It’s January of David’s sophomore year. It’s a Sunday and tomorrow is the first day of school after winter break.
Sheila can tell when David wakes up that his anxiety is kicking in again. She asks him if he’s okay, but he gives her the usual, “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure, because you seem pretty anxious. You know, it’s normal to be anxious the last day of—“
“--Mom, I don’t want to talk about okay.”
“Okay, just let me know if I can do anything.”
In November, David had finally broken down and admitted to Sheila that something was wrong, that he didn’t want to go to school, and that he felt physically sick sometimes, he was so afraid of disappointing his teachers and his parents. He had started seeing a counselor in December, and had gone a few times before winter break. He was diagnosed with anxiety and everyone was relieved to have a name for the problem, but they didn’t have a plan yet of what to do about it.
On this last day of winter break, it’s late afternoon, and David has been holed up in his room most of the day. Sheila knocks on his door, hears a muffled reply, and walks in.
“Hey buddy,” She says, trying to be as gentle as she can. She’s learned to tread lightly when he’s like this.
“Hey mom.” His voice is trembling a little. She just sits there by his side in a silence that seems to last for hours. After what’s really been a few minutes, She places her hand on his, and just says,
“You know I love you very much buddy.”
And it’s like a dam collapses as David just breaks down, sobbing. His crying is the heavy quiet kind when you can tell it’s been held in for a long time. David leans toward his mom and she just holds him, for again, what seems like hours.
When he’s done, and it feels like he’s physically lighter, he raises his head, wipes the tears and snot from his face, and says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me mom.”
“Nothing’s wrong with you David, lot’s of people have anxiety. I used to have a lot when I first started my job. Most days I couldn’t eat because I just felt nauseous.”
“Yeah. But I know you put a lot of pressure on yourself to get good grades, and I’m sure you feel like you need to keep getting straight A’s, but you don’t have to. Me and your dad don’t really care. Neither of us got great grades and we’re doing okay.”
“I know mom, but it’s Ms. Washington, it’s like if I don’t spend five hours on every assignment, it feels like I didn’t try hard enough and I’m gonna get a D. If it wasn’t for her, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.”
“Well, buddy, you don’t need to let her get to you like that. She’s just trying to scare you so that you work harder, but if you let this anxiety take over—“
“—You think I can control it? Mom, I’ve been sitting here all day, just trying to tell myself it’s not that big of a deal, that I can get a B in a class and still get into college. But it won’t go away. It’s like coming from this part of me that I don’t have any control over! Don’t you think if I could stop it, I would?”
And Sheila just sat back in her chair, with her hand on her forehead, feeling like she was in way over her head.
Hello, I’m Corey Busch and you’re listening to the Teen Mind—the show where we follow one teenager and his family and learn to change the way we understand and talk people closest to us, especially our teens.
And a few quick notes: David and his family are fictional characters. Any resemblance to real people is strictly coincidental. Also, if you haven’t already, I recommend starting from episode 1 and working your way through before reading this one. It’ll just make more sense.
So, today, David learns a way of thinking about his anxiety that finally helps it calm down.
Back to that Sunday night at the end of winter break: David hadn’t really thought about it that way until he said it out loud. “A part of me I don’t have any control over.” These words kept floating around in his head, and it made him feel a little crazy. After all, what kind of person doesn’t have control of themselves?
But it also gave him a little hope. And it was that word, “part.” Because if was just a part of him causing this anxiety, then maybe actually he wasn’t going crazy. Maybe there was nothing wrong with him, but it was just this part of him taking control.
And it made him think of the homework his counselor gave him for over winter break. He had told David to just listen to his anxiety. Don’t try to push it away—just listen.
And this sounded strange to David at first. His anxiety was making him miserable: Why would he want to listen to it?
But now that he realizes his anxiety is a part of him, a part that feels separate from who he really is, maybe this part is trying to tell him something, and maybe it will help to listen. So he decides to give it a shot.
The next morning, the first day back from break, David has a plan. He decides that during English class, when his anxiety is at its worst, instead of paying attention to class, he’ll pay attention to his anxiety.
That morning, he can feel the anxiety gradually ramp up, until the bell rings, and it’s time to face Ms. Washington. And its in his body he feels it the most. It’s like all his muscles are clenching at the same time, like he is being strangled from the inside. His heart is beating faster, but it’s also beating a lot harder. He can hear his pulse inside his head.
