Depression and meaning

I have been taking a low dose of an SSRI for a while against a minor depression, and it has helped, but only recently I really feel like I am fully getting out of the depressed mindset and my head is clearing.

Comparing how I feel now and how I felt a few months ago made me realize like never before how much depression and a feeling of meaningfulness are connected for me.

My feeling of meaningfulness has always been varying widely. If I am on a low, I am deeply fed up with everything. It is like being nauseated with life itself. Then I say that I am “tired”, but I am not really tired, I just notice that everything seems like an effort, and interpret this as tiredness. But what I really mean is my actions or inactions seem meaningless to me, even cooking dinner, and consequently everything seems like a chore. For me, that is the summary of how depression feels like: like pervasive meaninglessness. I usually still function, but it is against a tide of nothingness.

When I am on a high, I get very active without effort. My work seems highly meaningful to me and stopping is like being on withdrawal. Working out also seems meaningful, and cleaning, and cooking, and meeting people, and writing, and I often get overwhelmed because there are too many things I want to do and although things are getting done extremely easily in this mode, at some point I start to be tired and overstimulated, but have the tendency to push on, because I just really do not want to stop doing whatever seems so meaningful.

In both cases, this impression of meaning has no rational thought process behind it. It is just a feeling that my actions have meaning or a feeling that they don’t. I know that my actions are always meaningless in the grand scheme of things and always meaningful for myself and the people around me. I suspect a lot of things that have always puzzled me about other people, and how stable they seem, is that they have a less varying sense of meaningfulness.

Since meaning is so central to my experience of depression, I suspect that one way to help oneself to get out of depressive episodes is to try to increase the feeling of meaningfulness in life. This seems so obvious, but I am not sure I fully understood this until now. The hard part about it is that we really have to ask what feels meaningful to us. And this can be a very threatening and upsetting question, so it can seem more safe to stay depressed.

For me, if I am honest, my current main source of meaningfulness is psychology. Thanks to psychology I can see my life, and that of others, as a journey towards “become who one truly is”, a journey with setbacks and pains and failures, but a journey that is, in a way, heroic and meaningful. When I read how others overcome bad parents, horrible partners, bad life choices and so on, and become more whole and healthier and happier, and wiser about who they are and what they want, I seem as protagnoists in stories that matter in a deep way. And then I feel like I am one of all those people struggling to become themselves too. I am on my way too, and it is always meaningful to work towards this goal, and always meaningful to help others along on this way, no matter by how little. And I start to want to help others on their paths, and learn about how to help them, and that is scary, because it is so far away from what I have done in my life until now.

I start to realize that the depression I feltĀ  during my final years in science was a normal reaction to the fact I had grown out of a line of work that did not feel meaningful to me anymore, but since it had felt so meaningful once, it was very hard to admit this. So the depression was a crisis of meaning. And to really overcome it I have to go in the direction where I perceive a sense of meaning for myself, and where this is is something that I have to figure out completely on my own.

Posted in Depression, Leaving Academia, Psychology | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Freedom and burn-out

It is barely one year since I left my science career, very tired and burnt out. Very strange that it is only about 1.5 years ago that it would have been normal for me to spend all day thinking about a sub-sub-field of physics, normal since 10 years, or if I count my undergrads, normal to think about maths and physics all day for 14 years. Two times seven years.

All the more it amazes me that I am now officially enrolled in two University seminars about burn-out! Taught by two real psychologists who are experts in the area. Tonight I was reading fascinating literature by Aaron Antonovsky about the topic for the next class and feeling very happy. Reading psychological self-help literature is one of my obsessions, and it is great to finally read something deeper about psychology and being allowed to discuss it with others. Ha! I get credit points for doing things that I would do voluntarily.

