Being a mental health counselor means that you know how to identify various mental disorders, erase stigmas around anxiety, phobias, sexual identity, and any other type of label that people wear. Being a counselor means that you have it all together so that you can help others, right? Wrong.
Being a mental health counselor doesn't mean that you do not suffer from a mental health disorder. As a high school counselor, I carry the same heavy label as many of my students. I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder and social phobia. Sometimes it is so bad that I find my heart beating rapidly in the middle of the day, on the verge of a panic attack.
Welcome to Rose-Minded, a mental health blog and self-care brand here to support others through their journey. We specialize in journaling, self-care, and sharing your story to encourage healing. Check out Rose-Minded's Instagram or shop our self-care store. Continue reading below for more about the guest writer's journey through cancer and anxiety and how she overcame her struggles to tell her story.
The Story that Anxiety Tells
There is an element of shame attached to being a counselor and trying to manage your own mental illness. After all, we are the go-to people, the fixers. We are supposed to be the ones that have it all together. How can we possibly be of use to anyone if we are suffering from a mental disorder ourselves?
It is this mindset that made me bury my anxiety under a smile and self-deprecating humor. I acted the part of a neuro-typical person to avoid being exposed. If people were to find out that I suffered from anxiety and phobias, surely they would think I am a fraud. Anxiety gives us faulty messages about who we are, and who we are supposed to be. For me, this boiled down to three reoccurring messages.
1. I am not competent enough to be helping others when I need help myself
2. If people find out that I suffer from anxiety, they will think less of me
3. If I am around students with anxiety, it will trigger my own anxiety.
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with breast cancer that things began to change.
Cancer brings with it many things, but the most life-changing of them are the things that are seldom talked about, like the way it changes your entire narrative about who you are. My particular type of cancer was invasive and aggressive. I had to undergo chemotherapy, radiation, and a host of other medical procedures. But it was not cancer that triggered my anxiety, it was the chemotherapy.
My Role Has Changed, and I Don't Know My Lines
I have spent my entire life playing the part of the tall, thin, pretty blonde. The only thing that was ever expected of me was to show up and be beautiful.
My hair was my most beautiful accessory; easy to style, easy to manage, complimented continuously. It was the shield that drew attention away from my face, which was good because I did not think my face was pretty. My hair was undoubtedly my entire identity. So when I lost it, I felt like I lost myself.
What did I have to offer if I was not the tall, thin, pretty blonde? People would finally know that I was a fraud. They would know I was not smart, not funny. I was nothing. When I lost my hair, I found my anxiety heighten to a state that I seldom experienced.
Suddenly, this mask of beauty that I so carefully and intentionally hid behind was ripped off, leaving in its wake a person who was paralyzed by the feelings of weakness, ugliness, and insignificance.
Losing Your Hair Exposes More Than Just your Head
When you have no hair, you become exposed. Everyone sees you. Everyone quickly narrates a story in their head about why you are bald, but no one wants to ask. I found myself suddenly thrust into the center of attention, which is a place that I have worked so hard all of my life to avoid.
Small talk became an everyday occurrence. For someone who is an introvert and has social phobia, what also became a daily event is battling the demons in my head telling me that I could not handle this newfound identity as the cancer patient, nor the attention that it was giving me.
What was most challenging was working at a high school with thousands of parents, students, and teachers. Every day, going to work became what felt like a theater performance of trying to act as if I was okay with the questioning stares, and the constant questions and stories about other people’s cancer. I might as well have gone to work without clothes on every day because that is how exposed I felt. No longer was I defined as the tall, thin, pretty blonde. Instead, I was known as “the one with the headscarf.”
Because anxiety often breeds the need to be in control of situations, I knew that I would have to find a way to walk among the stares and the sad commentary. The only way to do this was to own it.
Three Ways to Lean Into the Anxiety
1. Run Toward The Fear
Anxiety is grounded in fear. Those that live with it are continually trying to run away from it to avoid feeling anxious. The problem with this technique is that by focusing on running away from fear, we are not focusing on running toward success.
2. Talk About What is Making You Anxious
Each time I allowed myself to talk about my fears, phobias, and insecurities, I became vulnerable. It felt like walking into a lion’s den. But I did it anyway. Because what happens when you start naming all of the things that are causing you anxiety, is that it starts to take their power away.
3. Get to Know Your Anxiety
Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we be doing everything that we can to avoid feeling anxious? Not really. Relationships with people get better when we get to know them. We learn what makes them tick. Same holds true for anxiety. Dive into it. Learn what makes it tick. Doing this will help you to combat it when it rears its head.
What Cancer Taught Me
1. Authenticity Breeds Connection
We do not have to have cancer to be similar. Everyone has fears, everyone has insecurities. It is precisely those stigmas and labels that we try to run from that can bring us together.
2. Vulnerability is Power
Anxiety will have you think that vulnerability is a weakness, but it is not. Showing up for your life and owning who you are is empowering. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we allow ourselves to be real.
3. Anxiety is Not Likely to Go Away
I wish that there was a way to make anxiety disappear forever. That is not likely to happen. However, leaning into it, feeling its presence, and understanding why it is there will significantly lessen its grip.
Re-Telling the Story
No longer do I think that being a school counselor with anxiety makes me a fraud. Instead, I think it makes me a better counselor. I did get found out, but to my surprise, I found that I had so much more to give than I ever imagined. I would not have discovered this had I buried myself under the blanket of anxiety.
Everyone struggles with something. Anxiety tells us a story that we cannot handle what we are facing. The good news is that we have the power to change that story. Stop running from what makes you anxious and start leaning into it. I know that it sounds counter-intuitive, but having a relationship with your anxiety will help you to recognize the parts of it that are getting the better of you.
Not Everything Happens for a Reason
I don't believe that everything happens for a reason. I think that sometimes things just happen. It is up to us to define a reason that empowers us. I am not happy that I had cancer. What I am happy about is allowing myself to step outside of my pretty little comfort zone and become a better version of me.
I am a school counselor who suffers from anxiety. I will always have it. It is a part of me. But now I am using it as a tool of connection, empathy, and compassion instead of an ugly stigma that I have to pretend does not exist.
Article: Counselors Have Anxiety Too: How Cancer Re-Defined My Story
Monica is the owner of www.mindgal.com, a website dedicated to helping people with anxiety, panic attacks, and overcoming obstacles so that we can live a life of purpose. Monica also hosts The MindGal Podcast, which aims to erase the stigma surrounding mental health.
Monica works as a High School Counselor in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. She has struggled with anxiety and social phobia throughout her life. Her passion is to help others understand that they are not alone, and to offer helpful resources. Monica presented at a TEDx event at her school, where she spoke about how cancer has changed her story.
You can subscribe to Monica’s website and check out her blog and TEDx talk at www.mindgal.com. You can follow Monica on social media.
Podcast: The MindGal Podcast