My Experience with Social Anxiety and Alcoholism

When people think about social anxiety, they usually imagine someone cooped up in their apartment, too afraid to leave, nauseous at the thought of passing someone in the hallway. It’s true that social anxiety can sometimes look like this, but it’s not the whole picture.

For some people, like me, social anxiety can look like dancing in a crowd of sweaty people with a drink in hand. Like opening a third bottle of wine at your sister’s bridal shower. Like laying in bed with a headache, wondering if you’re dying, if all your friends hate you or if you did anything loathsome you can’t remember the night before.

These images are opposite sides of the same coin, though we don’t often realize it unless we’ve experienced it ourselves. Though social anxiety can drive sufferers to avoid social situations, it can also lead them to self-medicate in hopes of coping. It’s a dangerous cycle, and women are at an increased risk of getting trapped.

Anxiety can cause physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, heightened pulse and difficulty breathing. It can also lead to, frankly, pretty weird behavior. With social anxiety, some of the most banal things in the word feel terrifying — such as, in my case, standing in line at the grocery store, answering the doorbell or opening a text message.

At the heart of social anxiety rests a fear of being judged.

As a persistent phobia, this fear can get in the way of friendships, careers and ambitions, and women are two times more likely than men to develop an anxiety disorder.

Women’s predisposition to anxiety may be a result of biological differences. Hormones and higher sensitivity to chemicals responsible for stress could play a part. However, I believe social influences may play a role as well.

On average, women face greater pressure than men to meet certain standards. For example, society expects women to exhibit qualities like kindness, compassion and sociability. Women can also feel pressured to meet what are arguably high beauty standards. For some women, these pressures culminate into a perpetual fear of being deemed unworthy. With so much pressure to appear friendly, caring and compliant, some women might attempt to mask social anxiety rather than address it.

Alcohol can hide social anxiety.

As many people know, alcohol can temporarily lower inhibitions and allow users to feel relaxed, which is why partying isn’t necessarily incompatible with social anxiety. In these spaces, alcohol can temporarily relieve symptoms of social anxiety, allowing people like me to socialize without feeling nervous or uncomfortable.

Considering the effects of alcohol, it makes sense that anxiety disorders and alcoholism coincide. Around 20% of those with social anxiety also suffer from alcohol dependence. As the body becomes more tolerant of alcohol, it takes more and more to feel its relaxing effects, so it’s easy for an indulgence to become a crutch really quickly.

For women that suffer from social anxiety, alcohol abuse can be particularly dangerous. Research suggests that women become dependent more quickly than men. Women also risk health consequences like organ damage and poisoning from lower doses of alcohol. As a form of self-medication, alcohol comes with a scary number of side-effects.

Excessive alcohol use kills about 88,000 people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It hurts me to think how many of those deaths could have been avoided with proper mental health treatment.

It might sound like a cliché, but the first step to getting better is realizing the problem. It took me a while to do that, but eventually, I did.

Overcoming alcohol dependence requires people to understand the roots of the issue — in my case, it was social anxiety.

Here’s the good news: self-medicating with alcohol isn’t the only way to treat social anxiety. Therapy and medication both provide effective treatments, and support groups — like the one I joined at home — can help as well.

Learning to socialize without alcohol can feel like re-learning how to walk for some people, but it’s seriously worth it — believe me.  I swapped nightclubs for book clubs out of necessity. But what I realized along the way is that it’s possible to meet people who support you despite your anxiety, and who remind you there’s no pressure to be perfect.

BeMeBeFree: a Campaign to Tackle Teen Anxiety

To no one’s surprise, researchers found a 20% increase in diagnoses of anxietybetween 2007 and 2012. Now in 2018 the rate is even higher. There are a plethora of reasons for this. Many blame social media, while some blame a lack of parenting – the list goes on and on. There’s no shortage of people to blame.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 38% of teen girls and 26% of teen boys have anxiety disorders, yet data shows that 40% of students with mental health concerns never seek help.

There are a ton of statistics showing how badly anxiety is affecting our youth and how it’s reaching alarming rates, but what I don’t see a lot of is thorough examinations of the culture that young people live in today. There are many countries worldwide where doctors don’t have to medicate children as young as 8. There are numerous other countries where the suicide rate and incidents of eating disorders in young people haven’t reached epidemic proportions.

Why is this happening at this rate in America?

I created the BeMeBeFree Campaign to take a look at how anxiety affects our youth, but instead of hearing about it from academics, I wanted teens to share their story with us on our website www.bemebefree.org. Storytelling is a creative form that teens really gravitate to, so I decided to create a story sharing campaign where teens could share their story and encourage others to do the same.

Research has shown that if someone with anxiety writes about how they’re feeling and share it with others, it reduces their angst.

Carolyn Costin, a leading anxiety therapist working on the BeMeBeFree Campaign told me that “with little down time, less sleep and constant social media vigilance, our modern technology, cultural pressures and instant image access create an anxious suffering in our youth in ways that we are just beginning to fully understand.”

I’m reaching out to 20,000 high schools, 3,000 universities and 800 mental health organizations asking them to invite students to submit stories of how they’ve dealt with anxiety. We’ll be posting them on the story community page of our website so others can read them and hopefully become empowered to share their story. This will start the process of teens building a community and creating something that’s important to them – a sense of belonging to something.

Credit: Be Me Be Free

One of the unique things about this campaign is that Lifetime have agree to turn a story that we select from the submissions into a movie to air next year. During the process of making the movie I plan to implement various initiatives to keep engaging with our audience to keep the discussion going.

Shukree Tilghman, a writer/producer of the hit NBC show ‘This is Us’ has come aboard the BeMeBeFree Campaign/movie as an Executive Producer.

