We’re fans of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and last night teamed up with them for a conversation about teenagers and anxiety. Several smart girls who have first-hand experience with anxiety were on hand, and a couple of things they said really jumped out at me.
First, how important your friends are when you’re miserable with anxiety. Natasha Lerner, at 15-year-old who’s struggled with PTSD and anxiety after witnessing a suicide, talked about how devastating it was for her to have a good friend laugh when she told her she was seeing a therapist.
MTV comedian Shaylah Evans said she had the same experience with the panic attacks that started when she was quite young. “There’s not a lot of sympathy for people with panic attacks,” Shayla said. “People tell you you’re just being a baby, you should just get over it. ”
“It can really add to your burden when friends don’t appreciate the stress you’re under,” said the Child Mind Institute’s Dr. Jamie Howard, adding that that’s why it’s so important to speak up about mental illness. “Your friends might need some help knowing how to respond. Empathy doesn’t necessarily take place overnight. You may need to educate people.”
Since then Natasha has changed schools, and found new friends. “It’s hard to tell people and have them react the way you want them to react,” she said, ‘but if they’re really your friends they’ll try to understand.”
When Franny Condon, now 15, was struggling with anxiety three years ago, her friends were understanding, she said, but the anxiety became more and more extreme. “Anxiety is not something that gets better without being paid attention to, Franny said. “For me it didn’t come in one fell swoop. It came little by little and grew, and with everything I avoided I became afraid of something else.”
Franny was eloquent about what it takes to fight anxiety in treatment. ” You have to change your thinking from using avoidance as a crutch to going through things you are afraid of systematically, until you can face them without irrational fear.”
Natasha agreed: “You have to do the opposite of what you want to do.”
And Shayla said she went so far as to force herself to start doing improv comedy to teach herself to face down fear. “It’s way harder to do an improv comedy show, ” she said, “way harder than just going out into the world. Day to day life seems so much less stressful—no waiting for applause or laughter. It reminds you that you can’t control anything and that’s okay.”