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What YouTube Star Zoella Helped Me Realize About My Anxiety

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It was October of 2014 when I had my first panic attack. Well, the first panic attack I remember labeling as one. Truly, it was quite embarrassing at the time and really caught me off guard. Two kids from my school were arguing, and I was less than a foot away, literally caught in between their screaming, red faces. I remember my throat closing up and feeling like I needed fresh air, even though I was already outside.

Then, I started sobbing. Everyone abandoned the fight and immediately asked me what was wrong and I couldn’t tell them because I didn’t know. At the time, I didn’t know how to explain what had happened. I was scared, confused and was stuck in my thoughts all day, wondering what had gone wrong.

Zoe Sugg, known as Zoella to the online world, is an online blogger and a world famous YouTube sensation with over 10 million subscribers and counting. Zoe also suffers from severe anxiety. She works to normalize her illness and occasionally even films herself post-panic attack. She does this in order to inform viewers anxiety isn’t a thing to romanticize. It’s real and it’s scary.

As time went on, I found myself greatly identifying with Zoe’s videos and blog posts on her mental illness. After having my first anxiety attack, more of them followed. Getting called on in class caused me to start crying and being alone in my room for too long made me panic for no reason. I panicked over small things. My heart rate was at a constant abnormal speed, and I would get this blank feeling and tunnel vision whenever I felt an attack coming.

With time, I realized those were all things I had been normalizing about myself. They were things that had been happening to me for so long, I thought they happened to everyone. When I realized they weren’t, it was like putting glasses on for the first time when you have poor vision. You realize how you were seeing wasn’t how everyone else was seeing.

After reading one of Zoe’s most popular blog posts on her anxiety, I realized it was time for me to stop ignoring things and to start helping myself. I met with my doctor, who confirmed an imbalance in my serotonin levels was causing me to have anxiety and depression. It was all like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I wasn’t imagining things. It wasn’t all in my head. There were steps I could take to start to be happy again.

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I was so nervous, at first, to go to my doctor at all because I was afraid there would be nothing wrong with me or my doctor would say my feelings were unimportant or invalid. I felt like people were comparing their mental illnesses to mine, as if how out of balance your serotonin levels are is a competition and somehow I was losing.

Zoe helped me realize everyone experiences anxiety and depression differently and the way you experience it will never make your mental illness invalid. They don’t teach you what mental illness looks like in high school. They don’t teach you what a panic attack is or how to stop a friend from dying by suicide when his depression gets the best of him.

If it wasn’t for Zoe and the positive and open platform she created, I’m not sure I ever would have realized this about myself or taken the necessary steps toward saving myself. Too often, people have negative opinions about internet celebrities, claiming they find their way to fame through fake personalities and dumb videos. Zoe eliminates that stigma and uses her platform to speak out and help people who may need her words, like I did.

I saw that an Internet sensation had problems a lot like mine. She gave me the confidence to realize if she could talk about her anxiety, so could I. Zoella helped me recognize my mental illness and someday, I hope to thank her for helping me before I knew how to help myself. But, until the day I can thank her, all I can do is try and help others by sharing my story and telling you that your mental illness is valid. You are not weak for taking steps to save yourself.

A woman shares on her video blog about her anxiety.
“I have learned that I might be a bit braver than I thought.” Zoe Sugg

Photos via YouTube.

 
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 
 
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

 

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The Biggest Secret About My Social Anxiety

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This is it. The secret is coming out.

It needs to come out so people finally know the truth about my social anxiety.

Here it is.

I love people.

I love people!

People are great. They are interesting, intriguing, and fun to watch. I love watching people interact with each other. I love to study their body language and social cues. I love people, and that is my biggest secret.

It hasn’t been a secret because I made it one. It has been a secret because people have automatically assumed since I have social anxiety I must not like people.

But that’s not it.

Most people don’t get it.

It’s not that I don’t like people. People aren’t what freak me out.

