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Ep 178: Can Your Teen Confide in You?

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Episode Summary

Zach Westerbeck, author of You’re Not Alone, joins us this week to talk about how mental illness manifests in teens. He also shines a light on what we can do to help a teen that’s struggling with anxiety or depression.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Caring for teens with anxiety and depression can be incredibly difficult. No teen is the same, and living with mental illness is different for every family. Because these disorders are so stigmatized in our society, we rarely talk about them–making them even harder to spot, diagnose and treat. Some days it might feel like there’s nothing you can do to help your teen feel better…and that’s not a good feeling!

No matter how hard it may seem, however, you’re not alone. Plenty of people are going through the same thing–probably more than you think! And by talking to professionals, you can discover some tried-and-true ways to help your teen get a hold on their mental health. 

Today we’re sitting down with Zach Westerbeck, author of You’re Not Alone: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need to Overcome Anxiety and Depression. In his post-college years, Zach found himself fighting some serious mental health battles. Although he tried to shove these feelings down, they only grew, culminating in suicidal thoughts. When he reached rock bottom, he called the only people he felt could help him–his parents. This set him on the road to recovery! Now, he’s talking to parents and teens all over the globe to help us understand how we can cultivate a better culture around these disorders to save lives.

In this week’s episode, Zach and I are discussing what he calls a “vicious thought vortex” to help parents understand what depressed or anxious teens might be going through. We’re talking about some small steps teens can take to get a handle on anxiety, plus sharing how you can make your home a safe space for teens to express their true feelings.

When Thoughts Feel Threatening

In our interview, Zach dives into his own story, sharing his personal struggle with mental illness and the negative thoughts he battled with. He explains that he often felt overwhelmed by the anxious feeling of fight or flight, even when he wasn’t confronted with a threat. The world suddenly became much less colorful and exciting, instead looking washed over and gray. It got to a point where he felt he’d lost control of his thoughts.

For teens struggling with depression and anxiety, feelings like these can be pretty typical. Although we may think it’s easy to deflect these ideas, they tend to be pretty stubborn in young minds. Zach describes something that he calls a “vicious thought vortex.” When teens try to deflect these troubling thoughts, they often just come back stronger, creating a cycle that’s difficult to escape from. Zach explains that if these teens continue to ruminate on these thoughts, the effects could be incredibly damaging.

So how can we combat this cycle of challenging thoughts?  Zach explains that it starts with teens distancing themselves from these dark ideas.  When teens realize destructive and harmful thoughts aren’t a part of who they are, these ideas lose power. Over time, the cycle can fade away, and teens will likely feel better! In the episode, Zach and I dive deeper into this cycle and the steps teens can take to end it.

For some teens, these darker thoughts don’t surface–some just struggle with anxiety about everyday life. Whether it stems from socializing, school, or the football team, there’s a lot to be anxious about!  Zach’s giving us some tips to help relieve teens’ anxiety.

Aiding an Anxious Teen

Teens might be anxious about all sorts of things: driving for the first time, high school cliques, figuring out college and their future career–the list goes on. For some teens, these events cause mild nervousness that goes away with time. For others, these things can be intense, terrifying notions that keep them awake at night. It can be hard to help teens who harbor lots of anxiety, but Zach’s sharing some ways we can ease their worries.

Some teens exhibit avoidant tendencies, and simply stay away from things that make them nervous. A teen with social anxiety might not approach other students at school to try and initiate friendship, or might even beg you to skip school altogether! Zach recommends that teens start small. Is there another quiet person in class they could sit next to tomorrow? And the day after that, try saying hi? Maybe there’s a club they could sit in on, even if they aren’t ready to speak up in front of everyone yet.

Zach warns against the dangers of letting kids remain avoidant. Too many kids are sheltered these days, he says, and can’t transition into the world properly as an adult. Helping teens push through their anxiety incrementally can be critical to helping them grow. He suggests exposing them to uncertainty–not in overwhelming amounts, but just enough to help them feel confident encountering new things. When they face their fears, they often realize they had nothing to be afraid of in the first place.

But what if a teen never clues us into their mental health battle? Zach explains that many people, teenage or otherwise, think that they can’t talk about what they’re feeling. In the episode, we’re explaining how you can create a safe space in your home for kids to speak up when they’re struggling.

Making Space for Mental Health

Even when Zach was at his lowest, he felt as though he couldn’t talk to anyone about what he was feeling. He thought he might be considered weak for sharing his struggles with suicidal thoughts, or that no one would be able to understand. When he finally decided to open up to his parents about the situation, he found that he wasn’t alone. He was encouraged to get help, and started the journey to getting better. If he’d been raised in a time and place where discussing mental health was normalized, he may not have gotten to such a dark place to begin with!

