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Trigger Warning Statement: In this post, I am talking about my very personal experience with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. I have provided a link to resources and the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at the bottom of the page.
I remember having my first “bad” thoughts when I was ten years old. Thoughts of worthlessness, crazy sadness, and that things would just be better if I wasn’t around. I remember sitting in my bedroom with my door closed and wondering how I got to where I was. I was TEN YEARS OLD (the age my daughter is now)!
I never told anybody about my thoughts because I read the book my mom gave me about adolescence and knew that these things called hormones would cause me to have crazy moods. So that is what I thought it was – hormones – yuck.
But unfortunately, I now know that I suffered from depression and anxiety. Those “bad” thoughts that continued into my 20’s were actually suicidal thoughts. And looking back I am amazed that I made it through the worst of times. I never talked it about it and I hid it really well.
So what was the contributing factor that helped me through it? Service. Volunteering. Feeling self-worth because I was helping others and “making a difference.” It wasn’t always easy but being a part of something that I believed to be positive helped reduce the negative effects of my anxiety.
In this post, I will discuss some of the ways volunteering helps reduce anxiety in teenagers and can even provide the support needed for them to get help when dealing with depression.
Volunteering reduces anxiety by increasing self-worth
Anytime I had a suicidal thought it usually came from the basic thought, “things will just be better without me.” I know now it was the depression talking but I thought that if I wasn’t around any of the problems my family and friends faced would be better.
Volunteering helped me find a way and see that things got better for people with my help. Whether it was dressing up as a clown for a Back to School carnival or delivering gifts to our adopted family or dancing with adults with developmental disabilities – I got to see people smile because I was there and interacting with them.
That feeling of self-worth encouraged me to do more. It was a ripple effect. I developed new skills, I met more people, and I began taking leadership roles so that more teens could be a part of the service experience.
Volunteering reduces anxiety by giving your teen a safe place to develop new skills
In high school, my parents wanted me to focus on school so I didn’t have an outside job – except for a short time helping ship body bag samples for a medical supply company – another story for another time.
Volunteering became the means for me to develop new skills of leadership, project management, event planning, and teaching. With developing these skills I was able to discover my strengths. I found that I was really good at working with kids and teaching.
Developing these skills gave me a glimpse into the possibilities for my future. I had hope. I knew things would get better. I could immerse myself in learning and becoming a better person and not let the bad thoughts consume me.
Volunteering reduces anxiety by connecting teens with positive role models
In an earlier post, I wrote about the Best Advice from my Parents. In the post I talk about the power of positive role models and how their influence changed my life.
I was exposed to these positive role models because I was volunteering. The adults who organized the projects we did or involved our groups in service, valued the experiences and what we would learn from them. It made me see the potential of adulthood. I learned some incredible lessons from watching them.
Volunteering reduces anxiety by helping your teen feel more gratitude
The newly crowned Miss Universe 2018 spoke about the importance of gratitude during the competition. She said that after working in the slums of Manila, she found that if people felt gratitude they did better and she saw more smiles on children’s faces.
Volunteering helped me feel more gratitude and when I was thankful there was little room for the anxiety and depression to affect me.
As much as I struggled with anxiety at home, seeing the circumstances of the children I worked with and how they felt joy made me realize that things weren’t so bad. During a mission trip to the Mexico border, I worked with children that lived on concrete slabs surrounded by cardboard structures. But they were the most joyful kids I ever met. It inspired me to be more thankful about my own situation and it gave me purpose to learn about why they were so happy.
Volunteering reduces anxiety by getting your teen “out of their head”
My suicidal thoughts often came when I was in my head too much. I am an introvert. I internalize things and I don’t speak out loud until I have thought about 5 or 6 different ways to say it. By then I would think my time to speak had passed.
Volunteering gave me an opportunity to get out of my head and be a person of action. It kept me busy and around people so that I didn’t have time to dwell on my thoughts too much. I knew people counted on me and I needed to be there.
This helped me also learn to look at the big picture and not dwell on the small details that contributed to more anxiety. As long as the donations got to where they needed to be or the children had a good time learning a lesson, they didn’t care how it happened. That provided a sense of relief.
Next Steps: How to get your teen involved in Volunteering
So…you might have read this and feel that volunteering could help but you have no idea where to get started. Don’t worry. There are TONS of resources available. And I want to help. I have available online The Complete Guide for Student Leaders to Plan Service Events. This guide walks a student through a step-by-step process.
But if you need something to REALLY get you started – check out this book on AMAZON – 52 Kids who R.O.C.K. Every Day: Inspiring stories from young people who Radiate Outrageous Compassion & Kindness. These are stories and project ideas from kids and teens who are making a difference and gaining valuable experience.
I am not a medical professional and everything written in this post comes from personal experience. If you or someone you know has anxiety or depression, I strongly encourage you to seek help. You can start by looking at these RESOURCES or by calling the SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE at 1-800-273-8255.
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