When my middle daughter was in preschool, her teacher told me she would circle the room “like a shark,” trying to figure out what to do with herself. When we went to other people’s houses, we had to take snacks for her because she was worried about eating other people’s food. She didn’t like uncertainty and always needed to know what was going to happen next. Turns out this was early anxiety.
Her anxiety continued in middle school and high school, in the form of social anxiety. She never felt quite comfortable in her own skin. She would say she didn’t know how to act or how to be herself. Now she’s midway through college, and she’s made a ton of progress…but she’s still working on it. She was home recently, and I decided to “interview” her to see if her experiences could help other teens and parents. Here’s our conversation:
When did you start feeling you had anxiety?
I was a worried kid. I was really worried about getting sick in public or at friends’ houses. I asked my teachers a lot of questions, because I always wanted to know what was coming.
What did you do in high school that helped?
I went to therapy.
You started college at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. It was a very fast plummet for you that turned into depression. Were you surprised when this happened?
Yes. My depression spiraled from anxiety. Transferring to the University of Minnesota after a semester in New York was absolutely the right decision. Once I transferred, things slowly improved, but then I went through my days scared of depression and scared that I’d feel that terrible way again. I’d actually focus on it because I was trying so hard to avoid it – but then you look for it and find it. So I started to go through my day with a little mantra of “I’m accepting what comes” and then I’d focus on my DAY and my TASKS.
Do you think you were depressed in high school?
What about now?
No, I don’t have depression. But anxiety? Yeah, I think I’ll always have it.
Tell me about how anxious you are nowadays.
I feel pretty good. I get anxious but I feel a lot more stabilized and neutral. I feel it but I can look at it objectively and put it away. I decide not to feed into it and I put it away.
What has helped you manage your anxiety?
Meds. I’m on a very low dose of Lexapro, and that has helped take the edge off.
And going to therapy helps – I need to have a plan to focus on.
You’re in your second year of college. What do you do, and what do you recommend for others who have anxiety and are away at school?
Self-care is a big word these days, but it’s really important to make time to be a human besides just focusing 100% on school. For me, that means doing things I’m passionate about so I feel like I have worth and meaning. Like getting my yoga teacher training, having my podcast and my blog, writing poetry, and being with friends. I also listen to some podcasts I find very helpful.
Do you always know when something will trigger your anxiety?
Not always. I know a lot of the things that trigger my anxiety – like parties and social stuff with people I don’t know. But are there unexpected, random times I feel anxious? Yes. When that happens, I force myself to step back, think of the mindset I need to have, tell myself I’m okay and I can handle it. That helps a lot.
How does social media play into your anxiety? When you were in New York at FIT, which is a nontraditional college, I remember you would see your friends on Instagram at college football games and tailgates, and that made you feel worse.
Yes. A lot of girls feel anxious or “less than” when they compare themselves to other pretty girls they see on social media. For me, it’s not so much about people’s looks. It’s more around seeing what’s happening at different colleges and feeling left out.
What do you think of social media?
To be honest, I should be on my phone less. I think being on our phones all the time prevents us from having to do the real work of being in the world. Social media is a crutch and a way to not have to look at our own lives. If I’m feeling anxious I’ll sit on my phone instead of going to yoga – it’s something you can reach for to scroll through other people’s lives instead of dealing with your own.
Tell me more about what makes you feel good.
The best thing for me is to always have something going on that makes me feel alive. I always need a reason. What am I doing or creating to make me feel like I have a strong purpose? I’m a good student, and school makes me feel like I’m learning, but it often feels like it has no worth. In class sometimes I feel like I’m sitting there, asking myself ‘what am I doing with my life?’ I’m a journalism major and I intentionally do not have a minor, because it was important to me to be able to take classes that I’m really interested in. I want to push myself to do things that matter.
When you’re anxious, you’re your own worst enemy, and you can fixate on the thing you’re worried or upset about. What do you do to get out of your own head?
People with anxiety are introspective and need something that makes them think.
It has helped me to look outward. I’ll consciously tell myself I’m going to stop thinking about me and focus on what each person is saying, the words coming out of their mouths. It’s kind of like mindfulness. I’ve also learned that it helps to get out of my room and be around people. Shifting my location can shift my mood.
Whenever I feel stressed or anxious, I try to think logically: This isn’t helping me. I will get it done. Everything in my past is pointed to me getting it done so I will. I’ve learned that you don’t have to believe your thoughts.
What can parents do to help their kids with anxiety?
Parents need to teach resilience. Push your kid to do something – to get out there and be able to do things. I think you need your parents to really believe in you and really believe you can do something. Don’t think of mental health as something you need to protect them from – don’t hold them back because you’re afraid of them getting hurt. Let them be a little more free because they’re already so trapped in their minds – so try to let them be free and live. If they want to do something and their anxiety is mild to medium, you have to let them do it. I had a friend in high school who was really anxious, and sometimes her dad would come pick her up from school. My advice is to say no, be resilient and stay. That will let you and your child know they can do it.
What could your dad and I have done better as your parents in regards to your anxiety?
I wish you had believed in me a little bit more. You were very worried about me wanting to study abroad, and I wish you had been more open. I know it’s scary for you but it was hard for me to not have your full support.
What have we done well?
You were really open about things and that made it easier. I felt like we could always talk about it, and nothing was taboo or secret. You also showed me that some of my traits that seemed bad to me could be positive. You’d say, “you have x but it makes you good at x.” Like being an emotional person makes me more empathetic to others.
Any other advice?
One of the things I always remember is that everything is temporary – things pass and change – so trust that your emotions will change. Timing your emotions also helps: How long are you actually anxious today? It may seem like you’ve been anxious all day, but when you really think about it, maybe it was just for that hour when you were in class.
But my main piece of advice for teens who are anxious is to be active and busy and not sitting.
After an initial career as an ad agency copywriter, followed by 15 years as a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer, Nancy Brandt jumped into the corporate world and now manages a communications team for 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota. She’s the mom of three daughters – two in college and one in high school – and is one of three daughters herself. Her older sister says she’s a “classic middle child.” She is a yoga enthusiast, is obsessed with podcasts and has a weakness for Swedish Fish. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or her personal favorite, Instagram.