That’s why creating a space where teens can express their thoughts and feelings can be incredibly impactful.  But how can we do this? Zach explains that we can start by being vulnerable ourselves. One of the worst things parents can do, says Zach, is act as though they’re perfect. If parents can talk to kids about what’s going awry in their lives, kids feel more comfortable joining in on the conversation and sharing their own troubles, Zach says.

But aren’t parents supposed to be strong? Shouldn’t parents hide their weaknesses so that they appear stable to kids? Zach explained in the episode that there is often a lot more strength in being vulnerable than there is in pretending everything is fine. Zach encourages us not only to admit to kids when something’s wrong in our own life, but to repeatedly check in with our teens. Encouraging them to talk about their feelings might be a small effort, but it can have a huge impact.

In the Episode…

It’s so important to talk about anxiety and depression, and I’m so glad we could bring Zach on to discuss mental health this week. In additions to the topics discussed above, we also talk about:

  • Why we shouldn’t tie happiness to success
  • How emotions behave like water in a kettle
  • Why you shouldn’t pressure teens to find their purpose
  • How teens can find the right therapist

If you want to find more of Zach’s work, you can find him at zachwesterbeck.com or check him out on Instagram at @zach_westerbeck. Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to subscribe.

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Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Lay out the implications of denying your true self:

“When you deny something, there’s a part of you that isn’t so secure in who you are, that you feel you have to hide it.”

-Zach Westerbeck

2. Elevate the notion of being true to oneself:

(Members Only)

3. If your teen is struggling with their emotions:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I’ve been reading this book of yours, You’re Not Alone: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need to Overcome Anxiety and Depression. And it’s packed with a lot of stuff about your own story and how you’ve kind of really changed the way that you thought about mental health and what the conversation needs to be around a lot of these topics and also just really practical tips and advice based in research. And I wonder what kind of got you into this, or was it your own experiences that led you to write about this and share this with others or what?

Zach: That’s a great question. And I always joke because it’s funny enough, after this interview, I’ll be hopping on a plane and flying to Arizona to speak at University of Arizona this evening. So I always joke with the kids that this path for me was very unplanned, I mean, as unplanned as you could possibly dream anything up. I graduated from Purdue University with a degree in economics. When I graduated, I was going to be working for the technology giant Cisco Systems in Raleigh, North Carolina. I get down there, I’m in there early in career program, there’s like 30 to 40 other kids. And I’m having a lot of fun. It’s a seamless transition into what I would, the quote, unquote, real world. What does that even really mean?

Zach: But here I am working for this corporate giant, everything was great for about the first 10 months. And then things started to change with the way that my brain functioned. And I would distinctly remember laying in bed and my heart just beating through my chest and feeling sweaty, palms, dry mouth, racing thoughts, and waking up the next day and feeling the exact same physiological symptoms and just being like, “What is going on? What is happening to my body, to my brain?”

Zach: And so 2016 was right around the corner. And in all of my infinite wisdom at the time, I devised a plan, a bulletproof plan, right? Just like all plans, right? They can never go wrong. And so my plan was I was going to go to work, going to go to the gym, going to go sit in the steam room and I’m going to sweat out all of the toxins in my body. So I was like, “Let me hit the reset button. Let’s get my brain back to normal, and we can start 2016 off with a bang.” And so I did that religiously for 31 days in January.

Andy: Wow.

Zach: And I did get results. The challenge is that it wasn’t the results that I was looking for.

Andy: Ah.

Zach: And by the end of the month, not only had the symptoms intensify and get worse that I now know was and is severe anxiety, but a second symptom had crept in, and that was depression. And it was like everything in my world had been washed over in gray. I remember living in Raleigh, they call it the City of Oaks and it’s a really green, lush city and environment. And I remember colors pop on a sunny day. And I remember driving into work during this time period, and everything was just… It was like a gray filter on Instagram. You just have this deep sense of emptiness and you can’t quite put your finger on it, but it spreads across every aspect of your life.

Zach: And during this time period, I’m doing two things really, really well. First thing I’m doing is I’m denying to myself just how quickly my brain health is deteriorating.

Andy: Yeah, yeah. Because I can handle this. It’s not that big of a problem. I got this under control.

