The first time Sophie Riegel had a panic attack, it felt like the walls were closing in on her. After reaching out for help and discovering her middle school and pediatrician were ill-equipped to talk about mental health, Sophie knew she had to find her own path. In high school, Sophie published Don’t Tell Me to Relax!, a powerful memoir about her journey with OCD and general anxiety disorder. Now a junior at Duke University, Sophie is the author of two books and a mental health advocate.
Join us for a special episode marking Mental Health Awareness Month, as Sophie and Jay openly discuss her personal mental health story, how we can better support young people, and how we can continue to break the stigma.
If you want to learn more about mental health and find possible resources, please visit this Ruderman Family Foundation link.
You can find more information on Sophie’s published books here.
Sophie Riegel is the author of “Don’t Tell Me To Relax” and “Overcoming Overthinking.” She is a professional speaker and mental health advocate.
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Sophie Riegel: I stood up in front of my 7th grade class, and I gave the presentation. and I remember I was shaking. I was so nervous. I had flashcards I had prepared, I had a PowerPoint and everything.
Jay Ruderman: And for this special episode marking Mental Health Awareness Month, today on our show: Sophie Riegel.
Sophie Riegel: My goal isn’t to change people’s language immediately, it is just to make them think about the words they’re using.
Jay Ruderman: The first time Sophie Riegel had a panic attack, it felt like the walls were closing in on her. After reaching out for help and discovering her middle school and pediatrician were ill-equipped to talk about mental health, Sophie knew she had to find her own path.
Sophie Riegel: On the outside, I had perfect grades. I ended up being the valedictorian. Everything seemed to be going really well. But the truth was, I had four different anxiety disorders. And they were so bad to the point that I didn’t think I would actually graduate high school.
Jay Ruderman: Now a junior at Duke University, Sophie is the author of two books including one she wrote during her senior highschool year “Don’t Tell Me to Relax!, a powerful memoir about her journey with OCD and general anxiety disorder. Following her experiences, Sophie has made it her life’s mission to support young people in their own mental health struggles, and educate parents on how they can better support their children.
Sophie Riegel: If I could help just one person by sharing my story, like, how amazing of a gift would that be?
Jay Ruderman: I feel incredibly lucky to have Sophie on our show.
Jay Ruderman: Can you walk us through the first time you remember experiencing anxiety as a young person?
Sophie Riegel: Absolutely. So my parents told me all the time that I experienced anxiety before. I actually knew what it was or remembered what it was. But the first time I really, really remember, was in fifth grade. I was in a sleepover party with a couple of friends. And we were playing Truth or Dare, and they asked me what my biggest fear was. And at the time, I didn’t know that this was irrational, but my biggest fear was glitter. And I woke up the next morning, and they had dumped a bucket of glitter in my hair.
[reading] I shut the door behind me and look at myself in the mirror. I scan my body, hair, and then face. That’s when I notice it. A shiny green speck. I try to rub it off, but it won’t budge. I move closer to the mirror to get a better look and to see if I can pick it off with my fingernails surgically, like playing the game Operation. I manage to get it off, only to realize it’s one of millions. My entire scalp is covered in green glitter. I let out the biggest scream of my life and don’t stop yelling. My heart feels like it’s exploding out of my throat. I want to punch the mirror. I try to scratch the glitter out of my hair and off of my skin, but it won’t come off. I dig my nails so deep into my skin, I start to bleed. [reading ends]
I remember just feeling completely overwhelmed. And really blindsided, and just incredibly anxious about the situation.
Jay Ruderman: And so at this time, you did not know that this was anxiety or a panic attack. You just, it was just a horrible experience that you’re going through.
Sophie Rigel: Exactly.
Jay Ruderman: Were you able to communicate to a doctor or family members about what you are going through?
Sophie Riegel: I think eventually, two years later, I was able to when I was diagnosed with OCD, but at that time, I didn’t understand that my reaction was kind of abnormal, or that it was an irrational fear that I had. And it’s interesting because my mom also has OCD. And she thinks about why she didn’t quite realize if she has OCD that I had OCD as well. I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in. And I was wondering why no one else seemed as stressed as I did, why no one else felt uncomfortable in social situations and that sort of thing. Like everyone just seemed really free and easygoing. And I thought I was—there was just something wrong with me. And eventually when there was a name to it, and I was able to understand this is anxiety, this is—this is a legitimate thing that is happening, it really changed things for me.
Jay Ruderman: Could you describe for us—because I’m thinking about, you know, my teenage daughter, my teenage sons and what they may be going through—what does it feel like when you’re going through an episode of anxiety or panic attack? What was that like?
