I recently finished taking a month off of work for paternity leave, and in that haze of diapers and and missed sleep and blissful new parent moments, I read two books – a self-help book and a collection of essays – that unexpectedly resonated with each other. Taken together, they provided me with a change in perspective that has been eye-opening and challenging. I’m still working through it, and anyone who reads this blog knows that one of the ways I process things is to write them down here. So here we go.
The first book is Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. I haven’t talked about it much, but I have been struggling with insomnia, anxiety, and “low mood” (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it true depression) for a while, and it has gotten worse in the last few years. Some might argue that between having a kid and the state of the world right now, an increase in anxiety is the appropriate response, but the problem goes back farther than that. Those things have just accelerated what was already happening.
Since at least early grad school, I have suffered from occasional “downward spirals” where I get in a bad mood and it spirals out of control and I end up questioning my path in life and generally having an existential crisis. Of course, everyone has bad days and maybe this is normal, but these spirals feel like a growing avalanche of negativity. I can usually tell when one is coming on but am nearly powerless to stop it. The only things that work are doing some intensive writing (hard to do when you’re feeling negative about literally everything) or just going to sleep and resetting my brain.
What has changed in recent years is that those episodes have become more frequent and I don’t bounce back as well as I used to. My baseline happiness has dropped, my interest in work has waned, and those questions about my path that used to be restricted to when I was spiraling have become more chronic, nagging doubts. I have started feeling vaguely anxious all the time for no clear reason, and the anxiety has started to keep me up at night.
I’ve also fallen deeper into an unhealthy pattern of thought that I have struggled with for a long time. It goes like this: I fixate on a grand goal (usually it is to become a published author) but then I don’t actually do much to work toward that goal and then I beat myself up about how I’m not achieving my goals, and that rapidly escalates to how I am wasting my life and am going to have regrets on my deathbed about all the things I didn’t accomplish. Or if I do work toward the goal, I get paralyzed by all the pressure I’ve put on myself, I am disappointed in what I accomplish, I stop working on it, and quickly end up in the same place. Not a very healthy pattern of thought, but it is one that has haunted me for most of my adult life.
So, yeah. Given all of that, I decided to try therapy last year. I went to see a counselor, but it soon became clear that we weren’t a good fit so I stopped going. (She didn’t seem to know how to handle my lack of belief in anything supernatural, and the existential angst that goes with that.) Then earlier this year the insomnia got bad enough that I went to a doctor and got a prescription. The drug they prescribed (Trazodone) helps with sleep and anxiety and depression and is quite safe and cheap so it was a good fit for me. It worked for a while, but taking a sleep aid is not a great idea when you have a newborn baby to take care of. It’s hard enough to wake up multiple times in the night when not drugged. So I stopped taking it when the new baby arrived.
Of course, then the anxiety came back. In particular, I was feeling disproportionately stressed out about taking paternity leave earlier than expected and how that messed up the bookkeeping for my projects at the end of the fiscal year. As I was dealing with that stress, I figured that if I couldn’t take medication maybe it was time to revisit therapy. I’m cheap, and there are hardly any therapists in Flagstaff, so I looked into the next best thing: self-help books. In particular, I recalled that the counselor I saw was frequently referring to this book “Feeling Good” and some Googling showed that it is basically the bible for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It’s also a step above most self help books: it’s based on peer-reviewed research, and it has been shown to work as well or better than medication alone. So I went ahead and read it.
The idea behind CBT is deceptively simple. Essentially, it boils down to the idea that it is not a given situation that directly determines how you feel, but the thoughts triggered by that situation. If you have gotten into the habit of having negative thoughts in certain situations, that will lead to feeling miserable in those situations. By learning to identify the automatic negative thoughts that you are having and respond to them with more reasonable, rational, and positive thoughts, you can end up with significant improvements in mental health.
In particular, there are a list of cognitive distortions that allow you to name and fight back what your brain is doing to itself. For example, some of the distortions that I’m most susceptible to are “should statements” (“I should be writing”, “I shouldn’t play video games”), “magnification” (“If I’m not productive today, I’m wasting my life”), “overgeneralization” (“I never get to do what I want to do”), and “all or nothing” (“What’s the point of doing my writing; I’ll never follow through and get it published and even if it gets published nobody will read it”).
