A note from Eleven: I have been following Amy on Instagram for quite some time and I am ever so thankful that we were able to connect on both a poetry and a personal level. Knowing that Amy was a sufferer of anxiety and a Psychologist, I thought Amy would be a perfect fit for this project to give insight about both perspectives of mental illness. Gratefully, Amy obliged and allowed me to ask a few additional questions specific to her profession. Please continue reading after Amy's testimony to see what else Amy had to share!
Anxiety has always been a passenger of mine.
One of my earliest memories involves the underside of a cafeteria table. Kindergarten lunch was loud and there were too many kids; too much going on. Crawling under the table and crying was almost always preferred to exposing myself to the chaos. So that's what I did almost every day until my teacher invited me to eat lunch with her. Another very early memory includes me in a dance costume with a bright stage light shining on me. I knew that there were hundreds of people in the audience and I was trying to see their faces. I was waving. I hoped everyone could see me. I loved it.
This kind of dichotomous behavior was baffling to the adults in my life. My teachers told my parents something along the lines of, "we just don't get it. She's not shy. Just... sensitive." Grade school and middle school were tough. I hated getting called on in class. I didn't want to make any mistakes. I worried about everything. I was a perfectionist and I wanted everyone to like me. Any time I'd have a conversation with someone, I'd play those conversations over and over in my mind, picking at all of the ways I could have come off as dumb, or silly, or offensive (let's be honest, I still do this).
My first panic attack happened in high school. At the time, I didn't know what was happening to me. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't see, my ears were ringing. I seriously thought I was dying. It was terrifying.
By the time college hit, I was having panic attacks about once a month. They would come out of nowhere. I'd be lying on the couch, watching the Real World Road Rules Challenge or something equally mind numbing, and suddenly my vision would narrow and I'd be gasping for breath. My day to day anxiety had also morphed into something less specific. I wasn't anxious about anything in particular. I was anxious about nothing, about everything. I was anxiously existing and it was borderline crippling.
Thankfully, college was also where I met a superstar psychology professor who became my mentor, life coach, and lifeline. She's big in the world of stress and anxiety management research and it didn't take much for her to recognize that I was oozing stress and anxiety. With her help, and a combination of guided meditation and existential therapy, I was able to bring my stress and anxiety down to a manageable level.
A quick note on therapy: types of therapy are as different as the therapists who practice them (psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness based therapy, general talk therapy, etc.). A type of therapy that works with one person might not be a good fit for another person. Existential therapy was what worked for me, but it doesn't work for everyone. Sometimes, it's necessary to shop around until you find a therapist and a therapy that works.
I still have my high anxiety days. I still let stress overwhelm me, at times. But I'm so much better equipped to deal with it all now that I found coping skills and strategies that work for me. I also discovered a lot of my anxiety triggers along the way (Walmart, speeding vehicles, heavy metal music, spending long amounts of time with crowds of people, just to name a few). So I try to avoid these things.
Anxiety is very misunderstood. People think you’re being irrational or dramatic. And here's the thing, I know that my anxiety is irrational. I know that I overreact in certain situations. But knowing all of that doesn't often help in the moment. It just makes me feel like a nuisance to those around me.
I often try to describe it like this: if you're in the woods and you see a bear charging at you, you have essentially three options: fight the bear, run from the bear, or stand perfectly still and hope that the bear doesn't kill you. When you have high levels of anxiety, everything looks like a bear running right for you, everything seems like an external threat. This puts you in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze mode. There are days I take all three options when I'm anxious: I snap, I yell, I run, I hide, I avoid, I deny. It's definitely put a strain on many of a relationship. And why wouldn't it? It's exhausting for everyone involved.
I learned how to talk openly about my anxiety with those I love, and I learned how to ask for help when I need it. These two things have been essential parts of my mental health journey. It's too hard to try to deal with this alone. It's been a learning process, a lot of exploring and assessing and adjusting. It's hard work. But I'm so thankful for those who have stuck by me through it all.
I've never known myself without anxiety and anxiety may always be a part of me, but I try to think back to that overwhelmed little girl hiding under the cafeteria table and I do my best to be gentle with her. She deserves it. I deserve it.
