Johanna Meyer has recently submitted her PhD Thesis on improving treatment of anxiety disorders which are the most common mental health concerns in the community. Her research focusses on safety behaviours – actions performed in response to unrealistic or exaggerated perceptions of threat. She shares a little bit of her PhD journey with us in this month's PhD Story.

Year you commenced in HDR study?
I originally started a PhD program in the United States at the University of Wyoming in 2013. However, early into that program my research supervisor at the University of Wyoming accepted an associate professor position at the University of Wollongong. In order to continue working with him, I moved to Australia and began my PhD here in 2015. I submitted my thesis in August 2019 and hope to be awarded my doctorate late 2019 or early 2020. 

Working Title of Thesis?
Beliefs about Safety Behaviours: An Examination across Three Relevant Populations 

Please give a broad description of the topic or question you investigated as part of your research.
I research clinical anxiety. Specifically, my research focusses on safety behaviours – actions performed in response to an unrealistic or exaggerated perception of threat. For example, an individual with an exaggerated fear of being judged by others (i.e., social anxiety) may avoid meeting new people, using public transportation, or making phone calls. When in social situations, an individual with social anxiety may avoid eye contact, practice what they are going to say in their head before they say it out loud, or leave the situation entirely. Although safety behaviours are often effective in avoiding and/or reducing anxiety in the short-term, they tend to maintain – and can even exacerbate – anxiety in the long-term. 

Johann Meyer - mobile phone anxiety
"One common safety behaviour is using mobile phones to distract oneself from feeling anxious. Unfortunately, relying on mobile phones in this way can actually increase one's anxiety in the long-term."

In clinical settings, we know that anxiety improves when individuals face their fears without using safety behaviours. Understanding why someone uses safety behaviours is important in knowing how to get them to stop. Unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about why people think safety behaviours are valuable because there isn’t a lot of research on this topic. Thus, my PhD explores the beliefs people have about their safety behaviours and how these beliefs relate to safety behaviour use. It is my hope that this research will help clinicians tailor therapy to the individual, ultimately improving treatment outcome. 

Can you provide some background on how you came to HDR research?
Honestly, I first came to HDR research out of obligation! I always wanted to be a clinical psychologist, working directly with clients to help them with their mental health concerns. In the United States, a PhD is required to be a clinical psychologist. So, I did all the research-related things I needed to do in order to get into an American clinical psychology PhD program (e.g., volunteer in research labs, present research at conferences, write an honours thesis, etc.). While doing these activities, I discovered that I enjoyed generating and disseminating research as much as I enjoyed using it to guide treatment. As such, even though a PhD is not required to become a clinical psychologist in Australia, I continued my HDR study here.  

How did you and/or your approach change over that time?
I suppose the most significant change for me throughout my HDR study was my own confidence as a researcher. At the start of my PhD I thought I would need constant and continuous hand-holding from my supervisors but that really hasn’t been the case. Over time, I’ve become much more independent and self-assured, which I’m sure is a relief to my supervisors! 

What were some highlights of your HDR study?
Research is all about long-term gratification. The highlights of my PhD were the moments when, after months and even years of hard work, I successfully disseminated my research: when I had a manuscript accepted for publication, when I presented my findings at a conference, and when I won the Three Minute Thesis competition for the Faculty of Social Sciences.  

What were the lowlights?
I think when you start a PhD there are certain lowlights you expect to have such as rejection from journals, long days at the office, long nights at the office, and long weekends at the office. I certainly had my fair share of these obstacles. However, my biggest hurdle came when my primary research supervisor – whom I moved from Florida to Wyoming to work with, and then from Wyoming to Australia to work with – announced his resignation from the University of Wollongong. I felt lost, uncertain, and completely terrified. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, it was actually a great opportunity – it allowed me to spread my wings a bit and increase my independence as a researcher. It also led me to work with a fantastic new primary supervisor, Dr. Peter Kelly, whose support was crucial in getting my PhD to the finish line. 

Describe the most important things for PhD study (e.g. supervisor support / library resources / peer support / holidays)?
All of the above, plus heaps of caffeine. Everyone knows the adage ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Well, the same goes for a PhD. It’s not just about the PhD student’s dedication, resilience, patience, and passion. It’s about the university’s access to resources and if possible, financial support for the student. It’s about the supervisor’s encouragement and direction. It’s about the student’s friends’ and family members’ support in times of sorrow as well as celebration in times of joy. 

What advice do you (or would you give) to those considering HDR study or currently studying?
I would recommend spending some time to figure out exactly why you’re embarking on this academic adventure. Firstly, what are your personal and professional goals and how will HDR study enable you to achieve these goals? Secondly, what are the values that drive you to conduct HDR study – is it creativity, curiosity, contribution, persistence? Whatever your goals and values are, write them on a post-it note and stick it somewhere you can easily see from your workspace. Inevitably, there will come a day when you will need to be reminded of why this pathway is important to you. 

Oh, and always know when and where your next holiday will be.