The book emphasized writing down your automatic thoughts and the rational responses, but I mostly just did it in my head as I was reading. Even just doing it that way, it was remarkably effective. As I read the book, I felt similar to the first few days after I started taking medication. Like an invisible weight had been lifted and I could breathe easier. (Caveat: I was in an almost ideal situation, where I knew the main thing that was stressing me out, and I was taking time off work so I had less other stress to deal with. Since returning to work, I have slipped back into my old patterns and am struggling again.)
The book also included a short survey tool designed to help identify some of the root causes of the distorted thoughts that lead to depression and anxiety. Normally these sorts of quizzes run the risk of being like horoscopes, where no matter what they say you can find a way to make it apply to you. I don’t know, maybe that’s happening with this one too, but it is backed up by rigorous research and whatever my reservations might be, I found the results of this survey to be eye-opening.
The survey indicated that a lot of my distorted thinking is centered around two main themes: seeking approval from others, and seeking achievement. Basically, I tend to base my self esteem and happiness on these things, which opens me up to anxiety and depression if I perceive that someone might not approve of me or if I am unable to achieve milestones.
If you wear glasses, you know what it’s like for your eyesight to gradually, imperceptibly, get worse until it finally reaches the point where it bothers you enough to get a new prescription and the sudden clarity is shocking. That’s sort of what it was like for me to see the results of this quiz. The results in retrospect are obvious, just as once you’ve put on new glasses it’s obvious how poor your eyesight was getting. I shouldn’t be surprised by the results, but they have offered a lens that lets me see myself clearly for the first time in quite a while.
Seen through this new lens, knowing that I crave achievements and the approval of others to boost my self esteem, a lot of things start to make sense. For example, I was stressed about paternity leave because (a) taking a lot of leave is still somewhat unusual in my workaholic field, and (b) the end-of-fiscal-year stuff led me to send an annoyed email which was uncharacteristic behavior for me. Both of which led to the possible disapproval of people I respect and therefore stress for me.
Likewise, I’ve been stressed and unhappy about work because on a lot of fronts I’m struggling to make accomplishments and get recognition, and in some cases the amount of interest or recognition that I get for my work is not proportional to the amount of effort I put in. I also have a tendency to speculate that people who I respect are not happy with what I am doing, which stresses me out.
With this new lens I can also see that my dwindling interest in my work may be related to the fact that I have run out of major career accomplishments to aim for. I’ve been incredibly fortunate and hit career milestones one after another (finish undergrad, accepted to grad school, grad school fellowship, PhD, post doc, mission involvement, permanent position). But now I’m in a situation where there are no “built-in” milestones left (at least, none that I want to pursue: I’ve seen what leading an instrument or mission is like and it’s not for me!). I’m facing the rest of my career at basically the same level doing the same thing, and that stresses out my achievement-hunting brain. Put another way: I have reached the point where unless I make some big changes, I have basically locked into “what I’m going to be when I grow up”. After 3 decades of always looking ahead to the next thing, that’s a strange feeling.
I want to be clear that I recognize that it’s ridiculous to be stressed out by being successful. I know that to many people I have what would be considered a “dream job”. I get to be involved in very cool work with very cool people, I’m paid well, I have flexibility, I live in a beautiful place. In a way that just makes it worse: I get another layer of stress about how people might perceive me complaining about this, and guilt for feeling bad about a job I worked so long to achieve and that is so cool.
To make matters worse, especially since the 2016 election I have been stressed about not making enough of a positive difference in the world. Who cares what a rock on Mars is made of when there are children dying in cages and the highest levels of our government are indistinguishable from an international organized crime syndicate and the Amazon is burning? It makes me look at space exploration in a different, less favorable light. Some of the justifications for space exploration that for years were compelling to me, now sound hollow. Like stories we tell ourselves to feel good about dedicating our lives to what is ultimately an esoteric luxury. I find it harder to get invested in the scientific questions that are at the heart of my work. All of this is demoralizing, so the cycle feeds on itself.