I feel like I was in the middle of doing a average-interesting scientific project with doing a Master for high school teachers and suddenly hit something truly fascinating. Maybe, maybe, maybe this is the first sign that I am taking a slight detour from becoming a high school teacher, and going to get another degree in psychology, or something like this, although I know that is a truly crazy idea. The first social psychology lecture that I sat in for fun this week fascinated me so much that I am waiting for the next one impatiently. I have never before felt this way about a lecture.

How amazing it is that my (maybe unfortunate) decision to do two postdocs in physics does not stop me from now being at Uni learning about psychology! In fact, I am allowed to do that, I am allowed to get a second degree and allowed to change directions of my life completely, if I want that. I guess the realization of how free I truly am is only slowly sinking in. I apparently did not mess up my life as badly as I once thought.

Posted in Leaving Academia, Psychology | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A journey into type-A-personality-land and back

Recently I was reading up on the term “type A personalities“, which I have seen used by academic bloggers to describe themselves. Apparently, type A personalities tend to be impatient, short-fused, efficient, organized, status-oriented, very competitive, quite aggressive, and most of all, workaholics. In this description, I recognized all the bosses that I had during my science career, and many of my peers.

They run to the printer because they are so busy, they throw tantrums, they yell, they want to have everything under control, they are very self-involved, they are very well organized and they put their hearts and souls into their work, and are often angry because they suspect others don’t work as hard as them.

Because I admired my bosses, and maybe because I am prone to pick up emotions from my surrounding, I became more like a type A personality myself in many aspects while I worked in academia. I got more perfectionist, more excitable, more irritable, walked faster, ate faster, thought harder than I had ever before. With every year, I found it harder to do nothing in holidays without becoming very nervous. Also, I started to get increasingly irritated with people I saw as incompetent or even just less ambitious than me. For a while, I was angry at the cleaning crew at the University, because they were so slow, and so without ambition and goals. I knew that this anger was totally over the line, knowing how much privilege I had over them, but I nevertheless felt it. How could they have so little aspiration in life? It pissed me off.

This irrational anger wandered around during all the time where I worked hard and denied myself from going for a walk on that beautiful summer day and denied myself living where I actually wanted to live, because work was more important. I sometimes felt it directed at children in the subway, having sudden fantasies of smacking my hand into their clueless faces. But the most common trigger for my anger was other scientists who I felt were not careful enough, wrote unclearly or pursued useless projects. Although I luckily never attacked anyone directly, I felt this anger very often when going through the preprints, listening to bad talks, hearing about people’s stupid priorities in research, and, towards the end of my time in academia, the anger became almost unstoppable.

This anger is a classic type A personality trait. This is why they often suffer from hypertension and have a high risk of heart attacks.

Of course, there was a lot of projection involved in my anger. I was angry at the slow and unambitious parts I felt inside myself, and I was angry at myself for potentially not being careful enough in science or choosing the wrong projects (and you never really know if those things are the case or not).

Nevertheless, now, after having left academia, I slowly seem to lose some of the type A characteristics that I picked up and which were never really mine. I was impatient as a researcher, but now I am very patient with my students, and I don’t get nervous about slow people in the checkout line anymore.

Maybe picking up traits and people of people around you is typical for HSPs — our surrounding influences us very strongly and we tend to feel other people’s emotion. Although I have always seemed ambitious to others, even as a child, I feel like I am very different from true type A’s. Maybe the difference is the true type A’s love to fight, and love to win, and love to be in the spotlight, while I crave a feeling of security and always hoped the next achievement would make me feel safe, which never happened. I am not interested in status or in being the center of attention, which type A’s usually love.

I guess the massive relief I sometimes feel about having left is to some degree because with academia, I also have left type-A-personality-land. This is not to say I have gotten rid of all type A characteristics I picked up. But at least I have far less other type A’s around me, which is good for me. I still worry a lot, make endless to-do list and constantly have to try to at least limit my perfectionism. But my anger towards children and cleaners has totally dissipated, and I feel like it was never really mine, but a signal that I picked up, a general tendency towards looking down on other people that I many people in academia have, or at least my bosses had. I am glad that I don’t feel like this anymore, not only because the feeling is unsettling to have, but because it is impossible to look down on others without also looking down on yourself.

