choosing joy messy middle podcast Season 6

Megan Gallagher on Finding Joy While Living with Anxiety


In this episode, Megan Gallagher joins me to talk about anxiety, and how to navigate it. After living with intense panic attacks (up to 20 a day) and anxiety as a teenager, Megan made it her life mission to inspire teenagers and parents on how to deal with anxiety in today’s modern world by speaking at countless middle schools and high schools about her story. 

Megan has written an amazing book, and she’s a two time TED Talk giver. Today, she is a resource and inspiration for so many teenagers navigating the world of mental health.  I’m really excited to have her join me on the show.

Megan has a lot to share about how to find joy, and rediscover yourself when you are faced with a mental illness like anxiety. She talks some key steps that she took in her own journey:

  1.  Reach out for help when you feel like something is wrong. If you are a parent and are worried about your kids, take note of their mood and behavior and ask if something’s going on if you notice changes.
  2. Take control of your own journey, or as Megan says “If I want to feel better, that’s up to me. I have to give myself the keys to the car because I’m the only one driving.”
  3. Get to know yourself, and focus on doing the inner work with a therapist or coach to learn how to work with your disease. 

Resources:

Megan Gallagher’s website

Megan’s Ted Talk

Reaching New Heights Podcast with Megan Gallagher

Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think on Amazon

Interview Transcript:

Paula Jenkins: Welcome to Jump Start Your Joy. This week on the show I am so very excited to have Megan Gallagher joining me. Welcome to the show Megan.

Megan Gallagher: Hi, I’m so excited to be here.

Paula Jenkins: Yes, it’s a delight to have you. Megan works with people who are dealing with anxiety. She’s written an amazing book. She’s a two time TED Talk giver. And so I’m really excited to have you here to talk about anxiety and what we can do to kind of navigate through it or recognize it and help people who have it.

Megan Gallagher: Yes. Seriously, I’m so honored to be here and it just makes me excited. I know people can’t see, but I’m really grinning from ear to ear right now. And I’m just so excited because I really love sharing my journey with anxiety and that’s been something that I’ve struggled with, honestly, my whole entire life and it showed up in different ways. And yeah, I love just kind of breaking the stigma in any way I can and just helping teenagers and parents just going through that journey because for me, when I was a teenager specifically, that’s when my anxiety was at its all time high and I was struggling every single day just to barely make it through school. And it was a very, very, very, very challenging time. So I’m really, really excited to just be of service.

Paula Jenkins: Yeah. Thank you. And I think it’s so important. I know from watching your TED Talk and reading up, it can be very scary to talk about the thing that’s hard for us, but I know you talk about your pain becoming your purpose. Before we get there though, would you tell us what you loved most as a child or in school, what were your earliest sparks of joy?

Megan Gallagher: Oh my gosh. I could talk about this for hours. When I was young in elementary school… Well, first of all, it’s funny because in elementary school I was the biggest tomboy. I was hanging out with all the boys. I was the girl wearing vans and converse and all these just tomboy clothes. And I was playing kickball with all the boys and I was beating them and I had just… I know in elementary school, most girls aren’t really wearing makeup or doing any of that stuff, but I just felt like that was such a far away world. Like I just wanted to hang out with the boys and play kickball and just beat them all. I had a lot of friends who were boys.

I played the clarinet in my school, just like the band. I played the clarinet and I was obsessed with sharks. It’s really funny because I had this obsession, my family growing up, we had a… I’m from the Bay Area, San Francisco and growing up, we had a beach house in Stinson Beach and growing up, like almost every weekend, my dad would take me and some friends to go “shark fishing.” But it was just for little leopard sharks, not anything like a great white, like tiny one, a foot big leopard sharks that can’t even hurt a human. And I just thought that was so cool because I thought they were real sharks.

