at your to-do list, do you feel completely overwhelmed? Have you ever felt the beginnings of a panic attack when you think about the amount of stuff you have to do? For most of us, the answer is “yes.” But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The culture of overwork in academia is normalized, but it is not normal

It is not normal to operate under the amount of stress, overwhelm,  and anxiety that most of us feel day to day. If your daily work life has your cortisol levels sky-high, you are not going to be operating at your best. You’re not going to be able to work towards your academic mission and accomplish the goals that you want for yourself. And that means that you are not going to create the change that you want to see in the world. 

And the world really, really needs that change.

The culture of overwork is normalized, not normal. 

We all need to be rethinking and questioning this academic culture of overwork. Our relationship to our work should feel good. We don’t have to love every minute of it, but thinking about our to-do lists should not be causing us panic attacks.

Most people become academics because they have a passion for their field. We have a change that we want to make. We have things to say. We have a voice that we want to get out there in publications and presentations. If we are going to make our voices heard in our fields we need to work on getting the level of stress down. 

If your to-do list throws you into a tailspin, follow these three immediate action steps and the following long-term strategies for reducing stress and overwhelm.

Three action steps to take in the moment

If you feel like you’re going to have a panic attack when you think about your to-do list, or you can feel it coming on, do these three things. 

#1: Take a walk

Wherever you are experiencing this feeling of overwhelm and dread, I want you to get physically out of that place. If you walk into your office and feel panic, I want you to turn around and walk out. Yes, that’s right. Wherever it is or whatever the circumstances are, I want you to physically remove yourself from the place. Take a walk for 10 minutes. It’s not going to be the end of the world if you’re 10 minutes late to whatever you were about to do. 

Your walk can be inside the building, but outside of the building is better. Now, during this walk, you’re not going to listen to music or a podcast. You’re just going to look around at the world as you walk. This is going to start to bring your fight or flight stress down immediately and put you in a better frame of mind for step #2. 

#2: The “just three things” method

After you’ve taken your (at least) 10-minute walk, the way you face your day is by using the “just three things” method. You are just going to choose three things to accomplish that day. 

These should not be giant tasks. It can’t be “write a paper.” It should be just “write one paragraph in this section”. Respond to this email. Schedule this meeting. The three tasks are things that you feel sure that you’re going to be able to accomplish. Set yourself up for success with this. The whole idea is to give yourself the feeling of being able to check three things off your list by making those three things super reasonable. So, instead of having a gazillion things to do today, you’re going to say: today I’m doing just three things, and if I do those three things it is a successful day.

#3: Call a therapist

The third thing is to call a therapist. If you are actually experiencing anxiety and panic, you need to get help. Maybe you’re saying to yourself oh, but I’m fine. I’m not anxious or depressed. Remember that situations can give you anxiety and that anxiety can give you panic attacks. So, if you are experiencing panic attacks, or dread, you need to go find a therapist. Find one on your campus, find one on your medical plan’s list, whatever you need to do. Call and make an appointment. 

To recap, the three actions to take in the moment when you’re feeling overwhelm and anxiety about the things you have to do are (1) take a walk, (2) pick just three, and (3) call a therapist. 

Long-term actions for reducing anxiety and stress at work

Now let’s dig in to the long-term things you can do to reduce your anxiety and the amount of stress in your day to day life at work. These are actions to take when you’re feeling a little better and you’re out of that immediate moment of anxiety and panic. 

#1: You’re doing too many things

First, understand that you’re doing too many things. We are all doing too many things. You need to come up with a way to reduce the number of things that you’re doing because the fewer number of things that you’re doing, the more successful you’re going to be at those things. Sometimes we think I’m going to get more done because I’m going to take on more projects, but that doesn’t work because that just dilutes your energy. To get more done, and I mean actually more, you must reduce and focus.

Here’s just a simplified version of an activity that I teach in my courses to help academic women reduce and focus. Get out some paper and write down every single thing that you have to do. Use the categories of research, teaching, and service to remind you of what you have going on.   I want you to list out everything

You’ll need to do this when you’re in a little bit of a better mental state because this will invoke the panic if you haven’t actually been panicking. I want you to think about projects, tasks, small things, big things. All the things. 

#2: Some stuff should NOT get done

Then, I want you to consider your lists. Not everything on these lists is going to get done. I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds old to-do lists in her office, where there’s stuff that’s not checked off that has never ever gotten done. And I’m still alive. And I still have my job. And I still got promoted. There’s stuff that shouldn’t actually get done. If you can kind of just let go of those things now instead of letting them sit around, taking up mental space, that’s what I want you to do. 

#3: Reduce and focus to avoid burnout

Do you really need to do all those things? What are things that you can take out of this big, giant list so that you just start to feel better about the number of things?  Let me just speak a little bit of hard truth. If you burn out, you’re not going to get those things done. You burning out doesn’t serve anybody. It doesn’t serve you, it doesn’t serve your university. But unless you take decisive action to reduce your workplace stress by reducing the number of things you do, you are headed for burnout. That feeling of dread when you think about work is pre-breakdown. 

This is all part of academia’s culture of overwork. We’re taught by watching professors overworking that if you aren’t freaking out and you aren’t stressed that you’re doing it wrong.

You’re not doing it wrong. No. That’s hazing. That is the patriarchy trying to keep you down. We don’t have to do it that way. We can do academia in a way that feels good for us. That doesn’t break us down, that doesn’t cause panic attacks. 

You’re not broken. The system is broken and we need to figure out how to work within it on our terms. To stand in power and say no, I’m actually not going to do it the overwork-and-burnout way. I’m going to do academia in a way that makes me more productive, that makes me happier, that fills my cup.

Right now, everybody, the women reading this blog post, the 5,500 people in the I should be writing! Facebook group, we are the system. We can change it by changing ourselves and changing the way that we internalize the messages that academia sends us. It’s a slow process. It’s a constant process. We have to be super vigilant. But we can do better. We shouldn’t have to be academics at the cost of our health or at the cost of our peace of mind.  


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