Zach: Exactly. I’ve got this under control. I’m strong enough. I can figure this out. I can push the right button. This is something that in a month’s time I’m going to be back to the old Zach. Number two is I was hiding from everybody else what I was going through. And I hear from a lot of parents struggling to connect with their teens a lot and understand what they’re feeling, and I think that a big part of that is creating a culture inside of the household that normalizes these conversations.

Zach: And so everything came to a head one night. I was on the balcony of my four-story apartment and I started going out there to find a bit of peace. I put my hands on the railing. I’m looking around, I’m taking in the Raleigh skyline and the sunset. And I look down over the balcony, and a thought comes into my head. And it tells me that if I throw myself over the balcony face first that I will get the job done, that I will end my suffering, and that I can rid myself of this psychological and physical pain because experiencing these emotions at a deep level was very, very painful.

Zach: And so I took my hands off the railing and I fell back into the apartment and curled up into the fetal position, and I just balled. And it wasn’t that I’d had a suicidal thought. I’d had those, those were becoming commonplace. I think what broke my own heart was feeling like my brain had betrayed me, not understanding why, and then softening to the idea that maybe this was my only option. When I thought 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the road, nobody wants to feel those extreme symptoms. It’s exhausting. And I just cried and I cried and I cried, and I thought to myself, “This might just be it.”

Zach: And that night I did something that changed my life forever, and it’s why I advocate now. I called my parents. And I told them… I thought to myself, “Before I do anything, let me call my parents. Let tell them what’s going on. Let me just see if there’s some advice that they can give me.” So I told them, “I’m anxious, I’m depressed. I’m having thoughts of suicide.” And what they did for me is what I try to do for others. And I think that this is important for your listeners is they didn’t have all the answers, but they gave me a safe space to cry, to tell them I was confused, that I didn’t know what was happening with my brain, that I was trying all of these different methods, that “Honest to God, I’m not choosing these thoughts, Mom and Dad, I’m not actively seeking these out. I’m actively trying to do everything I can to stop them.” And they encouraged me to go seek help.

Zach: They didn’t even really know where I should begin, but that encouragement to seek help is what sent me on my journey. And in late 2016, I found a psychologist that knew what was going on with me. And so I immediately started talk therapy specific to OCD, and over the course of the next couple of years through talk therapy, lifestyle changes, and mindset shifts, I was able to get back to a place where I wanted to advocate for others. And so there’s two things I want every parent to know right now, or a teen who’s listening in, is number one, you’re not alone. There are millions of Americans and millions of people worldwide that struggle with anxiety and depression. So you’re not weak, weird, or different. You’re human.

Zach: And number two is that recovery is possible. I did not believe that. I literally thought that the state of your brain was fixed, and it’s not. And I always say that hopelessness is the seed of doubt that leads to thoughts of suicide. But hope, when we plant it inside of ourselves and our communities, is what leads to recovery. And the brain, it’s amazing organ, and neuroplasticity has proven that our brains can change and we can heal them in ways that it’s hard to fathom.

Andy: So you talk throughout your book about brain health, and you use that term specifically instead of the term mental health. Why is that? And why do you think that’s important?

Zach: I use that as a destigmatizing tool, and I want to shout out One Mind too. They’re a nonprofit organization that I partner with, and they use the term as well. And the way that I frame it up is we don’t call our heart health soul health. We call it heart health because it’s a tangible organ in the body. And there are actions that we can take to improve its functionality and prevent things like heart disease. And we know this and we’re taught this. We think about our diet. We think about exercise. We think about relaxation, different ways to improve our heart health. But we don’t always do that with our brains.

Zach: Well, our brain is a tangible organ in the body too, and there are actions that we can take to improve its functionality and prevent and minimize symptoms like anxiety, depression, and in some cases, thoughts of suicide. And so it’s really just getting people to start to think about the brain as an organ. And the symptoms that we can sometimes experience like anxiety and depression are nothing more than medical symptoms that should be treated. This isn’t like a deficiency in who you are as a person or a weakness, or you’re not strong enough. It’s a medical condition. And it’s something that when you actually address it, you do become stronger. I am infinitely a different person today than I was back in those days, and I wouldn’t even want to be that person. And I live with this brain disorder. I experience anxiety. I’ve treated my depression to a point where it’s very, very low and oftentimes non-existent for months on end. And I don’t have thoughts of suicide anymore. And I get to serve. So it’s like this path can be for anybody. You know what I mean?

Andy: I love that. That’s awesome. And it’s a cool way to just reframe our… I think the words we use to describe things are so important. And a lot of times we don’t even realize what we’re really saying. And I think that term brain health, that says a lot. Talk to me about this diagram you have in here, the vicious thinking vortex, what is that? And how do we get sucked into it?