Posted in Academia, High sensitivity, Leaving Academia | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Social anxiety in high school

Teaching teenagers and getting to know them is fascinating, and often makes me think about my own teenage years, and how defining they were for me.

When I was a teenager, I was extremely performance-oriented. I felt that I had to be the best student in class or even in school. What I enjoyed most about school were the exams, especially those that were more difficult than usual.

At the same time, I was extremely afraid to embarrass myself in any way. For this reason, I almost never said anything in class, even if I had elaborate answers and contributions to discussions in my head, because I was always fearing that people would laugh at me. At some point, I started to have problems to read texts aloud to the class out of fear of making a mistake or sounding strange. I began to choke on my words. I remember thinking every morning about in which class a teacher might ask me to read, and dreading it. I was not bullied, but I bullied myself.

I wonder how the teachers saw me. New teachers were usually surprised by my test results and asked me to participate more. I said yes, and I wanted to improve, but I continued to be silent.

I don’t think I looked motivated in class, because most of the time I was either afraid, or then started to get very bored, because things were moving so slowly and it is very boring if you do not participate, mostly. I did not know, as I know now, how much teachers can see how you feel in your face, and how easy it is for them to see an unhappy face as a judgement of their teaching.

I had three friends, but if they were absent, I felt totally alone and foreign in my class. I almost never talked to anyone except those friends, and since they were all female, I practically never talked to a male student, which in retrospect seems strange. When the friends were not around during lunch, I was horrified, because I did not dare to sit with the other students in my class, and I ate somewhere alone and was so ashamed of being seen alone that I almost cried. In breaks, I would sometimes hide on the toilet if my friends were not around.

In short, I had relatively serious social anxiety as a teenager, and I had no idea about it, and neither my teachers nor my parents ever realized this. Even when it became impossible for me to read, no teacher every checked on me. Some had mercy and stopped asking me, others did not care. I never really expected a teacher to ask what was going on, although I did hope for it.

Of course, all this meant that I did not really learn to discuss with others, or handle disagreements, or risking embarrassment by saying my opinion, or interact with different people. In fact, the thing that surprised me most about real adult life was how different people are, and to this day standing up for myself, and navigating disagreement, especially with self-confident people, is very hard for me.

And now I look at my students, and observe how many of them interact with each other warmly and well, and are not afraid to ask stupid questions. But in each class I also see 2-3 unhappy teenagers with long faces, and I notice that they annoy me a little bit, because it is hard to be enthusiastic as a teacher when I look at them. So I ignore them.

And that, of course, is what my teachers probably did with me. I guess in some ways I tried to be the best student to get them to notice, and like me anyway, to show them that internally, I cared, even if I was unable to show it in class.

In our only lecture about psychology that we are required to take as teachers, we had, to my disappointment, only one single lesson about special difficulties and needs that students might have, and the only two that were mentioned were anorexia and being highly gifted, as if no other problems existed. What if teachers would learn to recognize problems like depression, social anxiety, and if dominant kids terrorize the rest of the class? Why is it that we teach children all sorts of obscure knowledge, but not that if they are perpetually unhappy or scared, someone professional outside of school and of their family can help them? Why do we insist on people learning to understand the details of chemical processes but totally don’t mind if they are years behind their peers in terms of self-confidence and speaking in front of others, like I was? Increasingly I see in how many ways school failed to prepare me for life, and instead fueled and strengthened my obsession with performance and test results, and gave me the idea that if I only worked very hard, I could achieve anything without actually having to stand up and risk embarrassment in front of others. This way of thinking got me through a Master’s degree in Physics easily. But now I know that is not how real life works. At all.