It’s the socialization, the interactions.

It’s the impending encounters at the grocery store, at the post office, and at the video store.

When I say “freak out,” I’m describing a whole body experience.

On the inside, my stomach is upset and I feel like throwing up. My breathing is shallow and rapid, and it feels like my heart is going to bust from my chest.

On the outside, my hands shake uncontrollably. I get itchy hives on my neck and chest that turn bright red. I sweat profusely all over my body.

In my head, I go to the worst case scenario of whatever social situation I’m in. I think about all the mistakes I could make while speaking. I fear tripping and falling on my face in front of people. I’m deathly afraid of being made fun of and stared at.

The mental, physical, and emotional symptoms I experience because of my social anxiety fuel me to avoid social encounters mostly because I am afraid people will notice my visible symptoms.

My symptoms aren’t brought on because I dislike people (I love people!). It’s interacting closely with them that makes me sick.

It’s unfair to assume I dislike people just because I have social anxiety. That’s like saying someone hates the color blue because they mostly wear pink.

I’m not antisocial.

I guess in a sense I am. But I’m fine with social settings. I’m fine sitting at the library as long as nobody talks to me. I’m out of the house in a social setting… I just don’t always socialize. But I’m not “antisocial” in a way that means I’m rude or dislike people.

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It’s been a secret for so long because it’s what I’ve allowed people to assume. But that assumption isn’t true, or fair, and I won’t allow it anymore.

So the secret is out.

I have social anxiety, and I love people.

Image via Thinkstock.

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The Anxiety of Coming Out

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Growing up, conversations about future boyfriends and a husband were ever present from a young age. It’s what my family and friends talked about. So I thought it was the norm. I listened but would rarely engage, as I didn’t feel I had much to add to the conversation.

I’ve always felt different. I wasn’t interested in dating in middle or high school. All my friends had boyfriends by the ninth grade. So I figured it would eventually happen for me. After graduating high school, I started to date men. I was a “one date wonder,” always finding something wrong with the guys and moving onto the next. After years of doing this, I started to think something was wrong with me.

At 19, I started the coming out process after researching sexuality and watching queer based shows and movies. Lesbian characters did not exist for me growing up. So when I found them, I entered a new world, a world I knew nothing about it. Then, it dawned on me, the disinterest in men, the pain of losing a close female friend in high school and countless crushes on my lady teachers made sense. I was gay!

After coming out to myself, anxiety flooded my body with fear and panic. My mind was going 100 miles an hour. I had panic attacks daily. The first and last thought for six months after I came out to myself was “I am gay.” After six months, I was ready to start the next steps in the coming out process. Coming out itself is an anxiety provoking experience. Partnered with an anxiety condition, it can seem overwhelming and too much to handle.

I was able to get through multiple coming outs to friends and family members. My voice was shaky and my hands were trembling, but I did it. I came out! After coming out to my close friends and family member, the daily panic attacks gradually went away, until something else caused my panic to emerge like passing a psychology test or getting a job.

Coming out was an anxiety-provoking time in my life, but trust me when I say, “It will get better.” Today, I am sometimes asked if I have a boyfriend or husband. I say, “No, I have a girlfriend.” I know I will continually have to come out throughout my life as many perceive me to be straight, but the more I’ve come out, the less anxious I feel about it.

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I Thought the Mask I Wore Over My Anxiety Would Keep Me Safe

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I’ve worn this mask most of my life. I believed it helped me. I believed it kept me safe and protected me. I never knew what life was like without the mask, or what I could achieve without the mask. But all along, the mask was just a mask and nothing more. It did not help me, it did not keep me safe or protect me. It only gave me something to hide behind and disguise what was really going on inside. Like sweeping all your dirt under the carpet, it may be hidden, but it is never resolved.