Yeah, so I was just total tomboy, total just rough and tough girl. And then in middle school, I feel like I started becoming more of a girl, girly girl and all that stuff. But yeah, when I was younger, I just was obsessed… And I feel lucky because I grew up outside of San Francisco in a little suburban town called Lafayette. And I feel lucky because Lafayette it’s like population 15,000, it’s on the smaller side. And I grew up in this really cool col-de-sac and all the kids were friends and we were all neighbors and it was just so much fun. Like we would be playing outside and in the creek and tree forts. And it was just like the best childhood ever until your parents call you in for dinner. It was just the best. So that’s what I was doing at that age.

Paula Jenkins: I love it. And we grew up probably not far from each other and I have a very similar… Like on our court, we were all friends, we were all over in each other’s yards constantly. And it was magical. Yeah, we didn’t come home until mom called. Sometimes we just ate at the other person’s house or whatever. It was all very fluid.

Now you work with people who have anxiety or are trying to navigate through it. Would you share how it is that you got involved with that? I love your story and the bravery that you’ve shown in getting to where you are now.

Megan Gallagher: Yeah. Well, for me, my anxiety… Even though my whole life I’ve always been super social and very outgoing and just very extrovert, a lot of people wouldn’t really think, “Oh, she has anxiety.” Because most people associate anxiety with someone who is introverted, socially awkward or just not outgoing or ambitious or adventurous. But even though I was just the polar opposite in that sense, from the day I can remember. Even as young as eight years old, I always had this pit in my stomach and I would just get sweaty and I felt like I was going in an elevator when it goes down and you get that feeling in your stomach. And I never knew really what was causing it. And I just thought it was kind of normal. I thought it was the common cold or something. I just was like, “This is just something that happens every day at lunchtime. And I don’t really know.” And I didn’t think much of it.

And then as I got older cut to eighth grade graduation, you’re going through puberty, you’re kind of getting in touch with your emotions and your body and you are old enough to understand “Wow. I feel weird and I don’t know what’s going on.” And you can use your words and you’re kind of like, “This is odd.” And then freshman year of high school, my anxiety just blew up in my face. And for me in the therapy that I’ve done, I’ve realized my anxiety is triggered by change. So any type of… The change from eighth grade to a new high school, some friends are going to a different high school and all the things that come with it, I was like, “Wow, I can’t do this. What if…” And all the negative worst-case scenario thoughts started coming in and I really just felt super afraid and I really didn’t know what was going on.

So high school, I remember beginning of my sophomore year, my anxiety had gotten so crippling that, like most normal humans eat a breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I was kind of like binge eating and just not really healthy. And my anxiety was so bad that I was afraid to eat at school, even as crazy as that sounds. I was literally like, “If I eat a meal in school, then I am going to throw up in front of other people and it’s going to be embarrassing.” And I realized that all of these worst case scenario thoughts and horrible outcomes and the what if, what if, what if, it’s like, well, what are the odds of that really actually happening?

And I also realized that anxiety really is just a fear of losing control because to me the fear of what if I do lose control? Like the fear of throwing up in front of other people, to me that says you have a fear of losing control, of having people see you needing help, or you being viewed as weak or anything.

So what I’m doing now, it just really comes from personal experience. I have been there and I just remember in my high school, there were no assemblies or workshops or any type of mental health days, self-care days or anything like that. And unfortunately, in my high school, I remember we also had quite a lot of students who either overdosed on drugs or they drank too much alcohol, or they ended their lives because of depression or anxiety. And then our school, I don’t think really did the best job of handling it. I think my school could have done a better job of using this tragedy and kind of shifting it to opening up the dialogue of like, “Let’s talk about this and really why did it happen?” So I just was inspired by my own upbringing.

Paula Jenkins: It sounds like you had an amazing connection with your Dad. Do you want to share a little bit about how you shared with them your concerns? How did that go for you?

