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Dealing with the Undertow of Negative Feelings

Most graduate students experience fairly severe stress at different times over the course of completing the dissertation. For some, the stress is sufficient to disrupt their capacity to work. For others it takes a toll on their lives and health. The three techniques mentioned here are only a few that people find helpful in dealing with feelings that disrupt their capacity to work. Be on the look out for other techniques.


A powerful technique for dealing with anxiety, for shifting out of a negative moods, or dealing with body tension was developed by Eugene Gendlin called Focusing. It is more akin to a western form of meditation than to the idea of focusing on something to the exclusion of all else. Focusing is about attending to internal states, to moods, feelings and body discomfort such as back pain, head aches. In our culture we are encouraged to ignore these signals, to treat them with pain medication; however, focusing can be used to reveal the underlying sources, to hear the communication that may lie behind the discomfort. If you move your attention in a relaxed, respectful way, with your eyes shut, towards the discomfort and invite your mind to let you know what the pain is about and wait with patience for the mind to come up with a response (rather than trying to think your way to the response) you may be surprised by what you learn and the freedom that comes with that learning. You may discover that you can move out of a mood of intense refusal to work into awareness of what that protest may be about and then into an energized mood in which you are able to work. See Gendlin's book, Focusing (see Useful Books) and Ann Weiser Cornell's book, The Power of Focusing for more information. There is even a section in Cornell's book on how she dealt with her writer's block, see page 57 of her book.

Here is a brief description of one way to enter a focusing state of mind. Plan on taking about 20 minutes. Later as you get more familiar with the technique you may do shorter and longer sessions.


Find a really comfortable place to sit. Close your eyes. Relax your body into the chair. Let yourself allow your whole body to sink into the chair. Feel how well the chair holds you up. You don't have to make any effort to hold yourself up because the chair does it all. Notice your feet touching the floor. Feel how the floor holds them up. Feel their connection with the floor. Feel your arms on the chair or on your lap. Let yourself feel the effortlessness of just resting them where they are. Feel your hands at the end of your arms just resting also. Feel how they don't have to move at all because they are just resting. Let your head lean back against the chair. Now bring your awareness into the central part of your body. Let it travel down from your head to your throat. Let it stay there. If you feel any tension or pain, let your attention gently come to it. Then let your attention just visit with it, like it's a person. You're just standing with it or sitting with it, getting to know it better. There's no rush to move on. Often when you bring your awareness to a point of tension or discomfort gently and in a non-demanding manner, the feeling or discomfort shifts and releases and gives you insights. Let your attention travel down to your chest, staying with any tension or body sensation in the same way. Getting to know it. Say hello to it. That often changes the feeling of it. You are taking a more welcoming, accepting stance towards the feelings rather than trying to shut them out. Just be with it and visit it a scared animal, which is not ready to trust you. Continue going down now to your stomach and visit the feelings in your body there. Just gently bring your attention to whatever you feel. When you feel ready to stop, gradually bring your attention back to the room and open your eyes.

Adapted from Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.

Martin Seligman is a clinical psychologist who studied a phenomenon called "learned helplessness" in order to better understand depression. He writes about how a person's way of explaining things to themselves and by extension their beliefs greatly affect their moods and their ability to function. People who tend towards depression and to feelings of self-diminishment often speak to themselves and explain things to themselves in self-depreciating, harshly critical ways, ways in which they would never talk to someone else. He advocates the following approach in order to adapt a new attitude and become constructive. Many people find this technique most effective when they write their way through the different steps. Reading the example below will help make the steps clearer.

  • Adversity = Write down what the challenge is. Write down what happened, what you are up against, how you are feeling.

  • Underlying Belief = Write down your underlying fear is. What are the assumptions which underlie your worry, what are you really afraid of? What is your belief of what will happen if you can't meet the challenge?

  • Consequences = State the effects on your feelings and behavior of holding these beliefs and fears. What are the consequent feelings and behaviors that result from the underlying beliefs?

  • Disputation = Dispute the underlying beliefs and self accusations. Pretend you are a lawyer for the defendant (yourself) and eloquently argue the other side, argue in defense of yourself. Argue against the negative underlying beliefs. Find other ways and beliefs by which to evaluate and understand your behavior or the situation. For example, if you are explaining your failure to complete the chapter, by accusing yourself of being lazy, try to explain it differently - "this is the toughest chapter I've had to write." Think of these adversities and challenges as opportunities for learning. Think of various ways you can find out more or approach the problem differently. Keep in mind that there is always a solution (Buddha said to look for the third way). In your mind, search for resources you could use to get more information or perspective, like books or people. Make a plan for how to handle the situation (which could include doing nothing, but not worrying or being self-critical).

  • Energization = Register how you are feeling now. Do you feel any better? Hopefully, you do. If not, write down what you are thinking now; this is the new adversity to address.

An example:
Adversity = I said that I would turn in my results chapter to my sponsor this week and I haven't. I'm not finished.

Underlying Belief = My sponsor will think I'm not a good student. (My sponsor won't want to work with me anymore. This will take away her respect for me.)

Consequences = Low self esteem, anxiety, pressure

Disputation = Okay, I can't go any faster. I'm confronting problems the best I can. This chapter had certain problems, which I think that I cured but I'm not sure. Anyway, it's going to get done. I've finished 3/4 of it now. My sponsor is very busy. She probably hasn't even noticed that I'm late turning it in. If I want, I can leave her a note about it or I can just turn it in next week. I'll check with my friend, her teaching assistant, to see whether she thinks it's okay just to hand it in next week. Maybe I should hand in what I've done and get her feedback on that part? That's an interesting idea. That way she'll also see the problem I'm having now and if she has any ideas about what to do, she can tell me. I'll ask my friend about that. I'm not a good student? She's seen my other chapters and thought they were okay. Why would she think I'm not good now? She was willing to sponsor me in the first place. The promise to hand in the chapter this week? That was the right thing to do. That's how I keep myself going, with deadlines, concrete goals, and commitments. Also time keeps passing and I want to get this done and gone on with other things. Look, it's not going to be perfect when I hand it in. I've met that underlying belief before, having to have what I write and do be perfect. She'll dump me? Come on, Lois, for handing in the draft of a chapter a few days late or a week late? Does that make sense, given that she's felt okay about my work so far? Ease up. It's okay.

Energization = I feel better.


Most people can tolerate something for a few minutes. If you are in a mood where work seems unimaginable, you may discover that if you decide to work for only 20 minutes, or an even smaller block of time, you can get yourself to do so. So try dividing a chunk of say two hours into 20-minute chunks. Then keep switching activities. Work on the dissertation for 20 minutes, then make phone calls, then clean house, then work on the dissertation. Do each activity for only 20 minutes. This is usually makes it possible to work on a tough task even in the worst of moods. Consider combining this approach with the focusing technique.

Creating A Work Structure






The Dissertation Workshop
Fred Stern, Ph.D. and Lois Feldman, Ph.D
Phone: 212-874-4530


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