When you have spent a lifetime disguising what’s going on inside, the mask becomes a permanent feature of your persona. While you seem confident on the outside, inside there’s a storm brewing. My heart is pounding, I’m drumming my legs, my stomach is turning over, I’m chewing my finger nails and I’m biting the inside of my mouth to the point it bleeds. Nervous without rhyme or reason, overclouded by thoughts that just simply should not exist.

At a young age I discovered my mask. Like a tool in my toolbox, I used it to bury my emotions and manufacture a facade, building walls and hiding what was going on inside. Day in and day out, the mask was on as soon as my eyelids would open. Sometimes it was even in my dreams. From the moment I was awake the mask had to be on, out of fear — fear of someone learning how I felt. I feared someone would find out I did not like what I saw in the mirror.

At first I thought my mask could be easily removed, like I could take it off at any time and cope. But every time I attempted to remove my mask I found myself putting it back on faster than I could imagine. It was easier to wear the mask than confront the thoughts and actions that led me to wearing it. It was easier to sweep them under the carpet and ignore their existence than addressing them truly. Because addressing them would mean admitting to them and acknowledging I have issues. An admission to my faults and flaws, in my eyes, would be a failure. Failure to be a man like I was brought up to understand. Men don’t express feelings, they don’t show emotions. They’re tough, they’re robust, they are resilient and confident.

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My mask came in the form of drug use. When I was younger it was more experimental, having tried almost everything I could get my hands on — alcohol, speed, ice, cocaine or acid — whatever was available. But my drug of choice, the one that allowed me to mask myself from the world and still function within society, was marijuana. I started using it heavily to calm and hide my anxiety and mask what I felt inside. My anxieties about socializing, going out, meeting people, being around people, dealing with peer pressure, being bullied, having my trust in other people shattered and dealing with life in general. I wanted to mask myself from everything, as if I was protecting myself from harm.

While I had no explanation for the way I was feeling, no way of knowing why or how hard it would strike, I knew one thing — smoking pot masked my anxiety from the people around me. Most importantly, it masked it from me. It allowed me to feel like I could function within the social norms without feeling I had to leave or to sit in silence by myself. But often, that’s what I would do. Isolate myself. Trash myself. Distort my mind with so much pot I was numb to what was going on around me.

I hadn’t realized I was still wearing the mask until recently. I thought it had long gone but it wasn’t. I had become so habituated to the mask it seemed to have dissolved away and become a part of me. But, alas, I was still wearing it all along. Still numbing myself to my issues, not allowing anyone in, blocking them out, sheltering me and protecting me.

It was time for change. It was time to lose the mask and see what life was like without it. To see what I could do, what I could be and who I really was. Open and exposed. No more hiding, no more numbing, no more mask. This seemed paradoxical as the idea raged my anxiety levels, yet I knew I had to confront it and change it. I needed to see who I truly was, and whether I really needed the mask or not.

Could I do it? What if I can’t remove it? What if I do and I fail? What if I succeed and nobody likes who I am? What if I don’t like who I am? It would be easier to put the mask back on and go on pretending everything is OK. I could see unless I challenged myself to remove the mask, I would forever be stuck wearing it. I may never see what I could be, who I could be or what I could achieve.

I faced the challenge and removed the mask, and it’s still gone to this day. I am no longer numbing myself to life, no longer letting anxiety win the battle. I can still feel the anxiety when it appears, when it raises its head, but instead of trying to mask or numb it I can now deal with it and defeat it. There were times I wanted to put the mask on again because it would be easier than facing the challenge of reality, of seeing who I can be. But I will never know what I can achieve if I sit comfortably behind the mask, never dreaming, never challenging myself and never accepting who I could be.

The key to removing my mask came as a result of a decision that had nothing to do with wearing it. It was a butterfly effect on a grandiose scale. I decided I wanted to get involved with helping a charity close to my heart and family. A charity called Touched By Olivia, who design and build inclusive play spaces for children of all abilities — children like my second daughter. They were looking for people to run in the New York City Marathon in November and something drew me in like a moth to a porch light.