Megan Gallagher: Yes. I feel like for me, I remember so vividly, I remember when I was a teenager, I just had this huge fear of if my friend group, or if anyone found out that I had anxiety, then I would just be viewed as weak or a loser or people would stop inviting me places. And I associated me opening up with rejection and people judging me and, “Oh, no, Megan, we’re not going to invite her anywhere because she’s a freak.” So really only my parents knew. And my sister barely knew that I was really suffering and my friend group never knew, but I realized just because you asked for help, or if you… I just realized that it’s actually more courageous to open up. And it actually takes guts to really say, “Hey I actually have a weakness.” Maybe not a weakness, but it’s like, “Hey, I have anxiety.” And, “Hey, I need help.” And it’s just like, people won’t view it as a weakness. People will think you’re really strong because it does take huge amounts of courage to open up and to be vulnerable and yeah, just to seek help and just to be your own advocate.

So I think as I’ve gotten older… And of course when you’re a teenager, it’s like, you worry so much what other people think about you. You’re constantly like, “Oh gosh this, person’s going to say this. And what if, and what if, and what if?” But as I’ve gotten older, I graduated, I’m a real adult now. And I’ve realized that, wow it’s just, I don’t know, I’m in a way different place in my life, but I think just realizing it’s actually good to open up and it’s powerful and people are going to respect you a lot for… I don’t know.

I think I’ve realized it brings more positive things than negative things because for me the amount of positive ripple effects that I’ve had in my career. I can’t tell you how many people… It’s crazy, how many people from my own high school have messaged me on LinkedIn and Facebook and Instagram and they start following me or friending me and they’re like, “Megan, Oh my gosh. This is so cool, what you’re doing. This is amazing. And I had no idea you were struggling. It’s crazy because I was too, but I had never told anyone.” So it’s just this powerful full circle like, “Oh my gosh, what I’m doing, it actually does matter.” And so yeah, I just feel like, “Wow, this is a cool thing.”

Paula Jenkins: Yeah. And there is such power in that. I have my own past, the audience knows, but after the birth of my son, I was diagnosed with PTSD because it was a very long labor. And so even in therapy through that, the therapist said, “Someday, not now, don’t do it now. You don’t need to rip off the bandaid now, but someday you’ll have to talk about this, because people need to hear that there’s other people who have hard things that they go through and to see, one, that it happens, and two, that you’re going to be all right.” The good news is, on the other side of it… That’s kind of where the Jump Start Your Joy thing comes from, is there is more joy, at least in my situation, more joy on the other side, once I’ve dealt with it, so.

Megan Gallagher: It’s so true. It’s hard because you feel like you’re just like, it’s so scary. I remember vividly, you feel like you’re jumping out of a plane or something if you have to admit to yourself or ask for help from someone else. But I remember vividly being 15 and knowing just… One day after school, I was like, “I have to do something about this.” Because I still, at that age didn’t know it was anxiety. I just called them episodes because it felt like these moments that lasted an eternity, but it was only about one minute where I kind of felt like I was blacking out and just going into this trance. And then I would open up my eyes and it would be over. And I would feel my heart beating fast. And I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m going to die. This is a stroke. This is a heart attack. This is horrible.” And it would be over and then it would come back again and I would have sometimes 20 a day. And then I felt so exhausted at the end of the day.

So I just remember vividly one day being like, “I kind of want to live a better quality of life and I don’t know really what’s going on, but I know that talking to my parents always makes me feel better. And I know that I can trust them.” I was so nervous though, my hands were literally shaking and my whole body and I was afraid they were going to look at me and start laughing. Or I was afraid that they were going to send me off to some foreign bootcamp in Germany or something. And then I would never be home again, but it was just powerful. And because they had such a positive response, it just showed me how much they loved me because they kind of looked at each other and then looked at me and they were like, “Well Megan, we love you so much. And we’re always here for you.” And they literally were like, “Okay, well next week your first therapy session is going to happen.” I feel very lucky because I know that not every person or a teenager grows up in a household where it’s very supportive.

Paula Jenkins: Yeah. And I got goosebumps a little bit just because you’re sharing that you kind of knew that there was something that didn’t feel right. And you finally getting to that point, I know that’s so hard because that was part of like my thing too. It was like “this no longer is acceptable” was kind of my feeling. Reaching out to get help was scary, but I think it’s also such a mark of strength.

