Dear 100 Hour Board,
I’m a grad student and over the past year I’ve become more and more incapable of doing my research. It’s this mix of anxiety and exhaustion and lack of motivation. I really need some practical guidance on how to do my thesis through this depression. I’ve tried every behavioral change I can think of - good sleep schedule, healthy diet, daily exercise and outdoors time, breaking down my schedule into small pieces, one of those happy lights, medication, etc and haven’t made any progress. It’s gotten to the point that I’m paralyzed even about small tasks that should be easy.
I’ve tried getting help from a therapist but he didn’t have any additional advice for me, just said it’s like that for everyone but you just have to do it. But the doing it part is the problem. Even in my worst years of undergrad I had enough fear to motivate me to get things done, so I don’t know how to deal with this. I’ve tried working with my advisor on it many times but similar story there. I know BYU has counseling services but you have to wait months to see anybody and I don’t have that kind of time.
Does BYU have some kind of place I could go to get practical advice on how to do a thesis when I’ve been stuck for forever? Like the regular advisement center but instead of them telling you what career to pick or what different majors are like, they tell you how to do academic things you used to be able to do? I just need to get this thesis done so I can move on.
-“It’s always like that”
I may not know what it's like to work on a thesis, but I do know what it's like to be working on research/school and get to a point where I just want to stop and every little thing causes massive anxiety. And I'm sorry, because being in that place sucks. It's overwhelming and paralyzing and entrapping.
Perhaps this piece of advice won't help you, but it has helped me when I've been in similar spots.
I have a bad habit of being motivated by fear and judging from your question it sounds like you may have the same problem. But if you're like me, then fear isn't the only academic motivator you've experienced in your life. Likely there's something about your field of study that draws you in. Something you find fascinating and wonderful. You probably chose your thesis because you felt at least a spark of interest in it. Where is that spark now? Why out of everything you could be doing with your life did you choose to go to grad school for this particular topic? What about learning brings you joy?
Focusing on these kinds of questions has helped me rekindle my sense of purpose/motivation. Try and shift your source of motivation from fear and weary desperation to genuine love and joy for the opportunity to learn. Don't focus so much on the results of your thesis as the incredible growing experience you have the chance to take part in right now!
What you're going through right now isn't simply another hoop to jump through to get to the rest of your life. It is your life. So do your best to make it worthwhile.
I also am not currently a grad student, but I've been working on co-authoring a paper with one of my professors over the summer and currently. There were several times where I just got so STUCK. It was a completely new experience for me, because I've been able to write research papers within a couple of weeks plenty of times before, and this shouldn't have been any different. However, in talking to my mentor professor, he told me I needed to reorient myself and see this as a new experience that I needed to learn, not as a failure of my previous talents.
You mentioned that you are frustrated because you are no longer able to do the academic things you used to be able to do. The thing is, while you may be drawing on many of the same skills, you are in an entirely different situation now! My professor also told me that probably a large part of my struggle was that I was starting to feel incompetent and question my abilities in this new position. He said I should try to give myself a pep talk, or talk to professors who can commiserate and tell you how they boost themselves when they feel down. I spent a week reminding myself that I was CONFIDENT in my results and that I had something IMPORTANT! to contribute. I know I'm just doing one paper, and not a whole grad school thing like you. But, I felt this advice was really helpful because doing this unblocked me so maybe it will help you too.
From that spiel, I hope you took that one of the best thing to do when you feel stuck academically is to go talk to some of your professors and be honest about you feel. I can pretty much guarantee that they have felt how you're feeling now, and may have some advice for how they got through it. Their advice is probably better than a bunch of non-grad students, try as we might.
What your therapist said is true, but it's not very helpful. There are some periods of life where things feel and are more out of balance, and sometimes we just have to learn how to find the best balance we can in those moments. It definitely doesn't mean you should just 'get over' how you're feeling. I wouldn't give up on therapy, maybe look into some online resources like Betterhelp, or some mindfulness apps that might help you figure out what's blocking you from progress and motivation.
If you're willing to go back to your therapist (or find a new one), I would explain that "getting through grad school" maybe isn't the main problem. I'm no psychologist, but it sort of seems like there's an interaction between background things like your feelings of self-efficacy and motivation, and your current situation with grad school is both impeded by that, and feeding into it. Your therapist should 100% be educated about and able to help you learn to improve your self-esteem, self-efficacy, and perhaps even motivation.
Improving these aspects of yourself should give you a boost with other areas where you feel like you're struggling.
Best wishes to you. You are capable, dedicated, and good enough to get through this!
I don't think I can speak much to your research, but I do know that it is a very difficult process. The only advice that I've heard from my brother is to follow good practices when it comes to giving yourself breaks, find a way to make getting work done a priority and and doing your best to develop diligence.
The advice I wanted to give is about your therapist. I think it is super important to find a therapist that can support you in the ways that you need. I think as much of a physical struggle that getting a thesis done it, it is just as much or more of an emotional challenge, and a good therapist can help you regain that hope and direction that you need to be able to persevere. Even though I haven't done a thesis, there have been a lot of times where I have struggled with the emotional task of getting school work done, even when I might actually want to get it done, and a good therapist understands the way out and can help you either frame the situation in which you can get through it, or give you the tools you need to deal with the negative emotions/ reactions associated with getting your thesis done. If you don't feel that your therapist is helping you deal with the emotional part of getting your thesis done, then you may want to find another therapist. This is a very normal part of finding a good therapist and you may meet with a few before finding one that you can have good communication with. Meeting with good therapists has helped me make good headway in getting a handle on where I'm going and figuring out how to get there, and I hope you can find the same.
Best of luck,