Sophie Riegel: It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never had a panic attack. But if you ask most people, they will say to you that they feel like they were dying. And for me, I felt the same way. I felt like, “I need to call 911 immediately or I’m going to die and have a heart attack.” It felt like the walls were closing in on me. And also it felt like I was looking at myself from out of my body, like I wasn’t in my body at all. So I was just watching myself experience this anxiety when there was nothing that I could do to stop it. So it’s just completely overwhelming. And you don’t quite know what’s happening, especially in your first panic attack, you have no idea. You really do think you are going to die, or faint, or any of those things.
Jay: So, obviously, this was really concerning for you. What about your family that was seeing you go through this? How did they deal with it?
Sophie Riegel: My family, my immediate family, so my twin brother and my parents all dealt with it slightly differently. When I was eventually diagnosed, and things started actually getting worse before they got better, my mom, who also has OCD and a couple other anxiety disorders, was really sympathetic, and was really able to help me get the help I needed. My dad, who I talk about all the time in this situation, he’s a trained engineer, and so he was trained to see a problem and try to fix it. So he wanted to give advice, or do anything he could to fix my mental health. And he didn’t realize I didn’t want advice, I really just wanted someone to listen to me, I really just wanted someone to hug me and support me. And so until we had the conversation about, “your kind of help isn’t helping me,” it was really hard for us to get on the same page about that. And my brother didn’t know really that I had anxiety until the book came out and he read it, which I think is really funny.
Jay Ruderman: That’s interesting. So I know that you experienced a great deal of bullying in school. And maybe you could talk about, you know, your experience in school with bullying and how the school reacted to it.
Sophie Riegel: I don’t want to say anything negative about the school but what I can say is I don’t think they were equipped to handle it. What I do know is that the kids who bullied me, I don’t think they had intentions of exploiting a mental illness. I don’t think they knew that it was a mental illness. They just thought, “Oh, this is a funny quirk that Sophie does, let’s make fun of it.” Right? So I don’t—I blame them obviously for being mean, but I don’t blame them for trying to make fun of a mental illness. And so my experience was really challenging because I couldn’t—I didn’t know how to explain that this isn’t something to make fun of. I didn’t know how to go to adults and say, “I have a mental illness.” I felt really unsafe at school, and I didn’t quite know what to do about it.
Jay Ruderman: So at what point—I know you made a presentation to your class, which I think was, you know, in your words, a very difficult thing to do, to talk about the incident with the glitter and your fear of red markers. And can you tell us how that went, and actually how it came about that you had the courage to stand up in front of a class after being bullied?
Sophie Riegel: Yeah, no, so currently today, I’m a professional speaker. If you had met me five, six, seven years ago, I was a shy kid, I did not want to speak in front of, really, anyone. So this was a huge deal for me. I ended up having a session with my therapist where I said, “I don’t know how to deal with these people who are bullying me.” And she basically said the only way to deal with bullies is to educate them. So I spoke to the principal and guidance counselors and a whole bunch of people at the middle school and I said, I really need to give this presentation about what it’s like living with anxiety and what it’s like living with OCD. And I stood up in front of my seventh grade class and I gave the presentation. And I remember I was shaking. I was so nervous. I had flashcards I had prepared, I had a PowerPoint and everything. And afterwards, anyone who had bullied me came out to me and apologized because they didn’t know quite the impact that they were having. I remember exactly what I was wearing. I can picture the room. And even though this was seven years ago, I can fully picture everything. I remember being incredibly nervous. And I don’t know what gave me the courage. Maybe it was just the fact that I—I didn’t want to live with going to school every day in fear, and this is kind of a last resort. I think being able to admit that not only did I have these anxiety disorders, but also like, I’m not a perfect human being, that changed things for me. Because I had always, even throughout high school, put off the front like, I am excellent at school. I’m excellent at sports. I’m excellent and all these things. “Look at me, I’m perfect.” And when I was finally able to admit to everyone, like, what you see on the outside is not what I’m feeling on the inside, it really changed my perspective on I don’t need to be perfect to be acceptable, to be liked, to be good enough.
Jay Ruderman: So maybe you could talk a little bit about, you know, who you are, in terms of, I know that you were valedictorian of your class, and you’re a star athlete, and you had a close, you know, family relationship. And you say, often, you know, people who look like from the outside of things are going great, may be dealing with very different set of circumstances, you know, inside their head. But maybe you could talk a little bit about yourself and who you were in high school and what your life was like.
