So, the issue of dealing with anxiety in graduate school recently came up, as a part of a larger discussion about maintaining some sort of self care. Navigating the dynamics of our institutions and departments can get overwhelming on top of the work that we do and the roles we perform as students, teachers, and developing professionals. I've long thought that there's a sort of DuBoisian "double consciousness" involved in moving through the world of academia as a black woman. There's an awareness of the way that others view you (for more on this, check out the anthology Presumed Incompetent), and also a journey that must happen to be able to view yourself as an expert and a professional - both in terms of imagining that outcome for yourself, and also in terms of being able to really believe this (overcoming "imposter syndrome") as it becomes true.
Although I've tended to be an overthinker for a lot of my adult life, I have recognized that more recently, this habit of thinking has progressed to resembling more generalized anxiety. I think that experiences with navigating the institution and growing into myself as a scholar in graduate school have contributed to this, and I've spent considerable time thinking about how to manage my anxious thought patterns so that they don't hamper my happiness and productivity. So while I'm clearly not a medical professional, I do have some thoughts on the matter. It is important to seek medical help if anxiety begins to encroach on your life, by making use of campus health services or local low-income clinic locations, if you have access to those. I know that too often, black women hesitate to talk about mental illness - and anxiety is that - and experience barriers getting treatment or support. (Here's an Ebony article on this, and a cursory Google search will turn up much more.)
I've thought a little bit about other ways to manage anxiety and foster your confidence as you make your journey through your program.
First, I had to recognize that all I could control is what's actually in my control. This means addressing a major source of anxiety, which is the possibility that I don't know enough. From speaking up in class, to presenting research at a conference, to submitting a journal article for peer review, there are many ways in which we as academics must engage with our colleagues in the production of knowledge. What we do as academics is highly social, and whether we are "good at" being social or not, we must bounce our ideas off of each other to see what's viable and worth furthering. It can be scary, sure. My dear husband, who patiently listens to all of my anxious ramblings, has this thing he loves to tell me, "don't be scared, homie." This quote is from an apparently significant moment in boxing, but it has implications for this thing we do in academia, and has become something of a catchy mantra that I can quickly pull out of my mind in a situation calling for some guts.
So, getting back to the potential situation that finds me in a position where I might need to, but don't know enough, what I have found that I can control is doing the work toward knowing enough. Like, duh, I know, but hear me out. We come to grad school to become experts in a field of our interest, and becoming an expert means mastering content, theory, and the broad issues and debates that animate said field. Comprehensive or qualifying exams are designed for this; you have to cover a lot of terrain in order to prove your competency through these exams. The dissertation prospectus preparation work is designed similarly; to allow you to show what you know about your narrower research interest. For both of these, reading as much as I can read, as well as practicing synthesizing and responding to it, has been the activity over which I have the most control. I can be sure that no matter what others may assume about me when I walk into a room, there are subjects that I know well, and often know more about, than others. Professor Brittney Cooper, a.k.a. Professor Crunk can be seen in this Schomburg Center hosted roundtable of black digital intelligentsia saying, "Ain't nobody better than me at what I do." When I saw that, y'all, my YASSSSSSS could be heard around the world. Hang onto these moments that motivate you as you develop your academic black girl magic.
Next, it is important to remember that with all that sedentary mastering, you must make time to take care of your body. I have found that when I feel good and I feel like I look good, this contributes to feeling more sure of myself, and having a clear head for productivity. I've been asked, "well, what about self care?" and whether I think it's possible to make a balance work in light of all the demands of becoming an expert in any field of study. My short answer: I think the balance is strained, but I recognize that it won't always be so. I definitely recognize that limited time for physical activity coupled with significant stress related to various phases of graduate school can lead to health issues. I gained 70 pounds in graduate school. Seven zero. The dissertation stage has allowed me more flexibility in scheduled time, though, and I've used that to my advantage when it comes to building self care into my schedule. Now I have blocks of time in which I take care of my body, and I guard those blocks of time in the same way that I do my writing time. With a 14 pound loss and more energy, my self care has begun to feel like something over which I have control, reminding me that I have the ability to take on difficult things and see success, and encouraging me to stay the course. There are also ways that I take advantage of my location to make weekend beach excursions with my family, and, of course, maintaining an active conference schedule allows for fun travel experiences in the name of professionalizing.
Also, it is important to remember that building confidence is not something that happens over night; you can do this brick by brick. Consider applying for awards and sending those conference abstracts (and especially graduate student conference travel funding). If you don't feel like you're a very reliable assessor of whether you're on the right track, these external markers can serve as recognition that your work is good, and your mastery is growing. Does your department or graduate school give teaching awards, research showcases, fellowships? Practice sharing your work and getting feed back. Leverage your relationship with your advisor, as their expertise allows them to evaluate the merit of your work and give you constructive feedback that enables you to strengthen and further it. Discuss issues and share writing with trusted peers, whether in your informal sister circle or department writing group, and allow this to lead you to sharing your work in symposia, at conferences, and by submitting to publications.
Lastly, your resolve can be fortified by feeling strongly grounded in a tradition of work that you identify with and feeling inspired about your work because you have identified a need for it. If this is something you're unsure about because you're mired in the process of getting through the work and determining interests that you'll be committing to, just spend some time letting these questions roll around in your head: Who are your "academic aunties," as Moontime Warrior refers to the women in our tradition that we admire? In whose path do you walk? What is at stake in your work? When you sit down (or stand up) to work, who do you show up for? Who needs your work, and how can your community outside of academia benefit from it? Knowing the whence, why, and for whom of your work allows you to feel secure about its worth and value. Who you are as a scholar, and your orientation to the work you've chosen to pursue, is directly related to this worth and value. Your work is important, and it deserves the most confident presentation that you can give it.