How to stop those unhealthy thoughts

Eve Hermansson-Webb recently completed her Doctoral degree in Psychology, concurrently with a Postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Psychology, at the University of Otago. Her thesis investigated the spread of depression and self-injury within adolescent girls’ friendship groups. She is currently backpacking through South East Asia and Europe, after which she will return to the Southern Hemisphere to take up full-time work as a Clinical Psychologist. In this post Eve confronts that negative self talk that many of us can fall into and offers some ideas for changing it.

A valuable and timely post – thanks Eve!

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 8.39.32 pmDoing a PhD can be a stressful and challenging experience.

At times, you can find yourself feeling overwhelmed… depressed… anxious. I experienced a gamut of emotions whilst writing my thesis, and occasionally I struggled with poor morale and low self-esteem.

At such times, my internal thoughts were my own worst enemy. However, having done my postgraduate training in clinical psychology (particularly, cognitive behavioral therapy), I was in the unique position of being able to apply my knowledge from working in mental health to what was going on in my own head.

I had learned a lot about how people’s thoughts and behavior could become toxic and self-defeating and get in the way of their life goals, and was able to identify some of the thinking traps that I myself was falling into.

I have now successfully completed my thesis and have renewed confidence in myself and my prospects; however, I am aware that there are those of you for whom such optimism may seem foreign, as you continue to battle with the hardest project of your academic career to date. To help, and give you the benefit of my experience, here are some common thinking traps you may recognize in yourself which may be sabotaging your PhD progress, followed by some tips on how to cope with them…

All-or-Nothing Thinking

When you think in extremes, with no gray areas or middle ground. If your performance falls short of perfect, then you see yourself as a failure. Examples:

  • “I have to be the best in my field, or else I am worthless.”
  • “Everything I wrote today is rubbish; I’m going to just delete it all and start again.”

When you compare yourself to your successful office-mate and conclude that they are a genius and you are a moron in comparison.

Overgeneralization

When you base a broad and overarching belief on a limited amount of evidence. Examples:

  • “My article got rejected from that journal; I shouldn’t bother submitting to any more, they’ll only get rejected too.”
  • “My data yielded none of the results I was expecting, it is all useless!”
  • “I always miss out on opportunities and never catch a break.”

Magnification/Minimization

When you place stronger emphasis on negative events and downplay positive ones. Examples:

  • “Yes, my supervisor did say my paper was good overall, but he made heaps of corrections, so it must have been terrible”. This becomes: “My supervisor thinks my paper is terrible.”
  • “A lot of people seemed to be interested in my presentation and applauded afterwards, but someone came up to me afterwards and criticized my premise, so it mustn’t have been any good.” This becomes: “No one liked my presentation.”

Catastrophizing:

When you blow things out of proportion. Examples:

  • “I can’t find the file I was working on! I must have deleted it and lost all my work!”
  •  “I already made a mistake on this report! I’ll never finish it, or if I do it’ll be so full of mistakes it won’t matter. I’m going to bomb no matter what!”
  • “I’m not going to meet the deadline. My supervisor is going to tell me off and will refuse to help me, which means my work won’t be any good and if my work isn’t any good I will fail, and if I fail I’ll be so ashamed I might as well be dead.”

Shoulds:

When you place unreasonable or inflexible demands on yourself. Examples:

  • “I should write 1000 words every day.”
  • “I should get an article accepted by the first journal I submit to.”
  • “I must agree to do all the extra teaching work my supervisor asks for, even if it doesn’t relate to my thesis.”

Labelling

When you make global statements about yourself based on behavior in specific situations. Examples:

  • “I didn’t win that scholastic prize; I’m such a loser.”
  • “I don’t know how to run that software program; I’m so incompetent.”
  • “What a dummy; I should have noticed that mistake.”

Mind Reading

When you infer a person’s thoughts, arbitrarily assuming that they are reacting negatively to you. Examples:

  • “My supervisor seems irritable today; it must be because they are annoyed that my writing is so poor.”
  • “My office-mate slammed the door shut as she left; she is obviously pissed off with me.”

These are a just a few of the thinking traps that people can fall into. So what are some strategies for dealing with unhealthy thoughts?

Identify the thoughts, and challenge them

  • Is the thought true? Is it really true?
  • What is the evidence to support the thought?
  • Could it possibly be a distorted thought?
  • What is some evidence against the thought?
  • What would be a more helpful or balanced way to think about the situation?
  • What would you tell a friend in your situation?

Don’t place all of your eggs in one basket

That is to say, don’t make your PhD your life and the sole thing by which you measure your worth. Perhaps you are also a good friend; a good son or daughter; a good recreational jogger; a good cupcake decorator; a good guitar player; a good driver; a good movie connoisseur. No matter how small or insignificant it seems, make sure you have something else (ideally numerous things) by which you rate yourself and find yourself worthy, and make sure you spend some time doing those things.

Seek out other PhD students.

They may be able to help you to achieve a more balanced perspective, and to normalize some of the behaviors you have been criticizing yourself for. For example, sometimes it is normal to not arrive at the office until 2pm in the afternoon! Sometimes it is normal for a computer to crash and lose the last hour of work you did! Sometimes it is normal to have a disagreement with your supervisor!