I think a teacher that would have taken the time to talk to me for 15 minutes, and who would have been trained in recognizing social anxiety, could have made an immense difference. So why is it that we are not trained in doing exactly that, and instead spend hours and hours in learning yet another obscure party trick in how to make a lesson exciting, in the vain hope of making even those two sad and unhappy faces in the last row light up?

Posted in Anxiety, Psychology, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

From postdoc to high school physics teacher: Some things I did and did not expect

A year ago, I was still in my second postdoc, living abroad and interviewing for tenure-track positions. Now I am a physics teacher at a high school back at home.

  1. I did not know that teaching can be so immediately rewarding. I was used to the very delayed gratification that is typical in academia. It is amazing to see the effect what you in real time. I sometimes go home with a smile on my face after a morning of teaching. I never read about this effect, but it appears to me that there is some very old and basic reward that one gets from teaching the next generation. I suppose this is because transmitting knowledge to the young has been crucial for the survival of our species since the stone age. Also I am surprised by how much the delayed gratification in academia was difficult to handle, I did not notice it anymore, but now it seems clear: This is one of the main reasons that many postdocs are so cranky. Once your paper gets accepted and, once it gets a lot of citations, you have almost forgotten about it, and you cannot really feel the reward anymore.

  2. I expected to be bored and less challenged by my work. This is mostly not true. The challenge has shifted, but trying to explain things clearly is actually extremely challenging. I am still pretty intense about my work. I wake up on a free day and start thinking about it, and I have ideas and insights about it at any time of day. The job is still very creative, and it is still about physics.

  3. I mostly like the fact that I don’t have a boss anymore. People say that it is a disadvantage in teaching that you cannot really progress along a hierarchy. But I like it that I am given the same kind of responsibility like an advanced teacher. I feel like the school trusts me and sees me as an adult. As a postdoc, I often felt trapped in a role that I was too old for.

  4. Several people had warned me in advance that teenagers are very annoying and will be hard to handle for an introverted, thin-skinned person like me. But the longer I work with them, the more I find that I really like teenagers. Maybe better than average adults. They are new-born adults and they are very seriously preparing for real life. They are trying to figure out how everything works, also testing out boundaries and trying out rebellion and trying out opportunism and trying out all sorts of strategies they will have to use in their life. They are in the middle of massive changes and know that more changes will come, and thus they are very vulnerable and insecure, but most of them go forward bravely and full of natural optimism. They often cheer me up when I am not in a good mood, and when I prepare a lesson well, I get a lot back from them. I know boredom and crankiness very well, and I empathize with how locked in they must sometimes feel in school, and how annoyed they must feel that adults always tell them what to do. Maybe I just remember this phase of my life better than others, or maybe I haven’t outgrown it as fully as others.

  5. There are things that I miss. I miss trying to push the boundary of human knowledge and being one of very few experts about an area. I miss programming and data analysis, and I miss moving around in my head in a complex, beautiful world that I feel completely at home and yet still offers surprises. I miss discussions with other scientists about things we really care about. I almost never feel sad about it when I am awake, just sometimes demotivated and fed up with everything, like a cranky teenager, but at night, I dream of my old work and cry. I knew it would be painful to leave, though, and overall I am doing fine. I am relieved that I don’t have to write proposals anymore, or go to conferences or worry about having to move to another country.

Still, overall, I admit that there is some sort of emptiness in my life now that my job is less all-consuming and feels less cool and exciting and special than before. I feel that the center in my brain that was used for data analysis and logic is underused and this makes me a bit restless. It is probably clear that I have to get myself a cool hobby or a part-time programming job next to teaching in order to feel better. For now, teaching is still so challenging that this is hard to find time for, and so I do feel like something is missing and that feeling is, overall, pretty weird. Mostly, I feel like a gold fish that has been released from his aquarium and still does not dare to swim too far from the small area that he’s used to. Sometimes he’s glad that the glass walls are gone, and sometimes scared, and almost wants them back.

Posted in Academia, Leaving Academia, Teaching | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments