During the pandemic isolation and the lack of social contact increased the rates of anxiety and depression by at least 25% according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). As millions of people are realising the adverse impact of loneliness on their wellbeing, there’s a population group that has been exposed to this struggle for years without proper attention being paid to their problems.

Many PhD students were already feeling this way due to their disrupted routines, poor work-life balance, and unmanageable workloads. Don’t forget about the high levels of stress associated with financial pressures and the need to complete their projects on time no matter what.

Protecting your mental health as a PhD student may be difficult at times as you become exposed to an increasing number of negative influences. This article explores key problems experienced by doctorate students in this sphere and offers a way to minimise the risks involved.

What Is ‘PhD Loneliness’?

A recent study highlighted how necessary it is to differentiate between the concepts of loneliness and social isolation. The first term defines an individual’s readiness to be alone and the capability to feel satisfied by this experience. This factor may be determined by personal introversion/extraversion levels. As well as the psychological stability allowing a person to survive without the compensatory effects of social networks. In many cases, a feeling of loneliness may emerge even in the cases of existing interpersonal relationships due to the lack of rapport and understanding.

The second concept of social isolation is associated with an involuntary state of physical and social separation from others. It may be explained by extreme workloads, insufficient leisure time, and other limitations emerging independently from an individual.

If we analyse the idea of ‘PhD Loneliness’ from the standpoint of these two concepts, we may come to some highly interesting conclusions:

- Even PhD students with high levels of socialisation may encounter problems caused by a feeling of loneliness due to external limitations.
- Personal characteristics and communication skills can make such problems substantially worse.
- Loneliness can be associated with a lack of support and understanding rather than the absence of social contact per se.

Why Are Loneliness and Anxiety Troublesome Signs for PhD Students?

This increasing frequency of mental health problems in academia strongly suggests that high-stress levels and social isolation experienced by PhD students should not be ignored. Here are some problems emerging from the attempts to ‘get through to the other side’ without paying attention to the ‘red lights’ shown by your body and mind:

- PhD projects create substantial levels of stress due to tight schedules, high levels of academic pressure, sleep deprivation, and the absence of work-life balance during the first year of studies.
- Students generally lack the competencies and skills necessary to manage this pressure such as mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques.
- The inability to recuperate leads to an endless cycle of burnout that can be further intensified by emerging financial and family problems or the difficulties associated with data collection or methodological design changes.
- At some point, the accumulated weight of challenges becomes unbearable and leads to a nervous breakdown further reducing the capability to cope with the required levels of stress.

From a practical standpoint, this progression may be evidenced in the following signs getting worse on a daily basis:

1. Anxiety

The uncertainties of your project's future can make you feel anxious, which leads to restlessness, being on the edge at all times, having problems with concentration, experiencing high levels of irritability, and getting fatigued too soon. If this gets to the level of headaches and sleep disorders, you must stop and revise your current workload planning immediately.

2. Loneliness

Many students feel like they are losing touch with their old friends and family members due to extreme workloads. However, they lack persons going through the same experience in life with whom they can share their feelings and doubts. As noted earlier, the problem may be intensified by prior problems with socialisation and poor communication skills.

3. Fear of Missing Out

A full-time PhD takes 3-4 years on average. It is only natural that you start doubting your choice to enter this programme since this means missing or delaying a lot of other things in life such as building your professional career or starting a family. These fears are shared by thousands of other students and workers who question whether their prior choices are right.

4. Impostor Syndrome

The lack of socialisation in your new sphere of interest frequently leads to the scenario where you consider your progress minuscule since you cannot compare it with other PhD students. Many supervisors actually increase the pressure level via extensive criticisms further convincing you that your earlier choice to enter a doctorate programme was a wrong one.

Survival Strategies for PhD Students

Here are some conclusions related to your situation as a stressed PhD student:

- These problems are experienced by thousands of your peers.
- Some students are more susceptible to mental health problems due to personal background factors or stressors they are exposed to.
- You need to take responsibility for your own survival since others may not understand you or provide the type of support you presently need.
- Resolving these problems as soon as possible is crucial for developing the resilience you need to possess in order to survive your PhD project without a nervous breakdown.

Here are some survival strategies that provide results within weeks or even days:

Seek your peers online in communities formed by current and past PhD students. Usually, novice users can find a lot of support and valuable recommendations. Seeing other ‘PhD survivors’ also demonstrates that anyone can do it if they pay sufficient attention to their health and work smart and not hard.

Join some group activities such as singing classes, yoga classes or cooking classes. Many of them can be found for free in your area of residence or may be subsidised by local authorities or your university. If you are an extravert, seeing others should be a part of your schedule that is as important as brushing your teeth or exercising on a regular basis.

Find a good therapist you can trust who can receive your urgent call in case of an emergency. In the wise words of a certain 1990s action movie character, “In a dire situation, it is better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it.”.

Author's Bio: 

Anna Clarke is the owner of online writing company 15 Writers. She is a successful entrepreneur with over 20 years’ experience in freelancing, PhD thesis consulting, specialising in Business, Economics, Finance, Marketing and Management.