Ultimately, our campaign goal is to improve the culture of mental health in America and connect our youth. Submissions are open until 5 October 2018. 

Taking Premenstrual Symptoms in Teenagers Seriously

Moody, irritated, short-tempered – these are some of the words my family and friends used to describe me as a teenager. Indeed, that’s how I felt most of the time, especially during ‘that time of the month.’

Like many women – around 90% of them according to the U.S. Department of Health – I’ve experienced symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) such as cramps, irritability, and anxiety. I can still remember the feeling of relief to read in my teen magazines (this was before the smartphone era) that the PMS symptoms significantly affecting my life were not as ‘abnormal’ as I thought, and that I wasn’t the only one experiencing them.

However, my experience with those symptoms turned out not to be so ‘normal’ after all. I’ve experienced symptoms of anxiety disorders since I was a child and getting my period only made things worse.

It was only when I reached age 24 – 16 years after the onset of my anxiety disorders and 12 years after my first period – that I sought out professional help to deal with my symptoms. I was eventually diagnosed with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and I had symptoms of borderline personality disorder and PME (premenstrual exacerbation of underlying disorders), too. I began taking medication and going to therapy.

Thankfully, despite all the struggles – including missing classes at school and outings with friends due to severe cramps and debilitating anxiety – I somehow managed my symptoms throughout my teenage years. However, I am far from alone in having struggled with menstrual and mental health during adolescence.

Recent data shows a worrying picture of teenage girls’ mental health. World Health Organization data published in UNFPA’s 2016 The State of World Population report indicates that suicide is the leading cause of death among teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 worldwide.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States in 2015, suicide rates of teenage girls aged 15 to 19 were the highest for that group in 40 years – the rates had doubled from 2007 to 2015. Research has also indicated that at least 20% of teenage girls experience moderate to severe premenstrual symptoms that impact their functioning, and that premenstrual disorders such as PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) often onset during adolescence.

Empowering teenage girls with knowledge about menstrual and mental health, including relevant information about PMS, PME, and PMDD could be a significant step towards changing those worrisome statistics.

The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Women’s Mental Health provides a handy guide about PMS and PMDD to assist teenage girls in identifying possible symptoms – which can show up around ten days before the beginning of a menstrual cycle – through phrases such as:

“I feel sad and depressed – life is just not as fun.”

“My parents and I get into a lot more fights, and I just want to scream at everyone.”

“Getting my homework done takes so much more energy.”

“Sometimes I can’t fall asleep before my period, other times I sleep all day long.”

The truth is, whether PMS, PME, or PMDD (which is a recognized disorder by both the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization), teenage girls’ experiences of their menstrual and mental health should be taken seriously – it’s their well-being, health, and lives at stake.

If I could say something to my teenage self, it would be this:

No, you’re not ‘abnormal’ for experiencing these symptoms, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously, and that you have to live the rest of life miserably because of them. One day you’ll find the strength to advocate for yourself, and you’ll find people who will show you that it’s possible to live a better life, even with your mental health conditions. The road will still be hard, and very dark times will come; but girl, you’re a warrior, and you’re going to make it through.

More resources about PMS and PMMD for teenage girls can be found at the Center for Young Women’s Health, and Gia Allemand Foundation/International Association for Premenstrual Disorders which also offers a self-screen for PMDD and PME.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help immediately. In the United States, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For a list of international suicide hotlines, visit www.buddy-project.org/hotlines.

Don’t be Afraid to Say ‘I Have Anxiety’

The other day, I was having dinner with some girlfriends when one of them opened up about experiencing anxiety episodes over the past few months. She was really embarrassed, confused and crying.

As our conversation deepened, 3 of the 4 people at the table revealed they have been coping with anxiety for a long time. I was one of them. I sat there thinking: how is it possible that I have known these people for my entire life and yet we’ve never mentioned that we suffer from this condition?

Everyone can feel anxious from time to time – it’s a natural reaction of the body and the brain to certain situations or events. But an anxiety disorder is something else.

Have you ever felt as though you spend every single minute of every single day worrying over the slightest thing? Have you ever felt as though your heart is bursting out of your chest? Do you tend to catastrophize every situation in your life? Do you have irrational fears? If you said yes to at least two of those questions then…congratulations! You may have an anxiety disorder.

You must be thinking, congratulations? I’m miserable!

But I congratulate you because recognizing and admitting you are struggling with a mental health issue is the first step towards dealing with it and feeling better.

We need to start acknowledging anxiety for what it is so we can eliminate the stigma around it. 

Anxiety disorder is the most common mental health condition in Mexico, affecting 14.3% of the population. To put that into context, there are more people living with anxiety in our country than there are people living with diabetes, yet we rarely hear about those in mental distress. Having an anxiety disorder can be debilitating and crippling at the best of times – add people calling you crazy or helpless and society judging you and things can become much worse.

Since feeling anxious is common, anxiety isn’t often thought of as a mental health issue. I believe that this is where the problem originates. Anxiety is real and in Mexico it is still underestimated. Did you know May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and 14 – 20 May is Mental Health Awareness Week? If not, it’s not your fault: too often mental health is put on the back burner and seen as less important than physical health.

If you’ve experienced anxiety and wondered why it happens, anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including Social Phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and many others.

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment. If you are suffering, don’t be afraid to seek help or counseling. You may think you are alone and that no one will understand what you’re going through, but by opening up to people close to you and receiving the treatment you deserve, we will all be one step closer to breaking the stigma around anxiety. If you sense that someone close to you might be suffering, approach them in a way that makes it feel safe for them to open up to you.

It might sound like a cliché but it really is true: you are not alone. Speak up.