Sophie Riegel: So in high school on the outside, I had perfect grades. I ended up being the valedictorian. I was an All-American racewalker. I had, you know, everything seemed to be going really well. But the truth was, I had four different anxiety disorders. And they were so bad to the point that I didn’t think I would actually graduate high school. No one saw that when I took tests, my vision actually went away because I was having panic attacks, I couldn’t actually see the test. No one saw the conversations that I had with teachers after class about not being able to turn work in because I had a psychiatrist appointment that I had that was scheduled. Nobody saw the amount of times I was crying in my guidance counselor’s office. So these are the things that people just didn’t see. And because they didn’t see it, they didn’t know what was going on behind the star-athlete-star-student front that I was giving off.
Jay Ruderman: When you finally, you know, we’re able to see the doctors and be diagnosed, what was your diagnosis?
Sophie Riegel: In seventh grade, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as trichotillomania, which is a hair pulling disorder that’s often associated with OCD. And then later in 10th grade I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
Jay Ruderman: And can you talk a little bit about OCD? Because I think that there’s a common misconception that OCD just means, you know, wanting things really orderly, but there’s something else behind that.
Sophie Riegel: What we forget when we talk about OCD is the “O” part of the OCD, right, we see the “C”, which is the compulsion, we see people stereotypically wanting to clean things. What we don’t see is the obsession or the anxiety that goes along with it. Often people forget that it is an anxiety disorder. It’s not just, “I want things to be neat. So I’m going to make things neat.” It is, “I feel like if I don’t make things neat, my parents are gonna die.” Right? There’s a lot of anxiety that goes along with it that we just don’t think about because that’s not how it’s portrayed in the media, and that’s not the part that people talk about, that’s not the interesting part of OCD.
Jay Ruderman: And do you think that your perceptions or your beliefs about counseling about medication changed over the years?
Sophie Riegel: When I first went to a psychiatrist, I was absolutely terrified of medication, I thought it was going to change parts of me that motivated me, that made me like a driven student, all those things, and I was really worried that I wouldn’t be myself anymore without medication. And after finally getting over those fears, I really think that medication saved my life, I don’t know where I’d be without it. And I think a lot of parents specifically are scared to medicate their kids, which is, of course it’s a valid fear. But at the same time, I didn’t quite realize until the medication, how much of what I was dealing with was chemical. I really thought if I just think differently, or if I just do things differently, maybe something will change. But the truth is, there’s a chemical imbalance that we also need to deal with, and the medication was the thing that really pushed things over the edge for me to be who I am today and where I am today.
Jay Ruderman: So what you’re saying, in your experience really strikes home with me, I’m I’m a father of four teenagers. And I know that there is anxiety that they’re experiencing, I know that I have a child with ADHD, who is extremely fearful of medication. What would be your advice to parents who see issues with their children and really want them to lead a better life and want them to be happy, but may not necessarily know how to go about that without, you know, forcing a situation that might make it worse.
Sophie Riegel: I’d say to the parents that they should get therapy for themselves, they should talk to a professional to learn how to have these conversations, because no one teaches you how to talk to your kid about mental health. But if you talk to a professional yourself, you are getting the counseling you need so that you can go into a conversation with your kid and have the right intentions and set the right framework so that you have a comfortable and safe conversation.
Jay Ruderman: Right? I’m all with you. Because I myself am doing some counseling, and I’m all in favor of counseling and medication and having professionals help us lead a better life. But I know there’s still a great amount of stigma around mental health and even young children have adopted that stigma. I mean, these issues are coming about at a younger and younger age, are schools equipped to deal with issues of students with mental health, are they doing a good job at sort of steering them in the right direction and dealing with it or are they just sort of sweeping it under the rug?
Sophie Riegel: I think a lot of schools have the resources that they need to deal with student mental health. For example, I know a lot of schools have programs where students can go and talk to a school counselor or whoever it may be. But that doesn’t change the fact that students don’t want to go to them, right, you can have the structures and the infrastructure in place. But it doesn’t mean that someone’s going to use it. And what they don’t realize is that the schools are not promoting it in a way that makes students feel comfortable using the resources. So having the resources is one thing and that’s great. But having resources to actually be used by the students is a whole other situation that I think needs a lot of improvement.
Jay Ruderman: And how can they improve? How can schools get better?
Sophie Riegel: I think students want to stop hearing from adults that this resource is going to change their life, that this resource is going to make things so much better. They don’t care what adults have to say at this point. And that’s of course no fault of the adult is just how kids and teenagers think. I really think they need to hear from their peers. Right? So for example, when I go into high schools, and talk about what it’s like living with anxiety, people are very grateful to hear from someone who is their age who has recently been through high school, as opposed to a 50-year old adult who thinks that their high school experience can be compared to a current teenagers high school experience.