It’s gotten to the point where I contemplate drastic changes in my career path. What if I quit and dedicated my time to writing full time? What if I quit and try to find a job in another country that isn’t rapidly becoming an authoritarian dystopia? (New Zealand seems nice.) What if I quit and try to become a full-time science communicator? What if I quit and devote my time to politics and trying to change the country’s disastrous course? What if I just quit, period? What if I tried to compromise and go part-time in my current job while pursuing something else? But then contemplating such a drastic change stresses me out for different reasons: What would people think? What if I failed? What if it’s just a case of the grass being greener on the other side and I want to go back? I worked all my life to reach where I am now, do I really want to throw that away? etc.
So what is my point here other than to ramble about my own mental health adventures? Partly I’m just working thought this stuff, but I am also posting here for two other reasons. First, because especially in the era of social media, it’s easy to just share a highlight reel of life and hide the hard parts. I want to push back against the idea that we’re not supposed to talk about these sorts of things, that we have to always present a perfect face to the world. And second, because I hope this helps others who might be struggling with anxiety or depression of a similar flavor.
The tendency to seek the approval of others and to judge yourself based on achievements is not particularly unique (and our society in general and social media in particular are engineered to encourage these patterns of thought), but I have a hunch that those of us who dutifully follow the achievement ladder of academia may be more susceptible than usual to this pattern of thinking. Just consider graduate school. You spend 5-6 years working with an adviser whose approval becomes the most important measure of your success, and you pin your hopes of happiness on achieving that highest academic achievement, a PhD. And then when you finish, you still are stuck in these mental ruts even though now you don’t have an advisor watching over you and there is no next degree to strive for. (Though, I guess if you stay in academia, the tenure process fills both roles for a while.)
It’s not clear which is the cause and which is the effect: Did I go to grad school because I crave approval and achievement, or was I taught to crave approval and achievement by my time in grad school? Likely some of both, but the end result is the same. A lot of people who make it through grad school end up with these tendencies that research shows lead to anxiety and depression.
The thing is, these tendencies are not all bad. When kept in check as part of a balanced life, they can lead to great productivity and satisfaction. The problem comes when they become the sole focus. Yeah, you want people to think well of you, but you need to maintain some perspective and (a) be able to function if someone doesn’t, and (b) not get overly worked up and anxious about your speculations about how someone feels (this is what I do most). Yeah, you want to achieve things (who doesn’t?) but it’s not healthy to be defined only by your job and achievements to the exclusion of the rest of your life.
For me, it has gotten to the point where I am almost incapable of framing things in terms other than achievements. This is part of why I struggle to get writing done on anything other than blogs: I build the project up in my head until it is THE book that is going to make or break my (nonexistent) writing career, and then when the first draft sucks (which is what first drafts always do), I give up because of all the pressure. Ironically, if I would just relax and focus on enjoying the writing process and not worry about the end result, I’d probably get to the end result a lot faster, having done a lot better writing along the way.
Bottom line, reading Feeling Good gave me some tools to help fight anxiety and depression and a new perspective to help understand why I struggle with the things that I do. It isn’t a miracle cure: it made me feel better while I was reading it, but now a couple of weeks later, I’m back to work and struggling again. I may actually go back and read sections of the book that are most relevant to me.
Meanwhile, I am trying to be more conscious about my tendencies to seek approval and achievements in place of actual self esteem. (And yes, I recognize the irony that I am posting this publicly in part to seek approval from people on social media!) I am trying to steer my life and my patterns of thought toward more balance. I’m trying to appreciate the present and be confident in myself without relying on approval from others. I’m trying to enjoy the process and not just the end product. And it is in that context that the second book had an impact on me. Primed with all of these thoughts from reading Feeling Good, Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places” gave me yet another lens through which to view the world and myself and these mental health struggles. I have rambled on long enough here, so I’ll talk more about that in a follow-up post.