What do we do as parents, look for? Or is there anything that we can look for in a child or maybe even a partner or husband, whatever, a niece, a nephew, what are some of the things we can start to look for or listen for in the people we love?

Megan Gallagher: Yes. So I would say if you’re a parent listening, or if you’re the guardian of a teenager, or if you know someone and you know a teenager, you have a teenager in your life and you’re noticing some signs, some behavior changes, some things that you’re kind of questioning and you’re thinking, “Well Johnny, or so-and-so never used to act like this.” Or, “They used to be super fun and outgoing and they wanted to be a part of all the school activities.” I think it’s important to one, just make sure… And you can journal this or you can talk to someone yourself, but make sure you kind of have a written list of what you personally have noticed.

So if you feel maybe they were an extrovert and now they’re kind of an introvert or they were introvert, now they’re extrovert, just either type of total opposite, make sure you have a list of the times and the dates of, okay, well in January they were kind of acting this way and then they started dating someone or they started hanging out with a different group of friends or just some type of change, or maybe they changed high schools or you had to move because your husband’s job. And all of a sudden you notice that they kind of were on their phone more, or they didn’t come out of their room a lot or they just would come home and sit in their room and they… Like something just shifted. It’s important to just make a list of what, in your opinion you’ve noticed and how it’s not really like them to be doing that or to be sneaking out late or to be partying a lot or whatever it is.

And I would say also just to trust your gut feeling, because I think for parents, but especially moms, I think that mothers have a great intuition. And for me, my mom always knew, she always knew that something was just… “Megan’s the more sensitive child and she gets more anxious and worked up.” I have an older sister too, but she was like, “Megan’s definitely the child, that younger sister that has real anxiety issues.”

But I think just as a parent, just being aware and being proactive, I think is the best thing. Because unfortunately I think a lot of parents can start thinking, “Oh well, it’s just a phase. This is what teenagers do.” But unfortunately I think if you have that attitude, then you can just kind of be like, “Oh, well…” Then you’re excusing their behavior. And then before it they’re an adult and you don’t really have control over them. And then all of a sudden… I’m not saying this happens for every situation, but I think a lot of teenagers, unfortunately, when you are that age, I think you start forming habits and those things can affect your brain and your growth emotionally, mentally, physically and long-term. So if you do get into drugs or smoking or drinking, and you do that for years and years and years, the chances are that you’re going to be an adult who does that.

So it’s really important to, as a parent take action. Don’t just sit there and think, “Oh, but he’s just having fun.” It’s important to really let them know that there are consequences to doing this. And it’s a real thing, it’s not just, “Oh, once they graduate high school, all these behaviors will end.”

They will most likely continue, when they go to college and move out or get a job or move into an apartment or something and you’re not there to watch them. So I think just being proactive, being aware and really paying attention to your teenager, noticing the signs, are they crying for help? And just noticing the behavior changes and it could also be something else. It doesn’t have to be mental health related, but it could be. So I think just being a present proactive parent.

Paula Jenkins: Yeah. I love that. And it strikes me too that, well, like you’re saying it might not be mental health. It might not be anxiety related, but it very well could be that, maybe it’s just a skill or a coping mechanism that you need to be aware of.

Are there some places or resources you could think of for parents? Because the other thing I think I haven’t said directly, but I know that there is that, there’s more teenagers right now with anxiety than ever before, it’s a real epidemic of its own. And so how do we help? Or are there resources for us to look at?

Megan Gallagher: There’s so much stuff available, free resources and there’s meditations online and there’s courses and videos on EFT tapping, just having a nighttime, a bedtime routine and a morning routine and how to really have a proactive day.

