Zoe Sugg has been very open about her own experiences with panic attacks and anxiety issues. She has become a Digital Ambassador for MIND and in doing so has helped many teenagers to begin and have conversations about mental health. I’ve decided to ignore the whole ghost-writing issue for today but want to explore how Sugg/Curham deal with the concept of anxiety in Girl Online. First of all, I think the decision to include anxiety/panic attacks within the book was a good way to talk to teens about this without seeming patronising or condescending. As they are reading about a fictional character it is somewhat distanced from themselves so when they read about Penny being given advice (from a hot American boy, no less) it is a lot more palatable than some adult telling them ways that may help.
The book didn’t start on a positive note in terms of the representation of anxiety for me. In fact, I’d read two pages and could feel myself getting angry straightaway. Why? Well, in Penny’s first direct address to us, in blog post form, we are presented with her Top Ten Reasons for Teenage Girls Getting Anxious- all of which were to do with appearances, pictures on social media and appealing to boys.
This, for me, was a major problem. Yes, anxious can just be another word that people use for nervous or worried, but it also a very loaded term for those of us with anxiety issues. There is a difference between being upset about having spots or worrying about boys liking you and actually struggling with anxiety. I’m not saying that issues with self-image and body are not sometimes part of real anxiety problems. Of course they can be. But this list is not populated with real anxiety problems. I’m not saying they don’t worry people but these are normal teen issues. Teens can be worried about this but not suffering with anxiety. They can be worried about how they look but still able to get up in the morning and function. There is a difference between these sorts of nerves and real anxiety, and attaching the word ‘anxious’ to this list does give a false impression.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m 32 and still freak out about spots or bad hair days but I can recognise that this is not the end of the world. However, in the past year or so I have begun to have panic attacks and have found out that I suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. I have had panic attacks in town because I thought people were looking at me/following me (they weren’t). I’ve hyperventilated outside John Lewis and felt like lying on the floor in the middle of town because then I would be attached to the floor, a solid surface, and feel safe. I’ve hidden in a bush whilst crying my eyes out because I couldn’t face anyone close to me getting sick anymore and felt the only way was to go away from my loved ones (it didn’t last long luckily). There are teenagers with similar problems who can’t get out of bed because they are concerned that something bad will happen, people who are scared of social settings and so avoid having to mix with other people. This is not just a case of needing to take a selfie and worrying that it will look bad. I feel that this list gets the book off on the wrong foot. Yes, there are many pressures on teenage girls to look good but this is not necessarily the reason why people become anxious.
Later in the book though I actually found some tips which could actually be useful for a teenage girl who suffered with panic attacks and general anxiety. I liked the concept of choosing images that calm you and thinking about them. Penny (like Zoe) lives in Brighton and particularly finds the sea soothing. Sometimes, focusing on something natural (especially something that is moving like the sea) can distract you, re-focus your mind and bring you back to a more calm state. I use incense sticks for the same effect- I like the smell and I can also just watch the smoke waft up into the ether. I don’t need to think about my worry, just watch that smoke. Basically, it’s mindfulness techniques. Focusing on what is around you or within you to re-focus the mind and realise that thoughts are just thoughts, they are not everything about you.
I also liked Noah’s suggestion of sitting with the anxiety and not fighting it but I do think that the book possibly made this seem easier than it is. For myself, I’ve basically trained my brain to panic and not fighting it goes against every instinct I have. I’ve been told by counsellors just to go with the anxiety but this is something that I have found particularly hard. Noah’s suggestion involves attaching a colour/shape to the feeling and just watching it. My husband uses this technique and it works for him. I am not particularly visual so it doesn’t really work for me but I have found that owning the anxiety and telling myself it’s OK does work (if I catch it early enough). I can just say to myself “I’m getting anxious, but that’s OK, it’s OK to be anxious” and strangely the anxiety can begin to wane. Sometimes, however, I’ve already gone too far and these techniques don’t work for me. I’ve found then 7-11 breathing to be particularly useful. The counting is a distraction and the slow breathing allows me to avoid reaching hyperventilation.
I also really liked Elliot’s idea of imagining a persona to get through hard situations. In the book, Penny is scared of travelling on a plane and so invents a character with the traits that she would like to have- Ocean Strong. She imagines how Ocean Strong would behave in this situation and sees herself behaving in this same way. I’ve been known to do this at times- it’s part of the reason you’re more likely to find me Disneybounding on a down day.
The one thing that did worry me was that Penny did seem to automatically improve when she met Noah. Noah seemed to automatically calm her down and whilst a romantic partner will hopefully have that ability (I know that Mr H is great at calming me down!) it saddened me that the book seemed to be giving the impression that finding a boyfriend would solve all of the problems. Not really the message I feel that we should be giving to a tween audience.
I do think that this book is a great opener into the conversation of mental health issues for younger girls but shouldn’t be seen as the be all and end all. I know it’s a fiction text but it would have been great to have an appendix of resources either in the book or on Zoe’s site that could have backed up some of the suggestions and tips.
Have you read Girl Online? How do you feel about the portrayal of anxiety? Have you read any other books which portray mental health issues for a teen audience? Which would you recommend?