Carrying the baggage with me : how living with clinical anxiety intersects with doing a master’s thesis among female students : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Science in Psychology (endorsement in Health Psychology) at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand

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Purpose: To better understand the lived experience of doing a master’s thesis for women with clinical anxiety. Background: Anxiety disorders are significant mental health issues that interfere with daily functioning and quality of life. There is a high prevalence of anxiety within Aotearoa/New Zealand, especially amongst females, which may be intensified by doing a thesis. Research has previously identified postgraduate thesis students as vulnerable to anxiety and its ill effects. Yet, little is known of the impact of anxiety disorders on women’s ability to complete higher education programmes including a research thesis, or how study programmes and processes might intensify these disorders. Method: Eight female students who identified as having clinical anxiety, and who were currently completing, or had completed a master’s thesis at a New Zealand university, were recruited via purposive sampling methods. Semi-structured interviews in conjunction with participant-created timelines were used to collect data. Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was performed on the participant interview transcripts to enable rich insights into the participants’ personal experiences while completing their thesis. Findings: Three superordinate themes were generated in the analysis process of interview data. The first theme ‘Internal ‘baggage’ is activated in the thesis journey’ illustrated how certain traits and pre-existing tendencies that participants possessed were activated during participants’ thesis journey, adding further complexity to an already arduous process. The second theme, ‘The thesis as a catalyst for anxiety’ highlighted specific components of the research process that participants identified as being significant contributors to their levels of stress and anxiety throughout. The third theme, ‘Human connection - The people along the way make the difference’ described support structures and systems that participants relied upon. This theme enabled an analysis of what it was about those supports that helped to minimise the level of anxiety that they experienced while writing their thesis. Conclusions: This study identified unique and complex challenges that women with clinical anxiety face when undertaking a thesis. In showing how a thesis may intensify anxiety to the detriment of students’ performance and well-being, this study highlights the importance for universities to offer specialized support to students and supervisors to enable women with clinical anxiety to reach their potential within higher education. The thesis concludes with important directions for future research as well as outlining the kinds of support and resources universities might provide to enhance the student experience for this population.