One of my personal favorite things is when I was in high school, my first therapist, she was like the best therapist ever. She gave me this workbook called Mind Over Mood and it’s available on Amazon and I’m in no way, shape or form sponsoring this. It’s about 100 page workbook. And it’s so powerful because it helps you really understand how your thoughts create feelings. So a lot of people, they can drink the green juice and go to bed early, and they’re like, “But I still feel weird and I don’t feel completely safe or present in this moment.” But it’s really because we have to realize you can’t think negative thoughts and expect to feel amazing. So as much as we want to just buy the fancy gizmo, gadget, the crystals, we have to put in the work ourselves. And I think that’s kind of the part that a lot of people are like, “Mm, no, I don’t want to put in the work. I don’t want to put in the everyday…” Because it takes effort and you have to want to feel better. So I think just realizing that.

Once again, our thoughts are very powerful and it does take conditioning to kind of every day, if you feel like your mind is going down that spiral, you have to just stop, realize, and you have to have your things, your tools that help you get out of it. But it’s like our minds are just trying to keep us safe. So let’s say, you’ve been thinking clockwise that way for 10 years. And then all of a sudden you realize this isn’t really serving me, I want to think better. And I want to do better because I want to live a healthier, happier life. And then you want to go counterclockwise. Your mind is going to freak out because your mind is like, “Wait no, change? We don’t like change. What’s happening Megan, who are you to do this to us?”

But you have to realize, you know what, our minds are literally ancient, like the part of our mind that wants to keep us safe as fight or flight, that’s been around since the caveman days, that has not changed. So we have to be like, “We’re not going to die. It’s okay, it’s fine. Nothing bad is going to happen.” So I think that’s a great tool, the Mind Over Mood Workbook.

And there’s also so many great workbooks, interactive journals on Amazon for teenagers where they can write down their feelings and I think just getting to the root of why I’m feeling this way and really taking inventory of your life. Because whether you’re dating someone and that relationship isn’t really healthy and that’s making you anxious or depressed or not feeling good enough, or your family, your household is toxic, or your friend group, you’re hanging around people who are drinking or wanting to do drugs or trying things that just makes you uncomfortable and you don’t want to do that, so it makes you anxious, or whatever it is, it’s just good to know that there is always a reason for why we feel the way that we do. And there’s always an explanation and a way to like get out of it. And there’s always a solution to it, but it does take work to feel better.

Our mind, it’s our mind, there’s not like a monster puppet master who’s controlling it. So we just have to remember, “If I want to feel better, that’s up to me. I have to give myself the keys to the car because I’m the only one driving.”

Paula Jenkins: I love that. Yeah.

Megan Gallagher: Yeah. It’s powerful.

Paula Jenkins: I know, even for myself, I wasn’t really aware of my own ability to control my thoughts, that then led to the emotions until much later in life. And I think you’re right. Like if you can direct somebody, that’s having a tough time into looking at that as a reality of how you can get in touch with what the emotions are and the feelings are that are coming out of your thoughts, then yeah, it gives you a framework to deal with a situation instead of just being ruled by those emotions and getting sidelined by them.

Megan Gallagher: Yeah. And it’s important too, just to know that one, if you are a teenager listening and you feel like, “Oh my gosh, I have anxiety now.” Or, “Depression now.” Or, “This is unfair.” Or start thinking like, “Why me?” Just reframe it and think, “Wow, this is actually a blessing that this is happening so early on because I get to catch it early and kind of heal it as quick as I can. And then I can live the rest of my life.” I think it’s better, like in my opinion, I view what I went through as a blessing that it happened so early because now at 24, I’ve done years and years and years and years of some things that people haven’t even tried, doing the inner work and the healing your inner child and hypnotherapy and all those things, I’ve already done it all. And I know myself, I know myself like the back of my hand and I can kind of almost laugh at myself at this point like, “Okay Megan, for sure.” Because that’s really likely to happen. So it’s like, I can be my own therapist when I need to be.

Paula Jenkins: Yeah. I think that is amazing. And there’s a lot of hope involved with that. Like if you’re seeing this, the hard thing and the brave thing of course is to help your kid or yourself get help. But there’s also that on the other side of it, is it really is an invitation to get to know yourself so much better.

So would you let us know if somebody’s curious about where to find you, what you do?

