When I was in high school, I was worried or sad a lot of the time. I came from a pretty mixed-up family and didn’t feel very secure within myself. I felt pressure not only to do well academically but also to be liked and accepted by the others in my class. Often I felt on the outside, and I didn’t know what to do to find a way to the happy, secure life I imagined my classmates enjoyed.
I wish someone had been able to sit down with me and explain that my feelings were common among people like me, people who have learning difficulties (I have both dyslexia and attention deficit disorder), as well as people who have a family history of mental illness and alcoholism, as I do. My father had bipolar (or manic-depressive) illness, and my mother was alcoholic.
If all this sounds frightening, take heart. I am a very fulfilled man today. At the age of 52, I have three happy children whom I adore, a wonderful wife whom I cherish, and a multi-faceted job I love. I am a psychiatrist in private practice and on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, a writer, and a public speaker.
But I wish someone had told me, when I was in high school, what I am now going to tell you. It would have saved me a lot of heartache. However, no one did. This was not because no one cared. It was because most people didn’t know. The average person thought of emotions like sadness or fear or worry in terms of character and upbringing. If you suffered from sadness or excessive worry this was considered at best to be bad luck, and at worst it was evidence that you were weak, had rotten parents, or both. Therefore, not only did no one counsel me regarding my feelings, I felt compelled to hide them a great deal of the time, covering them over with self-effacing humor or silence.
Worry and sadness are common feelings
What I would have liked to know back then, and what I am going to tell you now, is that excessive worry and sadness are common among talented, creative people. Indeed, it is more the rule than the exception that a person with creative gifts will also struggle with periods of excessive worry or sadness. That is not to say depression and anxiety are merit badges, but it is most certainly to say they are nothing to be ashamed of. Not in the least.
All people need to know this. Don’t hide your feelings, especially the painful ones. It can be a matter of life and death. Sadness and worry can lead people to abuse alcohol and other drugs; make terrible decisions about their lives; and even attempt suicide.
Make personal connections when you’re sad or worried
How do you know if your sadness or worry is dangerous? How do you know when to ask for help? A good rule of thumb is this: Never worry alone. Never keep these feelings to yourself. If you are sad or worried or both, talk to someone you trust. Then see how you feel. If you feel better, good. But if the sadness and worry persist, then speak to your parents, or a teacher, or a doctor.
What can they do? Isn’t this just life? That’s what I thought when I was in high school back in the late 1960s. I thought this was just “the human condition,” and the best I could do, indeed what I was supposed to do, was suck it up. Tough it out.
That is a dangerous — not to mention ineffective – solution.
In fact, mental health professionals have a lot of practical remedies to offer for both excessive sadness and excessive worry. You do not have to suffer in silence; you should not suffer in silence. That suffering detracts from your enjoyment of life, your performance in school, your abilities in sports, and even your physical health. Prolonged worry or sadness can actually make you physically ill. And at their worst, they can make you try to hurt yourself.
But don’t go there. There is no need to. We have help available, help that actually works. All you have to do is tell some adult you are in trouble and need help. Above all, as I said before, never worry alone.
Indicators of depression and excessive worry
Depression (which is just prolonged sadness) and excessive worry are not to be accepted as simply a part of the human condition, any more than pneumonia or a broken leg are. All of these conditions deserve medical treatment. Fortunately, we have treatments that work. However, while most young people get treatment if they come down with pneumonia or suffer a broken leg, they often do not get treatment if they suffer from depression or excessive worry. This is because no one has told them what they have is a medical problem for which there is effective treatment.
Let me describe depression for you in a little bit more detail. You may feel the following symptoms:
- Prolonged sadness
- Loss of interest in activities that used to interest you
- Feelings of listlessness and lethargy
- Lack of motivation
- Feelings of “why bother?”; feelings of hopelessness
- Feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem
- Feelings of social isolation
- Feeling that you can’t make friends
- Feeling that you don’t like people in general
- Desire to sleep a lot; or inability to sleep when you want to
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Change for the worse in your personal appearance
- Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
- Comments from friends that you have changed or that they are worried about you
If you feel any of these, ask for help from a responsible adult whom you trust. Tell them you read an article that said you might be suffering from depression. Don’t let the adult dismiss what you are saying. Adults do not like to think of young people as being depressed, so even well-informed adults might try to tell you it is just a passing phase. Tell them that might be true, but you need help now, before the phase does you damage.
Excessive, or what I call “toxic” worry may include the following:
- Increased, prolonged anxiety as compared to your peers
- Feelings of fear, even when there is nothing to be afraid of
- Chronic feelings of anxious apprehension, even in stable times
- Inability to perform certain activities, like speaking up in class, due to fear feelings or fears of being ridiculed or rejected
- Chronic feelings of social inadequacy
- Chronic feelings of insecurity
- Constant worry about whether people like you or not
- Fears that are greater than what others tell you is reasonable or appropriate
- Tendency toward perfectionism
- Inability to reassure yourself
- Fear of telling others about your true feelings
- Physical symptoms, like shortness of breath, dry mouth, or sweaty palms during moments of worry or anxiety
- Bouts of panicky feelings
- Vigilant, apprehensive search for what might go wrong, even when everything is going well
If you feel any of these, ask for help. Speak to a teacher, or your parents, or a doctor, or any trusted, responsible adult. Tell that person you are suffering from too much worry, or what Dr. Hallowell called “toxic worry” in an article you read. Tell the person you want to get some help.
Asking for professional help
Asking for this help does not mean you are crazy or weak, any more than asking to see the dentist if you have a toothache means you are crazy or weak.
The best treatment for both depression and toxic worry is what I call connectedness. Connectedness is a feeling that you belong to something larger than yourself. Both depression and toxic worry (as well as LD and ADHD) tend to disconnect you from others. The best treatment is to reconnect with whatever and whomever you like.
However, it is difficult to do this on your own. A therapist can help a lot. First, the therapist will listen and allow you to tell exactly how you feel. That alone is helpful. It makes you feel less isolated and more hopeful.
Then, the therapist and you can decide upon a plan of treatment. It may be just to have a few more therapy sessions. Or it may be to get some testing and see what else might be going on. Or it may be to prescribe some medication. We now have excellent medications for both depression and worry, medications that work well and have few side effects. They are not a cure, but they can help a great deal.
The over-arching goal of treatment is to stave off the toxic worry or depression and reconnect you with ordinary life. When you are worried or depressed you do not see life as it is. You see what is wrong or what might go wrong; you tend not to see what is right and what might go right.
People, like me and maybe you, who have learning disabilities (LD) or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD) tend to have a greater-than-average tendency toward depression and toxic worry. We also tend to have a greater-than-average tendency toward creativity, originality, humor, big-heartedness, sensitivity, and kindness.
We can make best use of the gifts and talents we have if we understand and treat the obstacles in our way, like depression and toxic worry, early in our lives.
I wish I had been able to do that. I hope you can and will.