But the pain in his throat is the worst. It feels like that’s where the anxiety lives. His throat isn’t just tight and clenched, but it physically hurts. It burns, like he’s swallowed acid, such a strong pain, he couldn’t have followed the English lecture if he wanted to.
Then, he turns to the words running through his head. “Pay attention to the teacher, man! You’re gonna screw up the homework! You can’t screw up!” The voice is frantic, it’s working really hard to get his attention. And it just keeps saying the same thing over and over again. “Don’t screw up, don’t screw up, don’t screw up!”
Finally, David’s had enough. He tries to push the anxiety away, to force it out of his mind. And as he does this, he notices something. The harder he pushes, the harder it fights back. His throat throbs even worse and the voice just becomes louder. It’s like someone screaming at him inside his head.
Exhausted, angry, wishing he could just melt into a puddle and drain out of the room, he puts his face in his hands and fights as hard as he can to not break down crying.
so I want to step back for a second because last week, I talked about a strategy for listening to and understanding your amygdala, that can change your life. And while that sounds even to me right now like an exaggeration, I actually believe it. I believe that if you start thinking about your mind in this way, that your life will be changed.
We’ll start with an analogy: Let’s imagine David in the driver’s seat of a car. For this analogy, the car is driving down a perfectly straight highway, if the car stays in its designated lane then, David feels good, no anxiety. But if it swerves out of the lane, that equals burning throat, panicked thoughts, you get the picture.
So, David’s on the highway, staying in his lane, everything’s fine. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, the car swerves violently, it’s about to smash into the guardrail: He’s having an anxiety attack. The key question is what happens inside that car to make it swerve. What has changed inside David’s mind to go from everything’s fine to anxiety attack?
So, Let’s start with theory number one: that David is alone in the car. If David is alone in the car, then something dramatic must change about David for him to go from a calm, straight-driving person to an erratic, all-over-the-road-driving person. His car is swerving out of control, and because he’s the only one in the car, then there must be something seriously wrong with him.
So, let’s go to theory number two: David is not alone in the car. In theory number 2, his anxiety is sitting next to him in the passenger seat. Again, the car is staying in its lane, everything’s fine. But now, David’s anxiety, thinking that leaf in the road ahead is actually a bomb, pushes David out of the way, grabs the wheel, and frantically swerves to avoid the leaf. David then tries to take control back from his anxiety, and a fight ensues, his anxiety trying to save them from certain death, David just trying to get control of the car back. And they continue to swerve like this, until one of them gets tired and gives up.
And so most of us think about the brain according to theory number one. That you are the only driver of your mind, and that your anxiety or depression or addiction is completely your fault, that there’s something wrong with your, causing you to do things or feel things you don’t like.
But a lot of experts believe that’s just not an accurate way of thinking about our minds. And more importantly, it’s just not helpful when it comes to getting over anxiety, depression, and addiction.
And so, now’s the time unveil the actual psychological model behind all this multiple-driver stuff. This is the model that has changed my life, and by the time we’re done here, I think you’ll see why.
So this model is called Internal Family Systems, or, IFS. It’s a relatively new theory in the world of psychology, and what you need to know about IFS is that it thinks of the mind as being made up of parts.
So, the part we’ll talk mostly about today is David’s anxiety part. And we think about the anxiety part like it’s a whole other personality living in his mind. This means his anxiety part has it’s own beliefs and desires, and they are separate from David’s. And it has the power to completely take over David’s mind, to take the steering wheel, if it feels threatened. And it does this by kicking in his fight or flight response and by hijacking David’s thoughts, beliefs, emotions, everything.
His anxiety part was created when he was seven, during his dad’s depression. And it had one job, to protect David from failure and rejection, and it believed that it’s job was crucial to David’s safety, because at that time, it was.
But the problem is that the anxiety part does not just go away as David gets older, and the threat goes away. It stays in the background, in the passenger seat, watching for any sign of failure and rejection.
And it stays in the background does for several years, because for several years David succeeds at most things and is accepted by most people, until the 2nd week of his Sophomore year.
And I want to take a second here to just acknowledge something: that this sounds weird. It sounds weird to talk about David’s anxiety like it’s a separate person. It makes it sound like he has a split personality, like he’s crazy. But when you think about it, the IFS model actually helps David to feel less crazy.
Think about how comforting it will be to tell himself: “This anxiety is a part of me, but it’s not all of me. When I am able to help the anxiety part calm down, then I will be able to take more control and the anxiety will slowly get better.”
There is tremendous power in knowing that, deep down, you are okay. There’s just a part of you that’s causing the problem.