To help me commit to the process of training for the run I started a blog on Facebook called Run, Dad, Run. It made me feel responsible for committing to the run and so I started blogging about my training and how I was feeling. As an unintentional consequence of this process I would film myself discussing how I was feeling, what was going on in my mind and why I felt the way I did. I started to talk about my anxiety and drug use, with only the camera to hear my rationalizations. But I knew I needed to make a public post about it so people could realize despite my outward facade, they were only seeing the mask. I’d spend hours reviewing the footage, watching myself talk about me. I felt like I was watching a complete stranger. “This is not me, who is this person? Why does he feel this way?” I would watch the videos and I would cry. I could not make anything of the footage because it hurt so much to see this person and the reasons he gave for his drug use. I was in denial it was even me.

The more I watched the footage and pondered who this person was the more I realized I had to make a difference now before it was too late. If not, I would be on my death bed one day asking myself what I could have achieved, who I could be, where I could go and what dreams I left behind. I realized I couldn’t outwardly change if I couldn’t inwardly change. The videos gave me an overwhelming sense of self-reflection and self-realization. I knew what I had to do. I had to remove the mask. For my kids, my family, my friends and most importantly for me. I had to dig deep inside and ask myself if I wanted to continue masking these things and watch as time faded away, or if I wanted to be the person I should be.

I had never run a marathon in my life. I was never much of a runner at all. Yet for some reason it resonated with me, it called out and challenged me. I wanted to be the guy who said he was going to do something and then went out and did it. I wasn’t going to be the guy who did nothing and watched his dreams pass by anymore. With a new level of determination I set about making a change in my mind and in my life. I quit consuming the drugs and faced my fears. I looked into my own eyes and realized something: I was my own worst enemy all along. I was the problem and I was the solution. I needed to beat the voice in my head that said I would fail, that told me to quit and take the same over-walked path. I was determined to shut that voice down and drown it out with a new mantra — I can do this!

And so it was. Like a light switch that had been turned on, something had changed in my mind. It wasn’t over months or days or hours, but at that very moment I realized I had anxiety issues and a drug addiction and admitted to it. The lights in my darkened room had been turned on and I could finally see there was more to life. I could not turn that light off again. I couldn’t let myself go back to that dark room and be benighted by my anxiety and fears anymore. It was time to change. And so, change I did.

Follow this journey on Run, Dad, Run.

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What Playing Pokemon Go Reminded Me as a Black Woman With Anxiety

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This past week caused me to feel anxious, depressed, and angry.

I have dealt with anxiety and depression. I’ve been doing well. I may have my moments, but I know how to get through them. I know my triggers, but how does one prepare themselves for the reminder that hate in the world is still alive, and it threatens the livelihood of people who look like me in America?

I was on my way out the door when I logged into Twitter, and the first thing I saw was a name as a hashtag, Alton Sterling, and I knew exactly what that meant. I closed it and tried to shut it out of my mind. Unfortunately, I wasn’t successful. As my day went on, I learned more.

I found myself fighting tears all day. Then I saw the clip of his son crying out for his father. The next day was worse. My sunglasses hid my tears; I kept them on even as I rode into the dark metro tunnel. I felt like Audrey in the young adult fiction book, “Finding Audrey,” where the main character experiences social anxiety and wears sunglasses to give her added strength to talk to strangers.

The next day another black man, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a police officer in the car in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. I spent the day again fighting tears, crying in public, upset, not understanding why everyone around me seemed so happy while I was so concerned.

That night I had insomnia. I couldn’t put my phone down, and that’s when the Dallas shooting happened. I was watching the tweets and the image of a black man being shared as the person of interest. It just didn’t sit right with me, and not long after, social media was doing the investigating, showing video clips that this man was not the suspect. But it was too late. His photo was all over the news. I was so upset. I kept crying. I finally logged off and tried to relax.

