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Coping with anxiety as a young person who looks different

We discuss why looking different can make anxiety worse and suggest four ways to help you cope with your feelings.

Lots of people feel anxious and looking different can seem like just one more thing to worry about. Many young people start to worry about their appearance as they grow up and if you have a visible difference, this can feel worse.

Coping with anxiety can be difficult and takes time and practice – but there are things you can do.

In this guide, we look at what anxiety is, why looking different can make anxiety worse and explore ways of coping with anxiety.

What is anxiety?

Have you ever felt nervous, worried or scared? These feelings are called anxiety. Everyone feels anxious or worried from time to time. It’s a natural response to new or difficult situations. You might experience anxiety about starting a new school, taking an exam, meeting new people, an operation or a hospital appointment.

A bit of anxiety is good – it can help us get ready for things, stay alert and perform well. Feeling very anxious in normal, everyday situations is not nice and can make life hard.

Looking different and anxiety

Growing up is a time in life when a lot of people feel anxious. You will face new things, learn about life and experience lots of changes. It’s normal to start feeling self-conscious about the way you look as you get older.

If you look different, you may feel more anxious about everyday situations. The usual worries young people have about the way they look can feel worse.

When you meet new people, you might worry about what they will think of you. If you are in a stressful situation – like starting a new school or going to the doctor’s – you also have to think about people’s reactions to the way you look. You may feel worried in situations which for many people are stress free – like going to the shops.

So you might be worrying about the new situation and the way people might react to your appearance. This means you may feel more anxiety than other people. That’s why finding ways of coping with anxiety is particularly important for young people who look different.

What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety is different for everyone. Here is a list of things you might notice happening if you feel anxious:

  • Feeling nervous and worried.
  • Feeling like something awful is going to happen.
  • Being scared about things, often for no real reason.
  • Going over and over the same worries in your mind.
  • Not being able to concentrate very well.

You might notice some things about your body too:

  • Breathing faster.
  • Feeling shaky.
  • Feeling like your heart is beating faster than normal.
  • Feeling sick or having a stomach ache.
  • Needing the toilet more often.
  • Butterflies in your stomach.
  • Having headaches.
  • Sweating.
  • Feeling like you might faint.

You may not feel all of these things, just one or two, and you might feel different things at different times.

The vicious circle of anxiety

Have you heard the phrase “a vicious circle” (or “vicious cycle”)? It means that when something bad happens, it makes something else happen which makes the first thing even worse.

When we feel anxious or worry a lot, it can make us feel scared that we won’t ever feel better about things. We might start to avoid doing things because we don’t like feeling anxious. We feel anxious about being anxious. This is how anxiety can become a vicious circle.

What is our body doing when we are anxious?

When we feel anxious or worried, it sets off an “alarm” inside you. Your body gets ready for danger or harm. A chemical called adrenaline makes the heart beat faster and prepares different parts of the body to either fight or run away. This is called “fight or flight”.

Fight or flight is helpful if we are in physical danger. It was useful when we were hunter gatherers fighting sabre-toothed tigers! Even now, if you find yourself in a life or death situation, fight or flight will help you out.

But if you want to run away in an everyday situation – like going to the shops or meeting someone new – it isn’t so helpful.

Ways of coping with anxiety

Here are four techniques you might find helpful:

#1: Ask questions about your worries

Sometimes it can help to ask yourself these questions if you feel anxious:

Can I do something about my worries right now? If the answer is “no”, try not to think about the worry at this moment in time. Think about something else or do something to take your mind off your worry. You could go for a bike ride, play a game, watch TV or read a book. Or you could do a mental activity like counting the days till your birthday or the number of people around you wearing blue.

What would my friends or family say to me? Ask yourself what your friends or family would say if you told them about your worry. For example, you might be worried that people won’t like you because you look different. Your family or friends would say something kind and caring – and tell you that you can cope or that you’re doing OK.

Is my worry based on fact? Sometimes we worry about things that haven’t happened yet. For example, you might be worried that people will make unkind comments about how you look. You might think this will happen because it has happened before, but that doesn’t mean it will happen every time. If no one has said anything horrible this time round, remind yourself that there is no reason to think they are about to do that.

Am I predicting the worst? When we worry, we think about what will go wrong or badly – and forget about the good things. Think about other times you were anxious. Did things always turn out badly? If they did, how did you handle it? Try to think about good things – like the things you are looking forward to today or how you might reward yourself for doing something you find difficult.

Am I trying to read other people’s minds? Sometimes we think we know other people’s thoughts, without really knowing. If someone turns away, you might think, “They think I look weird and don’t want to talk to me”. But maybe they are looking for someone or something, didn’t notice you were there or are thinking about something. They may even be nervous or distracted themselves.

How have I coped before? Think about the tricky things you have handled so far. How did you deal with them before? Remind yourself that you can be strong and resilient. Even if it feels like a bad day, or a bad thing has happened – remind yourself of your strengths and your good points. This can really help.

#2: Create a worry box

It can feel difficult to have all your worries going round in your head. Some people find it helps to design a worry box to put their worries into:

  • Get a small cardboard box (like a shoe box).
  • Decorate your box using paint, pens, glitter, stickers or photos.
  • When you feel anxious or worried, write it down (a sentence, or maybe in a story or poem if you prefer) or draw a picture – it’s up to you.
  • Then put it in your own specially made worry box.

This is a way of getting the worry out of your head and putting it away somewhere else for now. You can come back to it later. You might find it helpful to go back to your worry box at the end of the day and go through your worries with your mum, dad or carer. This can help you talk about your worries with someone who can help and reassure you.

#3: Talk to someone

Talking to someone is the most important thing you can do if you feel anxious or worried. It can feel really difficult to tell someone how you are feeling. You might not want to upset them, or you might be nervous about what they will say.

Speak to someone you trust. This could be an adult or a close friend. By talking to someone you are taking charge of your worries. The other person might be able to help you think of different ways of coping with anxiety.

#4: Listen to our butterfly relaxation session

We’ve created a relaxation session you can listen to. It’s all about butterflies! It’s about the easing of lockdown but you might find it helpful whatever anxieties you are dealing with.

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