Zach: The vicious thinking vortex. This has everything to do with how we relate to our thoughts. Okay. And OCD has a talk therapy, exposure and response prevention, or ERP, that teaches you how to sit with your thoughts. See, as human beings, we tend to identify with thoughts that come into our consciousness. And so we see a thought come in like a cloud, and we attach ourselves to that thought. And what ends up happening is with anxious thinking, we have these repetitive intrusive thoughts that cause us to experience anxiety. And as these thoughts come into our consciousness, there’s a lot of different ways that we will relate to that thought. But ultimately, we start to identify with that thought, even if we try pushing it away. And as we battle back and forth with this thought, we become more ingrained in, “Why am I having this thought? Why can’t I stop this thought?” It can cause us agitation, frustration, and then anxiety.

Zach: And as we get pulled further and further down into the vicious thinking vortex around these various thoughts that are anxiety-provoking, we get stuck in this loop of thinking, ruminating over and over and over and over again about these thoughts. And I’m kind of broad-stroking it because different thoughts cause anxiety for different people. And at the bottom of that vortex is when we start to experience panic attacks. And what ERP teaches you in mindfulness is that our thoughts are just streams of consciousness, almost like a cloud floating by in the sky. And when these thoughts come into our consciousness, we can choose whether to engage in it or not. And what was happening with me is with OCD specifically, you experience intrusive thoughts that you want to go away and stop.

Zach: One example could be I’m driving along, and I have a reoccurring thought of me swerving off the side of the road and crashing into somebody. And I want that thought to stop. When I think about it, it causes me anxiety. And I start to say to myself, “Well, what if I lose control of the car? Well, I mean, this could happen. I mean, how do I know that I won’t lose control of the car? How do I know that I haven’t already hit somebody? How do I know that I haven’t hit somebody, and I’ve decided to block it out in my memory?”

Andy: Right, yeah.

Zach: And so you start going further and further and further down the rabbit hole of thinking, looking for certainty, again, identifying and grasping onto these thoughts. And the way that you break that is through detachment and habituation. So sitting in those thoughts, detachment, meaning it could happen, it might happen, it might not happen. But I am not that thought. I am not whatever thoughts are coming into my consciousness. They are thoughts that bubble up, and they have nothing to do with who I am as a person, my morality, anything of that nature. And you start to create detachment. And as you create detachment, you start to habituate to these thoughts because less and less they’re causing you anxiety. You start to train your brain, the amygdala specifically, that those thoughts aren’t something that you need to fear. They could happen. They may, they may not. And we start to create acceptance around the various thoughts that we have.

Zach: And as this happens, you move further and further up the vortex, thinking about being at the top of the funnel. And then you get to a point where you look down on the funnel, you’re above the funnel and you look at it and you see thoughts come into your consciousness and they don’t affect you. They don’t cause you to experience anxiety. You can have a thought, “What if I swerve over and hit somebody walking on the sidewalk,” just to give an example of what an intrusive thought could look like, and you say, “Well, I could. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.” And that indifference and that acceptance leads to a reduction in anxiety. And that’s why ERP is so effective. And ERP with mindfulness, meditation is extremely effective and probably why I’ve gotten to the point where I’m at today. I meditate every single day and I have for the last six years.

Andy: And well, because a lot of times as a parent, your kid is not going to necessarily come to you to talk about something until they’re pretty far down the vortex, because in the same thing that you were talking about, at first, you kind of try to just handle it on your own. And you’re like, “You know, I can deal with this. I can calm myself down. It’s not that bad.” And it’s really not until you get to panic attack level that you really are like, “Hey, Dad, can I talk to you about something? I’m really freaking out about this test on Monday,” or whatever.

Zach: That’s right.

Andy: And so I wonder what you think, how we can help with that as parents or what our role should be if we find ourselves kind of trying to talk our child out from the bottom of the vortex.

Zach: Right. Well, you’ve actually brought on some wonderful guests that talk about this, but it really is all about exposure and then habituation. And you’ve had some good… Like with social anxiety, a teen or a young adult might get really fearful of doing something embarrassing in a social setting. And it creates a lot of anxiety. And because it creates so much anxiety, they start to exhibit behaviors of avoidance, so they’ll avoid certain people, places, things that evoke this anxiety and bring out this fear of “What if I do something stupid or embarrassing in front of a lot of people?” And so the first step as a parent and as the individual experiencing the anxiety is to become aware of that behavior. I’m experiencing anxiety, and now the behavior is that I’m avoiding this situation. And then ideally you would work with a brain health professional, a psychologist to slowly but surely set goals, utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure response prevention, ACT, just a couple different types of therapies that have been scientifically proven to be the most effective, to set incremental bite-sized goals to begin to expose yourself to this fear.