Jay Ruderman: When you meet a student, a young person after one of your talks, and they’re like, “I’m struggling, what do I do?” What’s the first thing you tell them to do?
Sophie Riegel: I always tell them that they took the right first step, which is acknowledging that they’re struggling. And I almost always give them my email address. And I say, please email me, whenever. And I am constantly fielding emails and text messages and Instagram messages from students. And I help them whenever they need help. To a certain extent, of course, I have boundaries. But I really do. I say, I’m a resource that you can use outside of this presentation, please use this resource.
[reading] We are told to just be “happy” and to “put on a fake smile” so we don’t seem sad or anxious. We are taught to be ashamed of our imperfections and to hide them; otherwise, we will be judged. We are told that just being ourselves isn’t good enough. Let me tell you something: Whoever has been telling us that is a liar. There is no need to be ashamed of our anxiety. First of all, you are not alone, because 25 percent of all teens have an anxiety disorder. Second, your anxiety doesn’t define you. … I used to feel like once I told someone that I had an anxiety disorder, they would think less of me. I thought that in their eyes, I wouldn’t be “perfect” anymore. I now believe that after telling people about my anxiety, I have actually gained their respect. Being open and honest takes a lot of courage. In a way, you are letting people know that you have been able to accomplish everything you have with one hand tied behind your back. [reading ends]
Jay Ruderman: So I know you’ve talked a lot about how, you know people can go forward and and how they can deal with it how people who are adults can respond to this, based on your experience, what’s your best advice.
Sophie Riegel: So my best advice for parents? I do—I often tell parents that having no conversation is way worse than having the wrong conversation. So put your fears to the side and have the conversation with your kid. And to have a conversation with your kid, you need to start thinking about mental health the same way you would physical health. If your kid for example, broke their leg, you would have no problem driving them to the hospital and getting a cast for them. But when they’re having a panic attack, we don’t think about it as this is a physical issue, “I need to see a professional, I need to get help.” we see it completely differently. So when we start thinking about mental health the same way we do physical health, I think adults can have a better idea of how they can support their kid. And I also think adults tend to use language that is called toxic positivity, where they say things to their kid, like, you’re going to feel better in a weak or, or don’t worry about it. Or you’re so strong. Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and these are things that kids and teenagers do not want to hear. We don’t want perspective from the adult, what we really want is support and acknowledgement of the fact that we’re going through a hard time.
For the kids, on the other hand, for teenagers. My basic advice is you don’t need to talk to your parents, but you need to talk to someone. And that’s also the the parents least favorite advice. Your kids don’t need to talk to you. But they do need to talk to someone, and you need to get over the fact that they might not want to talk to you, it’s most likely not personal. It’s just the fact that it’s a teenager who doesn’t want to talk to their parents about their personal problems.
Jay Ruderman: So when I say to my kids, listen, I really my number one goal is for you to be happy. You know, I don’t care, which gives you grades, I don’t care. You know, where you go to college, I just want you to be happy. Is that falling on deaf ears?
Sophie Riegel: No. So that is different than saying to them, “You’ll understand in a few years that this won’t even matter, right?” You’re saying to them, “I don’t care what you do, as long as you’re happy,” which is different than saying, “You need to think about your happiness,” right? It’s not a command. This is just you telling them that that’s what you care about, and I think that’s actually a really helpful thing for them to hear.
Jay Ruderman: Maybe you can tell us a little bit about how you started to write your first book. Don’t tell me to relax one team’s journey to survive anxiety and how you can too. You started writing this during high school. Can you tell us a little bit about how this came about and your journey in writing the book?
Sophie Riegel: This book took forever to write for so many reasons. I really started thinking about writing this book after the presentation I gave in seventh grade where I realized just how impactful it is, and can be, to educate people who don’t know what you’re going through. And so I had a journal and I started writing in the journal for a while and I realized, “If I could help just one person by sharing my story like, what, how amazing of a gift would that be?” So I started writing, I think, ninth grade or so. And then in 10th grade, my guidance counselor gave me a free period during the day, so I had 40 minutes every day to keep writing this book. And I really just went through, up to like, August, before my senior year, it was pretty much completed. I was thinking to myself, “Did I make a huge mistake? I can still stop this now. Do I want people to Google my name, and this is what they see, like, how much of myself do I really want to put out there?” And so I kind of went through a little bit of just like a period of skepticism, if I was doing the right thing, if this is what I, this is what I really wanted, if I was ready to put my story out there. And after talking it through with a lot of people, including my parents, I realized, this is exactly what I’m here to do. I’m here to share my story so that other people know that this is what it’s like, and other people who are dealing with it understand that they aren’t alone in this, that this is a situation that a lot of people are dealing with. And so it got published in January. And I was incredibly proud and of course incredibly nervous for all these people to start reading about my deepest, darkest secrets, and all the things that I went through that I never wanted anyone else to know about. And it was, of course, it was, of course, a very scary experience.
