A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

Archive for December, 2014

How Anxiety Works For Me

I know it’s been a while since I’ve last posted, I’ve had a lot going on over the last little while. But at least I’m taking the time to make a post now.
As I’ve told about in previous posts, I’m working up to my next attempts at my PhD comprehensive exams. The first one, which is Algebra, will be at the beginning of February. I’ve been studying since September for it so hopefully it’ll work out this time after unfortunately failing it last year. There are four main subject areas for the algebra comp and so far I have three of them more or less mastered. The last subject I’m studying right now is the strongest area and I did very well in it on the comp last year. Hence I’ve saved it for last and it’s coming back to me pretty easily so far.
Back in October, however, I felt anxiety start to mount again, however, and I went to the Student Success Office at the university to book an appointment with an advisor there for some academic advice. I’ve since had three appointments with her and so far it’s been well worth it. We delved deep into what was causing the anxiety and it’s really helped a lot. Even though the algebra comp is only a month and a half away I’m feeling considerably less worried about it than I have about the comps ever before.
One of things we talked about was how anxiety actually hindered my academic experience and we talked through the steps. It was a cycle. The first phase was feeling anxious, which led to the second phase of letting feelings of anxiety and anger overwhelm me. Then the third phase was letting these feelings completely blind me. By this time, I’m aware I’m not getting much accomplished, which causes the fourth phase of panic mode. The fifth phase was not carrying out the given task I was trying to complete to the best of my ability because of the panic. Finally to complete the cycle, this led directly back to feeling anxious.
We then talked about how to break the cycle, specifically between the first and second phases. It was okay to feel anxious when trying to complete a task, but I couldn’t let it expand to overwhelming feelings of anxiety and anger. To help, we found supporting evidence that of everything I had going for me: my intelligence, my undergrad professors high opinions of me, every struggle I’ve taken to get to where I am (in second year of a PhD in pure math now), I’ve gotten research published in the past and am currently getting more research published.
There were also various factors that was causing the anxiety. For example, there was the issue of what my future job would be and how failing the comps would impact that and what kind of backup plans were necessary. My advisor got me to make a list of all the resources I already had if I ended up failing the comps again (and which she properly emphasised was a big “if”). For example, I put away a lot of money from my NSERC scholarship that I had during my Master’s and I still had financial support if necessary from my parents. Then just like how we broke the anxiety cycle, we looked at everything that would say I would survive and succeed no matter what. Specifically, the things we came up with were that I am intelligent, I am hard working, I have good references, I have research published, and I have a Master’s in Pure Math from Waterloo. Then she gave me a list of reminders I could read every morning until the exam to further build my confidence, some of which were as follows (and which I have been reading):
Failing the comps is not about your IQ it is simply about learning how to handle anxiety – which you are in the process of learning.
I do belong – I have worked hard to be where I am and I have tackled many obstacles
I understand and know most of the material, I have a great start.
Finally, it’s also been approved that I have the comprehensive exams split up between two days. The usual time that students get for them is 3 hours each and the last time I wrote them I got 4 ½ hours each, which I found out when I wrote the comps the first not enough extra time so I now I’ll be getting double time. For each of the exams, I’ll be getting half the questions one day and then the other half the day after. I suspect this will decrease some of the anxiety as well. Instead of getting a sheet full of 9 major questions all coming from different areas of algebra or analysis (the subjects of the exams), I’ll only be looking at 4 or 5 questions at a time and thus will be able to manage them a bit more.
It’s now just a month and a half before the algebra exam is over and done with. Once that time period comes to an end and I’ll have passed it, I’ll have a new confidence level for preparing for the analysis exam, which will be in May. I’ll be celebrating wildly.

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