How long have you been a psychologist?
This is my eighth year in practice
What made you want to go into psychology?
I’ve always been completely fascinated with how the brain works. While in college, I also became interested in mental health (as I began really working on my own mental health). I loved every psychology class I took. I remember sitting in class and thinking to myself “this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.” My undergraduate degree is in existential psychology. I had originally planned on going to graduate school for Clinical Psychology, but then I got a job as a teacher’s aide in a classroom designed for students with severe disabilities. These students were all in wheelchairs and they were primarily non-verbal. They depended on a lot of assistive technology in order to communicate. Even though they were faced with many challenges, I watched them learn and socialize and progress in so many ways throughout the school year. It was amazing. That’s when I decided I wanted to focus on the psychology of learning, so I went to graduate school for child and school psychology.
What are the ages of people you currently treat? Do you mostly treat children or adults or a mixture?
I work in for a school district so I’m typically treating students ages 6-18.
What symptoms do you see the most? Is there a specific age you start to see an onset of symptoms? Does it vary between male and female?
Because I’m practicing in a school building, a lot of the symptoms I’m dealing with are symptoms that impact learning: Inattention, anxiety, depression, difficulty with emotional regulation and expression, learning disabilities, autism etc. I also work for a district with a high poverty rate where the students experience a lot of trauma. I see a ton of emotional symptoms as a result of that trauma. All of these symptoms start as early as preschool and they often intensify as the student gets older if not treated properly.
What kind (if any) techniques do you encourage your patients to use when experiencing an intense emotion they are struggling with handling?
One of the big things I try to teach any of my students, no matter their age, is to stop and recognize the emotion before reacting. Any time we experience an intense emotion, it’s difficult to act rationally. I work closely with them to help them identify coping skills that work for them. These skills bring the intensity of the emotion down to a more manageable level. What works for one student might not work for another, so we work together to try to make an individualized plan that works for them.
What is the general feeling you experience from your patients about the therapy process? Are they open and willing to receive treatment and have a positive outlook or are patients more closed off, resistant, and pose a challenge for you? Does this change overtime?
The majority of students I see for therapy seem to really enjoy the process. For the younger students, I try to make it fun and engaging. We do a lot of play therapy, so it doesn’t feel like traditional therapy to them. The older students can be a little more closed off at times, but I find that the most of them just want someone to listen to them. They enjoy the one on one attention. That, in itself, is beneficial. It’s important for me that they feel like there is someone they can go to in the school building when they have a problem.
Describe what it’s like to be a psychologist and a sufferer of anxiety at the same time? Do you feel like it helps you with your own illness as you are helping others? Do you experience any internal battles?
I definitely think that my anxiety helps me empathize with others who are going through similar experiences and, in turn, makes me a stronger psychologist. I have to be careful though, as I get a lot of secondary trauma from working with my students (Secondary traumatic stress is emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another and it’s a common occupational hazard for professionals working with traumatized children.). I need to make sure that my own mental health is always priority or else I’ll start to experience some pretty intense symptoms that mimic PTSD.
Do you share your experiences with anxiety with your patients as to sound/feel more relatable to them or is not something you usually disclose ?
I have no problem disclosing my anxiety to my students. I often find myself using the phrase “This is what I do when this happens to me. Let’s try to figure out what you can do when this happens to you.”
What advice would you give those who are suffering from mental health issues but are embarrassed about seeking professional help?
I really truly think that everyone would benefit from a therapy session once a week. I look at it this way: if you want to be in peak physical health, what would you do? You would probably consult with a physician to see what areas could be improved upon. Then maybe you would hire a nutritionist or a personal trainer. Our minds are just like our bodies in that way, if we want to be at the top of our mental health game it’s essential to get professionals involved.
What can family/friends of sufferers do to help their loved one?
The most helpful phrase a loved one can say to someone who is suffering from a mental illness is “i’m here for you.” The most helpful question is “how can I help?” Sometimes the person may not know what they need at the moment, but it helps to know that there are people available who love them and who aren’t passing judgment.
#dontcallmecrazy. My name is Amy and I have #anxiety, but it does not have me.
- Amy Kay, 2018