Dealing with Discomfort during a PhD

Does the thought of your PhD make you feel anxious, restless, and stressed? If it does, you’re in good company, but it doesn’t have to stay this way. In today’s PhD Life post Jenny Mak shares how she dealt with these common, yet uncomfortable feelings…

Doing a PhD can be an extremely uncomfortable experience. Many PhD students feel anxious, stressed, restless, unconfident, worried, panicky, uncertain, and like an ‘imposter’—and these feelings are likely to stay if they go on to pursue academic careers. In this post, I’d like to share three ways in which I dealt with feelings of discomfort whenever they arose during my PhD. These feelings are a necessary part of the process, but while they feel unpleasant, they aren’t insurmountable.

Method #1: The 90-second rule

According to psychologist Dr. Joan Rosenberg, unpleasant feelings last for a short period of time and pass pretty quickly. To be exact, they last 60 to 90 seconds, which is “less that half a song”. So if you stay fully present in your discomfort in that short period, you’ll become more emotionally resilient over time.

Staying fully present can be challenging though. I’ve found practices like meditation to be helpful. Meditation practices often direct us to focus on our breathing, and this required concentration on one activity helps our minds to disengage from other thoughts that’ll inevitably occur. Participating in a meditation session on campus or using an app like HeadSpace can start you on your meditation practice. Ultimately as Rosenberg points out, it’s about awareness, not avoidance, of these unpleasant feelings. Check out her TED talk “Emotional Mastery: The Gifted Wisdom of Unpleasant Feelings” for more insights.

Method #2: Compassionate conversation

Much of our anxiety comes from comparing ourselves to other PhD students and feeling inadequate about our own achievements. Thoughts like these might run in our heads: Colleague A published an article in that renowned journal that has the whole department talking. Colleague B is barely done with her PhD and she has a postdoctoral position waiting for her. Colleague C has been nominated for a teaching award. Everyone seems so certain of his/her own career direction, unlike me. Why can’t I be as good as them?

But these thoughts don’t reflect the whole reality. A simple way forward is to talk to people and ask them how they’re doing in a compassionate manner. You’re not revelling in others’ miseries, but shifting the focus from your own worries to care about how others are handling their own challenges, and possibly offering your support. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that everyone is facing difficulties. When you open up to others and vice versa, you’ll find that you’re not alone in your worries. And when you see the sheer variety of challenges that everyone faces, you’ll understand that each of us can only really focus on our own pace and progress.

Method #3: Blind faith

There comes a point where you need blind faith in yourself—the stubborn belief that you’re deserving of a PhD and are capable of producing quality work for it. Sure, when you’re drowning in a sea of unpleasant feelings, this belief can seem irrational. But you’re not being irrational. In fact, this blind faith is grounded in the very rational fact that no one can control the outcome of an endeavour, but we can control the level of our efforts towards it. Blind faith, then, refers to the attitude we take towards such a long and challenging endeavour as a PhD, and it can hold us steady through uncertain times.

How can we cultivate blind faith? It might help to think of your past successes and how you went about them. Write down the specific steps you took. You could also ask people whom you trust and who know you well to remind you of your strengths. Use these reminders as positive reinforcement. Finally, focus on your intention for doing your PhD. Write this down clearly and in the present tense. How does this intention feel? Does it have an image or a thought connected to it? Take some time every day to focus on your intention and cultivate the feelings that are connected to it. Hopefully, this will help you feel more grounded and calm as you progress in your PhD journey.


Is your PhD making you feeling anxious and uncomfortable? What are some practices or activities you’ve done to deal with these feelings? Have these methods been successful? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training.


Image: psychology-mind-thoughts-thought-2422439 / ElisaRiva / CC0 1.0

2 thoughts on “Dealing with Discomfort during a PhD

  1. I found oustanding these advices

    Being present and believing in ourselves, but not only in ourselves (our ego) but in our talents

    Thanks for sharing these valuable tips

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: