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Auntie SparkNotes: Halloween Triggers My Anxiety

Dear Auntie,

My anxiety has many triggers, several of which might be perceived as silly or inconsequential by those who haven’t experienced it. For example, being imitated—even if it’s just in a light-hearted game of charades—can send me into a full-blown panic attack. So can repetitive noises. So can costumes. These are triggers that I would love to work on overcoming, but it’s going to take more than a month and plenty of professional help to do so, and given that it’s now the season of dressing up in silly outfits and going door-to-door asking for candy, I figured I might need some more immediate advice and help.

It’s hard to explain, but I really dislike dressing up in anything conspicuous. This is a bad thing to dislike because my school takes Halloween pretty seriously—every homeroom does a group costume and some friend groups decide to go solo and do a mini group costume. This year, as the last shebang for my departing senior friends, my friends and I have decided to do a group costume. When I agreed to partake, I was unaware that doing so would require me to participate in Halloween festivities that could seriously trigger my anxiety.

It’s a month away from Halloween, my best friend has ordered the expensive supplies that we will need to construct the costumes, the costume idea is one that requires no more than and no less than four participants, and my friends are all really invested in the idea. I feel terrible to even consider dropping out of a project that means so much to them, but I also can’t afford to elevate my anxiety any more than it has to (especially because November 1st is a big day for me for personal reasons). I don’t know how to tell them that I feel like I can’t do it. They’re my best friends, and they know I have anxiety and are really good about it, but I don’t want to ruin our plans or disappoint them. I know deep down they’ll understand, but that doesn’t make this entire situation any less nerve-racking. I would love to find a way to participate, but I also want it to be fun for all of us and having a panic attack during lunch on Halloween is decidedly not-fun. I already get a stomachache just thinking about it. So please, if you have any suggestions on talking to my friends about it or overcoming these nerves, I would really appreciate it.

Two words, Sparkler: Elephant tranquilizers.

And yes, that’s a joke, but… well, not entirely? Because based on your letter, you suffer from the kind of anxiety that requires serious professional help, including a discussion with your doctor about whether you’d benefit from medication! Which just makes it that much weirder to see you casually describe what sounds like a profoundly life-limiting mental health condition as “something I’d love to work on,” as opposed to something you are actively seeking treatment for, with the support of your parents and the input of a physician. Leaving aside the issue of Halloween, this is an urgent problem that you need to address. An anxiety diagnosis is supposed to be the beginning of the process, not something you sit on.

That is, assuming you actually did get that diagnosis from a medical professional. Because if not, then that should be your next step, if only to be sure about what you’re dealing with. Diagnosing yourself with a mental illness comes with its own risks, and pathologizing your problems can be a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes a manageable issue into something much worse. (Just look at how much more dire things get, even in your letter, when you make the jump from “I don’t like costumes” to “costumes trigger me.”)

Which brings us to your costume conundrum, and on that front, here’s the deal: if you’re going to bail on this event, you need to do it immediately and with the most sincere apologies to the friends who you’re letting down at the last minute (plus a promise never to commit to something again that you know from the outset you probably can’t handle, because if you’re going to disappoint people, it’s far better to do it right at the start instead of on crazy short notice). But it’s also worth noting that the whole thing about anxiety, be it clinical-grade or just ordinary nerves, is that it’s treatable—with medication, sure, but also through meditation, mindfulness, or cognitive behavioral therapy (which helps you to recognize and derail your distorted thought processes, and reframe them a healthier way, before they cause a meltdown.) So, that’s the good news: it is absolutely within your power to tolerate your discomfort, show up for your friends, and get through the day—or many days, or even the rest of your life!—without having a panic attack.

The bad news is, I can’t do that for you, and I don’t know if you can do it for yourself on a two-week deadline. I can’t even tell you what approach to managing your anxiety is going to be most effective for you. That’s why your next step should be in the direction of, ideally, some professional help—or if that’s not available, a self-guided tour through the options you can pursue on your own. (If you’re not sure where to start, an internet search for “cognitive behavioral therapy anxiety techniques” should turn up some good information.) And if you land on something that’s useful enough to get you through a costume party at the end of the month, then great! But if not, you’ll still be doing something good and necessary for yourself… and getting a head start on Halloween 2019.

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