Apps for academic anxiety

I've dealt with a huge amount of anxiety in my lifetime, mostly around exams and academic work (yes, it has occurred to me that perhaps I am not best suited to higher education, and yet here I am). I had my first panic attack at 16, when, after a statistics lesson, I came home and found that the textbook was using different notation than my teacher and I was suddenly faced with the horrifying concept that perhaps there existed maths that I can't do. After getting into mathematical biology, I have realised that the world is full of maths that I can't yet do, and I've learned to find it exciting rather than terrifying, but other feelings of inadequacy remain.

I was plagued with panic attacks for the first few months of my DPhil project, and last year the combination of anxiety and some outside factors pushed me into a depressive period, and I had to take a lot of time off work. It's mental health awareness week this week, so I thought I'd share some of the things that helped to pull me out of that bad place and back into real life.

Before I get into technological solutions, some IRL ones: talk therapy is super important and if you can push for it you should. It can be provided by the NHS, although the waiting lists are sometimes long, and university counselling services can sometimes be very good (but sometimes have the attitude "we will give you two appointments and then you will have all the skills you need to tackle it yourself" - which, no). If you're searching for something outside of these channels, I found the Oxford counselling centre to be very good and quite reasonably priced.

Make sure your supervisors and/or tutors are on board - you don't need them hassling you on top of everything else, and you will neither be the first or the last student of theirs that has mental health problems. If your anxiety is a serious problem that is preventing you from living a normal life, register with the disability services at your university as they can provide you with help. I've got a mentor who I meet with weekly, who is somewhere between a counsellor and a study skills advisor and has been a huge help in getting me back on track.

After a course on managing anxiety at the university counselling service, I've gotten quite into meditation, and try to grab ten minutes every morning for a quick reminder that I'm a human with a physical body, and the thoughts in my head are just thoughts. I started out using Headspace (Android, iOS), which gives you some short ten minute meditations to start you off and then charges an exorbitant amount for some more. I listened to the free ten over and over again and never bothered with the rest. Right now I just sit in silence and guide myself through (and fend off attacks from my cat, who gets rather playful after breakfast. It helps to have small items to throw for her to play with).

A lot of people find colouring in to be a relaxing and satisfying activity. Frankly, I have always hated colouring in - the act of scrubbing through a whole page with a pencil has bored me to tears since early childhood. However, I do quite like picking colours for things and looking at pretty line drawings. That's where Colorify (AndroidiOS) comes in - it lets you fill in colouring pages by touching each section of the drawing and choosing a colour. This is far more up my alley than the analogue version and is remarkably relaxing.

If you're into cats (and who isn't?) Neko Atsume (Android) is a very chilled out app. The basic concept is that you furnish a yard with food and toys, and check back on the app periodically to see which cats you have attracted. It's such a nice thing to have in the background during your day.

When I'm stressed, I get sick all the time. During my GCSEs I got chicken pox for the second time - that's not supposed to be possible in people with a functioning immune system. In the last year I've had more colds, fevers, and tummy bugs than I can count. I have (very mild) epilepsy, and it first presented itself during my final exams when I was an undergrad. If you're on any medications, having a reminder to take your pills on time can be a lifesaver. I use My Calendar (Android, iOS). Unfortunately people without uteri, it's also a period tracker, so you may want to find an alternative.

I detest mornings. It doesn't matter if I'm waking up at 6am or 3pm, the very act of transitioning from asleep to awake is intensely offensive to me. When you're depressed, sometimes getting out of bed is the hardest thing to do. The main thing that moved me from waking up grudgingly at 3pm and feeling completely miserable, to waking up sometime between 6-8am and getting ready for work (or rowing...) was deciding to watch Frasier on Channel 4 in the mornings. This forced me to wake up at 10am (to catch it on 4+1). I then gently moved it to 9am to watch it at the original time, and then gave up on Frasier all together and started watching half an hour of anything on my laptop at around 8.15. Having a TV show to watch somehow makes the whole thing less traumatic - I'll be out of bed but I don't have to think about anything or do anything in particular. I might make another post about my morning routine because I've got it down pat at the moment and I'm very proud of it. The least offensive way to be woken up is using Sleep Cycle (Android, iOS)  - you give it a half-hour window and it works out when you're sleeping the least deeply during that time to wake you up.

I've noticed that I find it difficult to let thoughts leave my head if I think they might be important. I've taken to keeping a little list next to me on my desk of whatever thought is distracting me from my work. That way, I know I'm not going to lose important reminders and ideas, so I can just acknowledge them and let them pass. Pocket (Android, iOS, browser) helps me do this when I find an interesting article that I want to read - I can just save it for later and re-focus on the task at hand.

Distractions during my work day.
Many of my daily thoughts are stupid questions.

I find to-do lists incredibly satisfying and they really help me to break down monolithic tasks into manageable, non-scary actions. Todoist (AndroidiOS, browser) is one way that I write these (although I admit that I usually prefer pen and paper). Having a to-do list manager popup in my gmail inbox is particularly useful as it lets me record important action points from the emails in my inbox so I can archive them and get down to delicious, delicious inbox zero.

The next app is a particularly personal one. When I'm depressed or stressed, I forget to eat. It just plain goes out of my head that I need to take care of myself and I find myself at 6pm wondering why I'm feeling hangry (fortunately, I usually eat quite a sensible dinner because my other half is amazing and feeds me). This is why, for me, using the food tracker MyFitnessPal (AndroidiOS, web) was really helpful in my recovery as it reminded me to plan ahead and think about the nutrient content of my meals. I've fallen back in love with food and started treating myself more mindfully.

I'm very privileged in this respect because I've never worried much about my weight. I've never been on a diet, I never saw my mum dieting growing up and my body is not an anxiety trigger for me. I cannot emphasise enough that if food restriction is something you have a problem with, if you've ever had a whiff of an eating disorder or if you just hate hate hate tracking calories, this approach is not for you. 

It sounds silly, but Facebook Messenger (Android, iOS, browser, we both know you already use this) was probably one of the most powerful tools in my recovery. The theme for this year's mental health awareness week is 'relationships' and that rings very true for me. Having a little chat window always there is the best thing for pulling me out of a whirl of anxious thoughts. Whether it's sharing tumblr posts with each other, arguing about politics or just talking about our days, my network of friends and family keeps me sane and reminds me that there's a world outside of whatever I'm worrying about.

I'm in quite a good place at the moment - I've slowly eased back into my DPhil this year, I'm exercising lots and lots (yoga was absolutely the best thing for my anxiety, but rowing in the summer is not bad either!) and I'm not feeling so frightened of failure. I have my moments still - a couple of weeks ago I had a panic attack when submitting an abstract for a conference - but they are so few and far between that they just remind me how far I've come.

p.s. For those of you who like your advice evidence-based, Astrid, one of my aforementioned amazing friends, has a great talk about online interventions for student stress.



3 thoughts on “Apps for academic anxiety”

  1. Found this blog while looking for inkscape tips. I just want to send a big hug from another anxious PhD. student! Thanks for sharing your tips. Personally, I decided to start seeing a therapist - something I always wanted to do (more or less). As a person with negative body image I found it very considerate for you to say what you said.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mattia! There are so many PhD students dealing with anxiety, it's great when we can connect with each other to talk about it. Good on you for getting therapy, I hope it goes well!

  2. I felt like I wrote this myself, we have so much in common!! I use like 90% of these apps, and I always tell people about them!

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