Below, our very own Dr. Expert answers your anxiety-related questions.
Dear Dr. Expert,
Every time I have to make a phone call I get this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. My face gets hot, and it’s like I can’t talk anymore. My mind just goes blank. It’s so embarrassing – I can’t even call any of my friends. It’s really beginning to affect my social life – I even missed a party last week because I was too scared to call a friend to arrange a ride! I didn’t used to be so shy, what’s happening to me?
Shy in Sudbury
Dr. Expert: Dear Shy in Sudbury,
It sounds like you are suffering from some social anxiety! It can be helpful to think about what exactly you’re afraid will happen in those situations. For example, are you worried that you might say something stupid when you use the phone? After you figure out what you’re afraid will happen, take some time to really evaluate those worries. Are you 100% sure that what you fear is going to happen? What happened last time you worried like this? It’s really important to evaluate your worries, because sometimes we over-estimate the likelihood of a bad thing happening. Or, we assume that if it DOES happen it’s going to be really horrible. So, once you’ve looked at the evidence, try to come up with a more realistic and helpful thought. For example, you could say to yourself that “Even if I do say something stupid, they might not even notice, and if they do I can just make a joke of it by saying “well, that was silly.” It is also important to start facing social situations that you fear or have been avoiding. That’s one of the best ways to feel more comfortable in those situations. Start with the least scary situation (e.g., calling a parent or a sibling) and then work your way up to more difficult people (calling a best friend, a friend you don’t know as well, or a stranger etc). The key is to practice, practice, practice. If you practice every day you will be calling all sorts of people in no time! Click here for more information on how to think more realistically and how to face your fears.
Fear of Being Alone
Dear Dr. Expert,
I am so embarrassed – I’m 15 years old and I’m still scared to be at home alone! I keep worrying that someone is going to break into the house – I hear strange noises all of the time and my mind just starts racing – I just know it’s a burglar. My parents are getting so mad at me because I won’t stay home alone.
Frightened in Fredericton
Dr. Expert: Dear Frightened in Fredericton,
There is a big difference between possibilities and probabilities! Lots of things are possible. For example, it is possible that someone is breaking into your house when you hear strange noises. Although it’s possible, it’s probably not very likely or probable. Ask yourself the following questions: What has happened in the past when you heard noises like that? What has happened to other people you know? How often do you hear about burglaries in your neighborhood? Once you have evaluated the information, it might be time to change your thinking! Instead, of thinking it’s a burglar breaking in, change it to a more realistic thought – “it is highly unlikely that it is a burglar since I have never heard of a break and enter in our neighbourhood and every time I’ve had this thought before it was nothing” Armed with your new way of thinking – try it out! Get your parents to go out for a brief errand to start – maybe to the corner store. Have them do this a few times until you don’t feel too anxious. Once you have conquered this step – build up to longer stays on your own with your parents going farther away and for longer periods of time. Feel your anxiety, but don’t let it boss you around – it WILL decrease over time as you realize that nothing bad is happening (this might even take 30 minutes but stick with it! Next time will be much shorter). Give yourself a little reward each time you face your fear. Next thing you know you will be staying home alone with no problems!
Dealing with Divorce
Dear Dr. Expert,
Yesterday my parents told me and my brother that they were getting a divorce. I don’t know why I was so surprised and upset. They fight all the time, they never seem happy, and our house is like a war zone! I have tons of friends whose parents are divorced. But, I just can’t believe that this is happening to my family. I mean, I’ve thought about it before and thought I would be relieved if it did happen. But now that it’s real, I’m so upset, and I just don’t know how to deal with it. I can’t stop crying, even at school. Please help.
Dealing with Divorce in Dawson Creek
Dr. Expert: Dear Dealing with Divorce in Dawson Creek,
I’m sorry to hear that your parents are divorcing, and I know that this is a really stressful and sad time for you. Although it seems like the end of the world now, there are strategies that can help you cope with the separation of your parents. Some teens wonder if they did or didn’t do something if their parents would be happier and stay together. First, it’s important to remember that your parents’ split is not your fault. It doesn’t mean that they love you any less. Also remember that there is nothing you could have done to keep them together. If your parents are arguing a lot in front of you, try to sit them down at a good time and tell them to behave! Tell them that it’s really hard to hear them badmouth each other and ask them to please stop. You don’t want to be caught in the middle or take sides. It is also really helpful to find someone outside the family to support you during this difficult time. This could be a trained professional like a therapist or the counsellor at your school, or another supportive adult like a teacher or a relative. It’s also very important to take care of yourself during this stressful time. Make sure that you are eating right, getting enough exercise, and keeping good sleep habits. Also, think about the types of activities that make you feel good – hanging out with friends, sports, art, music, dance etc. – and get out and do them! It will get easier and you won’t always feel this way.
