May is Mental Health Awareness Month and one of the things I’m really passionate about is mental health awareness among teens. I was a really anxious kid and it had a big effect on my growth as an adult.
It’s important to break the stigma and normalize getting help and therapy.
Here’s my story of teen anxiety from my anxiety workbook Breathe.
I have had anxiety for almost as far back as I can remember. In 6th grade, I vaguely remember my mom taking me to the doctor for the stomach ache that would occur every morning before school.
I missed a lot of school and got in trouble for it (which produced even more anxiety!). Everyone thought I was faking it because as soon as I didn’t have to go to school I was “magically” better. My mom took me to the doctor and I remember him asking if I liked school. I think I said yes.
I liked school in an intellectual sense. I’d made good grades and I never got into trouble, it just completely stressed me out on every level and I couldn’t explain it. There was no concrete reason I could point to and say, “This is it, this is what bothers me.” It was everything. I always had this fear of failing. Of getting detention. Being bullied. Getting bad grades. Forgetting homework. Walking down the hallway. Eating lunch in the cafeteria. I feared this big, undeniable, BAD THING that was just bound to happen.
I don’t remember anyone saying the word “anxiety”. I just remember that from that point on I took an antacid most mornings to help with my tummy. Treat the symptom and not the problem.
My thoughts were always on a constant repetitive loop in my head.
Worry, worry, worry. As a middle-schooler/high-schooler, there are A LOT of thoughts going on anyway (thanks, puberty). Anxiety is having all of those insecure thoughts on overdrive, add in a healthy dose of hormones and I was a mess.
Specifically, I had problems with sitting in the front or middle of class. It always made me anxious. I felt trapped and claustrophobic and sometimes I’d have trouble breathing. I’d obsess about telling the teacher how I felt. I’d rehearse conversations repeatedly in my head, every day, constantly, but I’d be unable to say anything because I had also thoroughly rehearsed the response – the misunderstanding, mocking, annoyance-filled, response I was bound to receive.
I had my first full-blown panic attack in 9th grade in history class.
Stress migraines in 11th and 12th grade that would end with blinding nausea and hiding in the bathroom stall feeling like death. That was my “normal”.
I didn’t realize how completely my anxiety had affected my life. I didn’t even realize that it WAS anxiety. No one ever sat me down and explained to me that it wasn’t normal to feel that way. It felt normal but I also saw that I was different.
I couldn’t even think of applying for college because every time I thought about it, my brain would freeze in this wave of anxiety so I’d just avoid thinking about it. The thought of the paperwork, the possible rejection, phone calls, talking to strangers… CHANGE… it paralyzed me on every level.
I didn’t go to prom and I skipped my graduation. I never went out with friends. There was no dating.
I purposefully alienated myself from my peers because I worried about every aspect of who I was. I always had the worst outcome about every situation perpetually on a loop in my brain. Every time I tried to be social, I had so much anxiety about it that it was never enjoyable and eventually even making the effort was too much work and not worth it.
My plan to deal with my anxiety as a young adult was AVOID, AVOID, AVOID. Don’t do anything to upset The Anxiety. Hide in video games, sleep, and food.
I became borderline agoraphobic and the only time I left my apartment was to go to work.
I eventually made friends and I either clung to them like I was drowning or they were the friends I had just to be polite. Neither was healthy – I either let people in and then was terrified of them leaving or I had this big wall up.
It took me a long time to realize that a) I had anxiety b) it wasn’t normal to live that way and c) that my anxiety was something that I had the ability to manage.
I didn’t have to let it run wild over my life. There were things that I could do to lessen the control that it had over me.
It’s hard to pinpoint teenage anxiety.
Between hormones, growing pains, and general teenage angst – it’s sometimes hard to see anxiety teens. Here are some things to look out for.
Hyperfocused on “perfection”
A constant need for approval and reassurance
Withdrawal from hobbies
Meltdowns aka panic attacks
What To Do:
Normalize options like therapy or talking to a counselor
Focus on self-care and finding engaging activities and hobbies
Introduce things like yoga and meditation
Keep an open dialogue with your teen about their worries and symptoms