Hello, Rookies. It’s been a month since we first Body Talked. Still got a body? Same. Still got some concerns shaking around in it? Me too. Let’s do this:
I am pretty sure I have an anxiety disorder. I looked up all the symptoms, and I get most of them. I really want to get help, but I am afraid that no one will believe me if I tell them, like they’ll want proof or something. I feel like they will say I’m just seeking attention, or that it’s all normal to feel this way, or that they will treat me weird from then on. How do I get over this fear and ask for help? —D.S. 13, Wisconsin
While I can’t confirm whether you have an anxiety disorder, I believe that you’re not making up your symptoms, or your fears. When it comes to anxiety, there is a very real possibility that requests for help may be ignored, disbelieved, or judged. These things might happen to you. Stigma still surrounds anxiety disorders (which may be a reason why only 18 percent of U.S. adolescents with anxiety—100 percent of whom deserve treatment if they want it—actually receive treatment.) But even if every single one of the fears your letter mentions comes true exactly how the meanest, most punishing part of your brain is picturing it, they should not prevent you from getting the help you deserve. These Dogs of Fear (I made them dogs) might jump in your path and demand that you pet and play with them, but you can still persevere. Throw a stick and tell them go to fetch, and keep going.
What I’m trying to say is: You can overcome these fears. You’ve already done it! Twice! TWICE. At least!
The First Overcoming of Your Fears: You admitted to yourself that something is not right here.
When you wrote that you’re afraid of people telling you that “it’s all normal to feel this way,” that’s because, to a certain extent, it is. I think many people identify with this Gunshow comic:
Anxiety is a loyal pet from eons ago, when humans relied on it (along with responses like worry and hyper-sensitivity to danger) to get them away from daily threats to life—like predators and fires and stuff. Nowadays, anxiety and other very real protective mechanisms in your brain help you respond to the mad stressors of everyday life. Remember those Dogs of Fear? Think of anxiety as an uptight little dog that barks to alert you to potential danger:
Bark bark! Better not step into traffic until the light changes!
Bark bark! What if you’re going to be late?
Bark bark! What if you don’t know anyone at the party?
Bark bark! Why is this vengeful ghost trying to give you a golden key?
Regardless of whether ghosts are real (THEY. ARE.), your feelings are real, and so are their physical effects: wild sweating, muscles tensing like wires, dizziness, and the feeling that your heart is in your throat can all be symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety’s been humanity’s best friend for so long that it’s not too hot at distinguishing between imminently threatening danger and, well, the rest of your life. For some, anxiety is such a steadfast and protective companion that she barks at everything. You may be so busy figuring out why anxiety is barking or calming her down that it prevents you from getting other things done—which can be frustrating, because the reason it exists in the first place is to SAVE your life, not prevent you from living it. This is where “normal” anxiety becomes “abnormal” anxiety: When it starts interfering with your daily functions.
This can happen in very visible ways–avoiding school, friends, work–or internal ones, such as racing thoughts and an inability to concentrate that can make you feel, in the words of my friend Connor’s brother, “like a wave that never crashes.” If you believe anxious thoughts are monkeying with your grind, they are. Period. Trust yourself: Keep feeling your feelings without judging whether they’re “real enough.” They are real to you, and that is more than enough evidence to take them seriously.
The Second Overcoming of Your Fears: You reached out to someone (me) and sent this beautiful letter. That is huge.
You might be surprised at who will listen to you when you ask for help with your anxiety. I love what Sady wrote here, to someone in a similar situation: “Isolating yourself feels very natural and like a good form of self-protection. But actually, it tends to make your pain and stress much worse, because you can’t get any support. I would bet that, no matter how huge your secret feels, there are people in your life who would respond to it with love and care.”
Anxiety is very, very treatable through therapy, medication, or a hot combo of both. Jane Marie has some good advice on how to start this search for professional help, and Jamia’s essay on finding a great therapist starts with her having to overcome anti-therapy biases from her parents. Emily Gordon recently wrote about how to seek help for self-harm, but her advice is solid for anyone searching for help with their mental health.
If you tell someone about your anxiety, and they dismiss it as “normal,” they may be underestimating you or discriminating because of your age. Maybe they were told, at some point, that anxiety is “normal” and they should just “deal with it.” Nod along, then ask someone else. Say out loud or in your head, “NOPE!” Or just hum “Paper Bag” under your breath—especially this part: “He said, ‘It’s all in your head’/I said, ‘So’s everything’ but he didn’t get it/I thought he was a man but he was just a little boy.”
Plenty of “normal experiences” are incredibly overwhelming and difficult to deal with. You wrote that you are 13. When I was 13, I had the care of my life entrusted to two people who rarely asked what I wanted, and if I didn’t like it, I couldn’t do too much about it, because I didn’t have enough money to take care of myself, nor was I able to do so because I was required by law to wake up at dawn’s ass and go to a place I hated for eight completely unpaid hours. Yet, that’s a fairly “normal” situation; as Gabby once said to me, “High school is logistically the worst place and like it just keeps HAPPENING.”
There are adults you can trust out there, even if you have to go looking for them. While you’re working on identifying people who will be supportive, you can get acquainted with ways to manage your anxiety that can be done for free, in your very own home! Right now!
Meditation can help teach your brain to snap back under your control. Over time, meditation also strengthens your ability to rein your brain in–like when it’s freestyling some shit about how you shouldn’t try something because you’re going to fail—even when you’re not meditating. There’s a lot of ways to learn how to meditate: Why not start with Marie’s “bra-free meditation”? For a more traditional introduction, you could watch a video or try a meditation app like Headspace.
You might also familiarize yourself with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a structured kind of therapy that is considered effective against anxiety disorders. CBT’s basic setup is that you can modify a debilitating pattern of thinking by challenging it, and that the brain sometimes takes twists and turns known as “cognitive distortions.” A couple examples…
“All or nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.”
Even if you’re not in CBT with a therapist, it might help to run through a list of cognitive distortions when you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxious thoughts; the similarity between your personal thought and a cognitive distortion may ~surprise~ and then ~comfort~ you. You’re not alone. Every one of us is here because, at some point, worrying about danger worked. All of our ancestors ran from the same dinosaurs.
So many people’s stories of successfully managing anxiety start in the same place as your letter. Naomi’s answer to this Just Wondering question talks about the anxiety she had to overcome, and in this essay she talks about her evolving relationship to her “crazy.” Rachael’s untreated anxiety manifested itself as a terror of failure, but one that ultimately changed the course of her life.
Don’t stop now! Remember, you’ve already attacked and conquered twice; no small feat to do that in addition to the day-to-day fear stare-down you engaged in long enough to get you here. Maybe imagine that you’re being chased by a vengeful ghost trying to give you a golden key?
Ghosts are real! Please keep sending in corporeal queries, and let’s meet back here next month. ♦
Got a question about what the actual heck is going on in there (“in there” being your physical self)? Send it to [email protected] with the subject line “Body Talk,” and please include your first name, last initial, age, and city/state.