Furthermore, other students may express unhealthy thoughts about themselves to you and, as you’ll have a more objective point of view on the situation, it may be easier for you to identify and challenge their distorted thoughts, as a precursor to being able to identify and challenge your own subjective ones!

Take care of your basic needs. Try to have a good night’s sleep, eat healthy, engage in some form of exercise, get out in the fresh air, socialize, and avoid using alcohol or drugs as a coping strategy.

Finally, if you are really struggling to manage things on your own, it may be time to seek professional help. Your University may have a health clinic where you can arrange to talk to a religious or careers advisor, a counselor, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. Alternatively, you may choose to seek private mental health care. There’s no weakness in asking for help, and it may be what saves your thesis and, more importantly, your future.

Note that these tips are relevant not just for doing a thesis, but for any goal you set yourself. Your thoughts are with you always, and you are going to fare a lot better if they are on your side rather than against you, so make sure you learn to manage them accordingly. I wish you all the best for your ongoing journey!

Thanks Eve – I feel so much better after recognising myself in a few of those statements! How about you?

Related Links

Phd Lifestyle guilt

PhD Rage

17 thoughts on “How to stop those unhealthy thoughts

  1. Great post. I’ve been having a few of these thoughts recently. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of thinking it’s just me… glad to see that’s not the case.

  2. Thanks for this – I recognised most of it during my thesis writing. And now into my post doc career I needed to be reminded of the acronym I use when those negative thoughts creep in … HALT. I ask myself am I Hungry Angry Lonely or Tired? And yes I often am at least two of those.
    Just becoming aware of my state is usually enough to break it, reinforced by a coffee with a friend or a short sleep or like yesterday realising I’d skipped lunch and no wonder I was full of doom at 3.30.

    • Acknowledged, Tom, and of course anyone who wishes to know more about common cognitive distortions is invited to refer to the work of Dr Aaron T. Beck, who developed CBT and whose cognitive techniques I here endeavour to make accessible to persons who may not be familiar with them and who may benefit from some simple information applicable to PhD study and applied in personal experience

  3. This post could not have come at a better time. I just had my first “meltdown” three months into my MPhil. It could have been easy to take the criticism personally, but I’ve been able to be objective and come out the other side more positive about my work than ever. Thank you.

  4. Terrific post. A very succinct summary of the sort of thoughts one feels when investing so much time and effort into something, which shows both that you’re not alone if you’re feeling this way AND that there is more to life than study! I wrote something similar when I finished my MA. Haven’t been brave enough to start a doctorate (yet)… I also liked Alison’s comment above about “HALT”. Great idea.
    Thanks for posting this! I’ll definitely be sharing it.

  5. Great post! I’m starting school in Sept, and I’ve been reading and doing research on current PhD students. Some of them talk about it being a great experience and others are very stressed out. This gave me some insight for sure. Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Friday reading | Critical Securities

  7. Great post! I can personally endorse the strategy of getting together with other PhD students. Discussing things with people in the same situation, or perhaps setting up a group in your faculty or department, provides a refreshing perspective on stuff you thought was just yours. The feeling of recognition when someone else expresses doubts or fears that you yourself have had, and the relief when you’re able to discuss solutions and come up with positive strategies, is wonderful! It’s also great that online resources like this one give PhD students an opportunity to identify and interact with each other during what can be an isolating process.

  8. Thanks for these helpful notes. I just add a personal experience, that i think this article has missed.

    I found that the academic staff that I have been working with are highly experienced in not telling or doing particular ‘things’ that could be used as ‘evidence’ against them. This situation has left me personally very lonely to provide evidence for my problems. Just give you an example. I was feeling very stupid and unqualified for a while. This feeling was terribly destructive. I contacted consultants at our university and they told me the same thing: What are the evidences for your stupidity? I did not have ‘evidence’. It was my feelings.
    My supervisor wrote several journal-papers with another PhD candidate while rejected my request to be a co-author of a conference abstract. He very skilfully rejected my request. And my abstract was rejected. It was a tough time…. How do I have to interpret such behaviours, but not as a sign of his distrust in me?

    I think, feelings are important, in themselves, regardless of their comparison with evidences.

    • Hi there, I think I know (and has experienced) your feeling. While I also struggle many times with feeling that I am “stupid” and unqualified to be Ph.D. student in certain field, I also try to see the other positive side.
      In my experience, when my supervisor do not satisfied with my performance actually he does not reject me personally. He just don’t like what I do last week (or last two weeks). Then when I worked hard and succeeded to fix the issues, he appreciated and delighted in it.
      I also thing that I must prove that I can do something good in my research so he can start to believe in me. It just makes sense, because he doesn’t know me at all before this Ph.D. study (I am an international student), so it is normal if he has not believed in me yet.
      In your case, in my opinion, you should stop to have negative thinking on your supervisor and also accept the failure. Then you need to try to do something good on your own. Do literature review, make a small program, do little experiment, etc. I believe when your supervisor look at your effort (and work ethic), he will be attracted to work together with you.
      Another things that has helped me is sharing the problem with my spouse (or another Ph.D. students) and I also do pray so God can help me personally with this problems.
      I hope you get your way out from the problem!

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