By Kaya Callahan – from a teenager’s perspective
Heavy breathing. Heart beating fast. Feels like there is 100 lb. weight on my lungs. Shaking. The room is getting smaller…I feel trapped. My mind spiraling into darkness, uncontrollable, self created darkness. Sound like a perfect horror film?
In reality, it’s my life – the life of someone who struggles with anxiety. Not all days or anxiety attacks are like the one I described, and until about a year ago, I thought it was just intense stress, but these freak-outs didn’t feel normal. I even had a tough time telling my mom because I felt like I was different in a bad way, that I was alone, and that people would think there was something wrong with me.
Anxiety attacks can be random, some good days, some bad days. Mine started happening in high school when more stress, pressure, and responsibility was put on my shoulders. I had two to three hours of homework every night, tests and quizzes every week, busy sports schedule, the struggle to find friends or a tribe to hang out with at school. My freshmen year was the worst, like it is for most freshmen. The attacks started mid first semester when I felt that awkward panic of not having people to sit with at lunch and I started to struggle in classes. I didn’t know what to call it yet, I just thought I was super stressed. However, it hit me my sophomore year when I started Geometry. With a big test coming up, I felt stupid, like I was the only one raising my hand in class for help, and it didn’t help when the teacher told me she’d already explained it and wasn’t explaining it again!! What??!!
Heavy breathing….Heart beating fast….. 100 lb. weight on my lungs…shaking…. I feel stuck, trapped, trying not to cry, scared of disappointing everyone with bad grades. Thankfully, that math teacher realized I was not coping well and started being more helpful. She would let me be excused so that I could go to my counselor and just clear my head and breathe.
Studies from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America show anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, ages 18 and older, and an even higher rate among teens/adolescents; 1 in 8 experience anxiety or panic attacks. Studies show that untreated kids are at higher risk of engaging in substance abuse. This doesn’t surprise me since kids are looking for ways to escape the stresses and pressures of their overloaded schedules.
My mom had me go to therapy to find tools to help to calm myself, to find better ways to get myself out of my dark mind spiral, my “mind monster.” It helped. It cured my anxiety for a while. I was happy, I made friends, had a great boyfriend, was a varsity cheerleader and performed well academically. However, my anxiety didn’t completely disappear. I experienced fewer anxiety attacks during class time but they would still materialize once in a while. They would sneak out from behind my insecurities, and my fears.
Everyone is afraid to admit they struggle with anxiety, which can leave you all the more isolated, feeling like a weirdo. I discovered many of my friends were struggling too because they were taking “bathroom escapes.” When I am having a panic attack and just need some fresh air so I can breathe and calm down, I ask my teacher to escape from the class and go to the bathroom. Sometimes I don’t go to the bathroom. Instead, I take a walk, breathe, say a positive mantra or prayer, which is enough to break the panic and turn my thoughts from negative to positive, or at least neutral. I thought I was the only one, but more and more of my friends started admitting to doing the same. Even so, no one feels comfortable talking about their anxiety in detail. It’s sad that there is such an embarrassment and stigma around it that we can’t even be there to support each other.
Anxiety is a difficult-to-control, confidence-depleting mental health issue. The best way to connect and express your support is to make them feel comfortable and loved, that they are in a safe space to discuss their anxiety without judgment. Whatever you do, DON’T say things like “Just get over it”, “You’re overreacting” or “You’re fine, calm down!” All of which automatically shut the person with anxiety down and makes them feel worse, makes them question themselves and feel like there is something wrong with them.
We take care of our physical health, emotional health, spiritual health, yet we neglect of one of the most important things: our mental health.
The stigma must be broken.
If you are a parent of a teenager who suffers from anxiety, please sign up for our session Teen Anxiety for Parents – Dec. 9th.