Anxiety and its related disorders are incredibly common, but, unfortunately, talking about them isn’t. How did we get to this point of judging ourselves so harshly, suffering quietly and not seeking help because of a societal stigma? And how did we get to this point that continued anxiety and isolation can even lead to death, an option that deceptively seems better than asking for help?
Silence feeds the stigma, and the stigma keeps us quiet.
I am the mother of a teen with an anxiety disorder, a woman who suffers from anxiety and a filmmaker who spent a year interviewing teens and families, many of them in the Bay Area, as well as psychologists, for Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety, an international documentary film about teen anxiety. Through these experiences, I’ve learned the healing power of admitting we are drowning in anxiety.
Yes, anxiety is increasing … but it is also very treatable. The first step to treatment is finding the words to talk about it.
I consider us fortunate that we now have a diagnosis, knowledge, and tools to manage my son’s anxiety. Not so long ago, we lived in the dark, lonely shadow that anxiety casts. It was a race against time to get answers before his anxiety almost killed him.
My son was a silent sufferer. He earned perfect grades and behaved well. Teachers loved him and yet ... he wanted to die. When I first sought answers, I was perplexed when I got advice that felt like a brush off: Anxiety is normal. Seriously?
My experience felt anything but “normal” as I watched my naturally curious son with the infectious laugh start isolating, pulling away from friends and dropping out of his sports. He was becoming depressed and I couldn’t figure out how to help him. He didn’t just want to die, he obsessed about dying as it was the guaranteed way to avoid doing anything that brought him emotional discomfort. He was slipping away, and I wondered why someone couldn’t give me the magic answer.
Then I figured it out—once I realized I couldn’t figure it out. I finally started talking about it and reached out for help; that’s when I learned that my own anxiety was contributing to his downward spiral. By trying to protect him, I inadvertently made him feel incapable, which worsened his anxiety. I learned I needed to allow him to feel difficulties, ride through the discomfort to ultimately come out the other side feeling more resilient.
Figuring out the equation for what is a “normal” level of anxiety versus a harmful anxiety disorder is different for everyone. Through my journey with my son and the lens of the camera, I’ve learned that we all need to measure anxiety against our own lives. Some of the experts I’ve met along the way have asked me these questions, and I continue to use them to gauge the anxiety levels in my home:
Is anxiety causing you to miss out on the things you used to love doing?
Is it keeping you from interacting with those you love?
Is it keeping you up at night?
Is it causing you physical pain, such as stomach aches?
If the answer is “yes” it might be time to start talking about it. One of the teens I interviewed for Angst shared that while talking about anxiety is the thing that helps him the most, it actually might suck! He’s right. It might.
But it doesn’t stop at sucks. It can get better.
A lead therapist at Waypoint Academy, Jenny Howe—who also is the narrator of the film—treats teen boys with severe anxiety. I will never forget her words that have given me such comfort and hope.
“The best part of my job is knowing, without a doubt, that people can change,” she said.
We are capable creatures. Anxiety and pain are hard, but if we can talk and ask for help, despite the stigma, we can change.
The teens who so bravely shared their stories for Angst inspire me. I hope that they inspire others to speak up, too. It’s talking about it that will lead us to find the resources and tools that will provide us with the hope and the help we so deserve.
Karin Gornick is a producer of the IndieFlix original film Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety, which is being booked in schools, communities and corporations around the world. She created this film with co-producer Scilla Andreen. Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Want to submit an op-ed? Email pitches to [email protected].