Dear Dr. Expert,
Last week, I went to a movie with my friends when all of the sudden, out of the blue, I felt completely terrified! My heart was beating so fast – I was sure everyone could hear it! I felt dizzy and I couldn’t catch my breath. I thought I was going to die! It was just terrible – I ended up crying by myself in the bathroom. Eventually it went away. Now I’m terrified this is going to happen again. What happened to me?
Panicked in Penticton
Dr. Expert: Dear Panicked in Penticton,
It sounds like you were having a panic attack. Panic attacks are sudden rushes of intense fear. It’s our body trying to prepare us for danger. However, sometimes our bodies react this way when there isn’t any real danger (like what happened to you). The physical feelings we experience can feel really scary, like we are standing on the edge of a cliff, when in reality we are sitting in a chair in a movie theatre! It’s important that you know that although these sensations are not pleasant, they are not dangerous. They will typically last for 15 minutes or less, even though sometimes it feels longer. Also, nobody except for you (or those very close to you) can tell you are having one. The fear of these panic sensations can really take over your life. The best way to deal with them is to face them head on. If you purposely bring on these sensations over and over again, you will quickly learn that nothing bad will happens and these sensations won’t be so scary anymore. Try running on the spot to make your heart race, spinning in your chair to get dizzy, blowing quickly in and out through a straw to feel out of breath- anything to bring on these symptoms. While doing these exercises, tell yourself that although it doesn’t feel good, these sensations are not dangerous, and they will go away! Facing these feelings can be hard to do on your own, so recruit a family member or friend. To get more ideas about how to deal with panic click here. (takes you to panic section of adult section). Good luck.
Drinking to deal with social anxiety
Dear Dr. Expert,
I have a secret that nobody would believe. I’m shy! The idea of going to parties just freaks me right out and yet most of my friends and people I know would tell you I’m the life of the party! The problem is that the only way I can go to parties and have a good time is to drink before and then more once I get there. Sometimes I drink secretly in the bathroom. I think it’s getting worse so I want to stop, but I’m terrified that people won’t like the real me or will find me boring. What should I do?
Boozing in Bowen
Dr. Expert: Dear Boozing in Bowen,
Some people who feel uncomfortable in social situations hide out at home and avoid going out. Other people socialize a lot but use things like drugs or alcohol to try and feel less anxious. However, this strategy prevents you from realizing the situation may not be as dangerous as you think and that the things you fear may not actually happen (e.g., people might not find you boring when you’re sober.) In fact, when you are sober maybe you are a much better listener and a conscientious friend. But don’t take my word for it, test it out! Try going to the party without drinking and test out whether people don’t like you or find you boring. But, don’t make assumptions about what people think, look at the facts. See what people actually do and say. Was it as bad as you thought? You can also develop more people skills to help you out to – like remembering that other people usually love talking about themselves, so become interested in others. In the end, people barely remember what you say or do, but they do remember how you made them feel.
Panic Attacks & Cannabis
Dear Dr. Expert,
Last year I was diagnosed with panic disorder. I have been going to a therapist for the past year and doing cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) (clicking on it takes you to CBT section) and I’m doing a lot better. A bunch of my friends are having a party next week and I know there is going to be pot there. I’m really anxious about smoking pot – I’m so worried that something bad is going to happen, like I will feel out of control and get dizzy, or totally freak out. What if I get panicky (yeah, I know this isn’t dangerous but I don’t exactly want to experience a panic attack at a party!) I know that you aren’t going to tell me that it is ok to smoke pot – but is there another reason I shouldn’t?
Contemplating in Cornwall
Dr. Expert: Dear Contemplating in Cornwall,
Your gut feeling about not smoking pot is right. Marijuana has been found to make panic attacks worse. As you know, panic disorder is an intense fear or discomfort that comes out of nowhere and includes symptoms like racing or pounding heart, difficulties breathing, feelings of choking etc. People with panic disorder become very focused on these bodily sensations and begin to think all sorts of terrible thoughts about what those sensations might mean (such as going crazy or dying). It’s great that you have been doing CBT and we know that interoceptive exposure (purposely bringing on certain sensations in order to get used to them) and cognitive challenging (examining catastrophic thoughts, such as you’re going crazy) works wonders. However, when highly anxious people, who are already sensitive to their bodily sensations, smoke pot it amplifies everything. Pot can bring on bodily sensations, which will likely trigger panic. In addition, when people smoke pot their thinking get compromised and they are more likely to catastrophically misinterpret their body sensations. All this to say – you might want to skip the pot.