The next day my boyfriend and I decided to walk to get dinner. As we began to walk I suggested we give Pokemon Go a try…

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Right across the street was a Poke stop, and there were a few people sitting down outside. I had a feeling they could be playing too. My boyfriend (the social one) asked, “Pokemon Go?”

Within a few minutes, an African American woman walked towards us and asked if we were playing, and we all laughed. There is something about grown adults playing a game. There’s a moment of slight embarrassment and then instant joy because we were all just having fun. She also gave us newbies a tip. Across the street, we could find a Goldeen. Before we left to continue exploring, another African American man walked over and shook hands with my boyfriend as if they’ve met before. My boyfriend later told me they’d seen each other around but he didn’t know him. He too was playing.

We left to go find the Goldeen. We had to find the exact area, and there it was near this marble bench. I’d just downloaded the app so I wasn’t ready to catch it, but my boyfriend was successful. I watched on his screen. It said, “Gotcha!”  We sat down so I could set up my own app. I guess he was tired of me hovering over his phone screen. I enjoyed every second of creating my persona. I’m pretty sure I was swinging my legs as I chose a girl with brown skin, blue hair, and a matching blue outfit. I was ready to go “Catch em’ all!”

We continued our walk to dinner. I turned up the volume so I could hear the music as we walked. I was almost skipping at this point. We saw a large group of people walking toward us. They weren’t all together, but they had the look. Smiles, focusing on their phones and standing around in one area. We got closer and my boyfriend asked, “Are you guys playing  Pokemon Go?” They answered in laughter. I was laughing, smiling and talking to people in my community. I’m not one to talk to people I don’t know. But this one commonality removed that cautious barrier.

As our night continued, the feeling of community was all around us. A man held a large white sign with the words “Free Hugs” in black letters. My boyfriend said I’m going to go over there and hug him. I walked away because that socially awkward feeling was back, but I watched from afar. It warmed my heart to see it. We heard this great voice singing and saw a large crowd of people. They were singing along, children were dancing; it was a mixture of people of different generations and ethnicities.

Yes, the world is causing me to feel distressed and angry, but I let myself reflect on all the moments that occurred when I walked outside.

I was reminded that love remains.

I know there are risks with playing the game and people should research before they begin. But it gave me a moment to feel joy and have that joyed shared with people I would have never even spoken to otherwise. I had my moment of sunshine amongst days of darkness.

Image via Pokemon Go.

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Why I Decided to Start Talking About My Anxiety Disorder

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Anyone who knows me knows I am not shy when it comes to talking about my anxiety and panic disorder. But it hasn’t always been that way.

I spent most of my life hiding my mental illness. Then one day I realized – what’s the point? I’ve always wanted to help eliminate the stigma of mental illness, yet I was too ashamed to tell my own story. How could I help others accept their mental illness when I couldn’t even accept my own?

The reason I hid my disorder for so long is because I felt guilty about it. I had a good and comfortable life with parents who loved me and a group of close friends. I knew kids who didn’t have all these privileges and faced more challenges in their lives than I did, so why was I feeling this way?

But that’s the thing I’ve learned about mental illness. It’s not logical. For me, mental illness means feeling all the physical symptoms of sadness or anxiety without having any reason for it. And sometimes, this can be even scarier than having a socially acceptable reason to feel that way.

I’ve shared my stories of anxiety to show others that mental illness can happen to anyone – no matter what your life is like. It’s a disease you can’t control and, for me, beating myself up for feeling that way only fed into my anxiety. So I stopped beating myself up and decided to accept it as a part of my life instead.

I wish I had been told this when I was younger and first coming to terms with my disorder, so now I’m telling you: if you’re battling any kind of mental illness, it’s not your fault. And, like any other disease, there is treatment available to help you manage it. There’s also a huge community of people going through the same thing who you can talk to – like me. You are not alone.

Follow this journey on Meant to Live.

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