And so who is the “you” when we say “you are okay?” If your mind is just a bunch of parts, then who are you really? Well, it turns out that all humans have what we call a Core Self, or a Self with a capital S. When you feel really comfortable with someone, you say you can be yourself around them. You’re talking about your Core Self. This is the best of who you are. It is who you want in control, in the driver’s seat. According to IFS, every human’s Core Self is fundamentally good. It is calm, confident, and compassionate. And problems happen for us not when our Core Self gets anxious or depressed, but when anxious or depressed parts of us take over, and our Core Self is no longer driving.
Again, this is a totally different way of thinking about mental health problems. With this mindset, we don’t think there’s something wrong with David, with his character or his abilities. Instead, we think there’s nothing wrong with David, it’s that he has a part that’s taking over, and that part is separate from David’s Core Self.
Now, it’s important to remember, this is a model for understanding the mind—there is no single location in David’s brain you could point to and say, “There, see that? That ball of neurons is David’s anxiety part.” It’s a helpful representation, not the absolute truth.
Now, it is super important to know that problem parts are trying their best to protect us. Now, we’ve already talked a lot about how David’s amygdala, where his anxiety part spends a lot of time, is trying to protect him, so this shouldn’t be a big surprise to us.
And so one of the most helpful aspects of IFS is that it gives us a way to talk with and listen to our problem parts. And this is actually what David’s counselor helps him do during their next counseling session. He helps David start to actually build trust with his anxiety part. This happens by asking his anxiety what it thinks it’s job is. Again, I know, it sounds weird, just stay with me, I’m not making this stuff up.
So, this is what it’s like when David talks with his anxiety part for the first time: He closes his eyes, and asks, silently in his mind, “Anxiety part, what do you think your job is?” And then he just waits. And a second or two later, his anxiety answers, using his own inner voice, and says, “I’m here to make sure you don’t screw up, man!” And instead of explaining to the anxiety how it’s not actually helping, David is stays curious about his anxiety, and he continues to ask it questions.
David quickly learns that his anxiety part is very determined to keep him from failing, especially at school, because it is afraid that if he fails, he will be rejected by his parents or his teachers. It believes that rejection is horrible, and it will do anything to protect him from feeling rejected.
Now, the temptation is to explain to the anxiety part that it’s not helping David at all, that it’s actually making him miserable. But the counselor guides David instead to thank his anxiety for working so hard to protect him, and to tell the anxiety that he understands where it’s coming from. And by doing this, David builds trust with his anxiety, much like you would build trust with a scared child.
So the day after this session, David is at school, noticing his anxiety build in anticipation of Ms. Washington’s English class. And as it builds, he tries again to listen to it. And he hears the same words: “Don’t screw up man, don’t screw up! You can’t get another C-.”
But this time, instead of pushing it away, David asks more questions, “Hi anxiety, what are you afraid will happen if I screw up?” And it tells him, “I’m afraid Ms. Washington is going to get mad at you and think you’re a lazy, piece-of-crap failure.” And David just responds, “M’kay, sure I see where you’re coming from. What would you like me to do about it?” And it tells him, “well, just pay attention and make sure you do what you need to get a good grade.” And David says, “Okay, sounds good.”
And with that, he notices a dramatic shift in his body and his mind. His fight or flight response calms, the burning in his throat cools, and his panicked thoughts relax. They don’t completely go away. He’s not cured. But he’s able to take a deep breath, and for the first time in a long time, he has hope that maybe he’s going to get over this thing.
Now a few notes before we wrap up: First, this episode is not a thorough guide to doing IFS techniques by yourself. So, please don’t try the specific techniques based on this one show. There is an amazing book I recommend that does guide you to do IFS by yourself. It’s called Self Therapy by Jay Earley. This book is incredible. I can’t recommend it enough.
Also, It’s going to be 3 weeks before the next episode comes out. I have some big projects I’m working on, so just a heads up.
Next time on The Teen Mind, we take another approach to calming David’s anxiety, an approach that has grown into one of the most popular and effective anxiety treatments on the planet: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
The Teen Mind is a production of Elements Counseling Inc. Find more, including full text of each episode and how to get a hold of me at theteenmind.com. Thanks to paragraphs for the theme music, find them at paragraphs.bandcamp.com
I do counseling with teens, parents, adults and couples in Minneapolis, and I do workshops for parents and teachers throughout the Twin Cities Metro.
If you have questions or comments, about the show or about how to work with me, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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Thank you for listening.