Megan Gallagher: Yes. So I am everywhere on social media. I have my website. It is Megan, M-E-G-A-N-W, Gallagher, G-A-L-L-A-G-H-E-R.com. And then that Megan W. Gallagher. It’s also my username on Instagram. It’s my username on Twitter. And then I have just normal Megan Gallagher on Facebook. I have a personal and a business page. I have my blog. I post every Sunday little anxiety tips for parents and teenagers. I also have my books. I have my contact information, if you, or your teenager or your school would like to do a Zoom, kind of a group, little motivational seminar or whatever it may be. I am currently taking sessions and clients. And then I also, I have a lot of exciting projects coming up in the works.

I also have my own podcast Reaching New Heights where I interview athletes, Olympians, celebrities, singers, actresses, everyone in between, and just talk about their teenager years and kind of how those years formed them into who they are and what they experienced. And yeah, it’s just really powerful. It’s just everything I do, it just comes back to my mission of wanting to change the school system really, and really wanting to have mandatory classes about meditation and mindfulness and self-care. And just changing the world because I think kids and teenagers these days are just so smart and so creative. And I think that they really just need a place, a safe place that just fuels that creativity. And I think teenagers need classes about self-love and about how to follow your dreams and about how to make money just doing whatever you want to do, because it is possible.

And I want them to know that it’s good to change mind and it’s good to want to just do what makes you happy because I know for me, like in high school, I did not do well academically. And I want teenagers to know that… That’s not an excuse to say, go get a bunch of Deezer apps and not try. But for me, school never clicked, but I felt mad at myself almost because I’m like, “Wait, so this means I’m dumb or something is wrong because I’m not clicking with academics and that’s just, I’m not getting it?” But it’s like, I want teenagers to know that everyone has their own kind of zone of genius. Everyone is smart in their own way. And sometimes that’s not school for everyone. And sometimes when you’re 15 too, you’re so young. So maybe when you’re 35, you’re going to realize, “Oh wait, my passion is cooking.” Or whatever it may be. And then you’re a genius, you know what I mean? Like we all have that inner talent, but it happens at different times for different people.

Paula Jenkins: For sure. Yeah. I mean my own path, there was no such thing as podcasting when I was in school. So I think that’s the other interesting thing is like lots of kids might see, “Oh, I want to be this.” But what we don’t necessarily encourage is always that things that you may end up doing don’t even exist when you’re a kid in school. Everything changes so fast, so.

Megan Gallagher: That’s so true.

Paula Jenkins: Well, thank you so much for being on. This has been really great. I will put all of the information about how to reach you in the show notes. And before you go, I’d love to ask you my favorite last question for everyone, which is what are three ways that you can think of to jumpstart joy in your life in the world or in other people’s lives?

Megan Gallagher: Oh my gosh, that’s a great question. I would say three best tips for jumpstarting joy is one, realize that you’re alive and that itself is a blessing and realize that life is a gift. And if you can walk and breathe and move on your own and just all those things that we can really easily get in the habit of taking for granted, realize that that is a major blessing. And that itself is something to be happy and jump for joy about.

I would say number two is just getting up and dancing. Anytime I feel like funky or just weird, or I feel like unmotivated or something, or just kind of in my own head too much. I’ll get up and just turn on some fun music and just jump around and dance. And I look weird and silly, but it’s just fun just to kind of be a kid again or just, I don’t know, not take life too seriously.

And then I also would say third way to jumpstart your joy would be to, I think, just giving to someone else or giving to those who are in need is just a sure-fire way to make you feel better. And I think just realizing the domino effect of positivity is endless. So if you wake up in a great mood and then you tell roommate, “Oh my gosh, you look so beautiful today. You are so amazing.” And then she feels good and then she gives someone else a compliment, et cetera, et cetera. It just realizing the power of that positivity and how it can change the world. So yeah, those are my top three ways for jump-starting your joy.

Paula Jenkins: I just love it. I love the domino effect of positivity. That is brilliant. Well, thank you so much, Megan, for being on, it’s been a real treat to have you on the show.

Megan Gallagher: Thank you so much. This has been so amazing.

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