Zach: So let’s say you have a fear of making a fool of yourself at a party. Well, maybe you start by rather than going to a party, you decide to schedule a hangout with one individual friend, and “Can I tolerate the anxiety that comes with hanging out with that one friend and hoping that I don’t make a fool of myself?” And you literally starts to teach your brain. And you’ve brought guests on like this before. It is the most effective tool. “And can I tolerate that anxiety that I feel while I’m with this individual?” And maybe you’re on that goal for a couple of weeks, but you start to habituate. So then the teen goes, “Well, maybe I can hang out with a small group.” And so you level up. They hang out with that small group for a while, they tolerate the uncertainty around, “Hey, maybe I do make a fool myself. Maybe I do say something silly that somebody makes a joke about, but is that the end of the world? Is that the worst thing that could really happen to me?”

Andy: Yeah. I like to even try to purposely make a fool of yourself a little bit, or kind of do some of the things that you’re so worried about. And once you can kind of do them and see that it’s not that bad, make the mistake that you’re so worried about making, or get an F on a test if you’re so worried about that, or whatever. And you start to then kind of be freed from it or something, or you’re you able to kind of let it go a little bit.

Zach: You absolutely are. And so as a public speaker, that’s what I do full-time-

Andy: Oh, wow, yeah.

Zach: … speaker-author, college success coach. And what’s interesting is when I first started out in this career, because of my anxiety, I would be nearly on the verge of passing out before going on stage. I hated it. I would toss and turn the night before. I mean, it was getting to the point where I was like… And I have no stigma towards medication at all, but I do think that you have to monitor it closely. I was looking into benzos, right? Like, “I can go and get a prescription for this.” I struggle with anxiety, something to relieve the anxiety. But I said to myself, “You know how habituation works.” And what’s interesting is I’m now in my fourth season of public speaking, and what once used to make me pass out, nearly pass out from just the highest levels of anxiety and fear, now doesn’t scare me at all. And I don’t have anxiety before going on stage.

Zach: And if I do, it’s more excitement, which is the other side of anxiety in a lot of cases. And I sleep well the night before. And it’s because my brain has habituated. I understand and I can tolerate, “Look, I’m not always going to be a perfect speaker, but I’m going to show up and do my best. I’m going to try to share this information. I’m going to try to impact lives.” And through leaning into my anxiety, I’ve freed myself of another level of anxiety in an arena that I’m passionate about.

Zach: And so as parents, if we start to shelter our children from experiencing anxiety, what we are going to end up doing is actually, and when I work with my clients, we always talk about this. Our worlds are always expanding or contracting, especially as it pertains to anxiety and fear, always expanding our boundaries, where we can tolerate more and more uncertainty and we can habituate, or we’re closing in on ourselves more and more where more things cause us to feel anxiety to the point where some individuals in the pandemic, this is something as a brain health advocate, I’ve seen, people don’t even feel comfortable leaving the house. Some people don’t even feel comfortable leaving their room.

Zach: So they have very little tolerance for uncertainty and they have very low tolerance for feelings of anxiety. And so their world closes in on them. And so as parents, we want to work with our teen with a professional to slowly but surely expose them to the things that cause them anxiety, not in overwhelming ways so that we create panic attacks, but in small incremental ways, the same way that when you go into the gym, you might start with a five-pound weight. And maybe you’re with that five-pound weight for a month, but then in month two you’re with the 10. But then in month three, now you’ve jumped up to the 20 because you’ve really built a base layer. So by month four, you go from 20 to 40, 40 to 80, because you can start to tolerate more and more of that which causes you anxiety because you now have the confidence to understand, “I know this playbook, and I know that this trick that my brain is trying to play on me. I know exactly what I have to do.” And in that way you become self-regulating.

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About Zack Westerbeck

Zach Westerbeck is the author of You’re Not Alone. He is the founder of Westerbeck Speaking and Coaching Inc., an organization focused on providing resources for those struggling with their brain health. He’s spoken at colleges across the country, including the University of Southern California, Pennsylvania State, and many more. 

Zach has partnered with organizations like the Peace of Mind Foundation and One Mind to share his story and free those suffering in silence. He has been featured in Forbes, The Red and Black, CU Independent and Thrive, among others.

He lives with his wife in Costa Mesa, California.

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