[reading] One spring morning, I sit up straight in bed, crack my neck, old school style, and reach my hands up to wipe my spring allergy crust away from my eyes like I do every other morning. But some of the crust just won’t budge. Having flashbacks to the glitter situation and how the glitter was stuck to my head, I begin to panic.
No, no, no, no, no. This has to come off. Oh my god, please come off!
My heart starts to race. Pinching my fingernails together around my eyelashes, I begin to pull off the crust.
- It’s coming off. Thank god.
I continue to pull off the crust, but in the process, I accidentally pull out some of my eyelashes.
Why does this feel so good? Maybe nobody will even notice if I pull a few more.
I reach back up to my eyes, grab my eyelashes between my nails, and pull. I pull again, feel the pain, pull harder, feel the release of the lash, and with it, the pain goes away.
Soon, there are noticeable gaps on my upper lid.
“Sophie! What happened to your eyelashes?” my mom asks me when I come downstairs. She is clearly alarmed.
“Nothing. I think it’s from my allergies. You know, there is always crust on my eyes when I wake up,” I say, lying.
“Honey, allergy season is over,” she says skeptically.
“Well, I still have allergies.”
Why am I lying?
I flip around and run back upstairs. My face is red with shame. I reach for my hair this time and pull out one strand at a time. Pull, pain, relief. Pull, pain, relief. Pull, pain, relief. Pull, pain, relief… [reading ends]
Jay Ruderman: So well, congratulations on that. And I know that, I mean, writing a book during high school was extremely challenging. Can you talk about the response to the books? I know you’ve done a lot of public speaking and many, many people come up to you about the book afterwards. Just tell me the type of responses that you’ve been able to get
Sophie Riegel: From the people that I knew, or who knew of me. They were completely shocked. No one had any idea especially like my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles, my brother, they had absolutely no idea what I was dealing with. And I think some part of them felt hurt that I hadn’t gone to them and hadn’t spoken to them about this earlier. And so they were really surprised to see that I was—I had really been struggling. From people who didn’t know me, especially parents, they thought this book was the first book that really gave them insight into what their kids might be going through. This book is one of the first books written by a teen that’s geared towards teens as well, and so when the teenagers and kids came up to me they said, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Thank you for sharing this because even though I’m too scared to share my own story, like I’m so glad that I have yours to reference so that I can really talk to my parents about what’s going on.” So I think the book was incredibly well received. And if I got any negative feedback online, like I don’t read reviews online, but if I did that’s okay, you know, I’m not going to win with everyone. But my goal wasn’t to win. My goal was to help one person. And I know for sure that I have helped one person.
Jay Ruderman: Well, that’s a very good advice about not reading reviews online because I don’t think there’s anything positive that comes from that. So I know when you went to Duke, you went during the middle of the pandemic or the beginning of the pandemic and I saw some of your vlogs that you did, which were really powerful because you documented what you were going through.
: Some of my obsessive compulsive tendencies are coming out, and I’ve been pulling my hair a little bit more than I had been in the past because of my trictolemeania, it’s just, there’s a lot of stress going on and all I can do is go one day at a time.
Jay Ruderman: What was it like in terms of dealing with mental health issues at a time when we’re experiencing a world wide pandemic,
Sophie Riegel: The only word I can use to describe it, it was brutal, it was absolutely brutal. On top of my regular anxiety, I had anxiety about getting COVID and then giving it to someone and then them dying. So I had a lot of fear about so many things besides just getting A’s in college and that sort of thing. And I really lost the social connection that I really needed. I just was alone with my thoughts. And when you’re alone with your thoughts, they wander into places that you really don’t want them to wander to.
Jay Ruderman: So I read a piece that you wrote, which is really, really powerful, but very disturbing, about—during a panic attack, that you felt like you were in prison.
Sophie Riegel [reading]: As I open my eyes I see that I am surrounded by metal bars and concrete walls. I reach out and touch one of the bars to make sure I’m not dreaming and it shocks me. Its coldness sends shivers through my entire body. As I sit up, I start to realize where I am but I don’t know how I got here. Tears run down my face and I quickly wipe them away with the old, cotton shirt I’m wearing. My feet are filthy. Covered in dirt and what I hope isn’t blood, they start to twitch. My big toe digs into the wall and as I close my eyes to focus on breaking through the wall, I hear a scream and feel something drip onto my forehead. Panic hits me and my legs start to give out. As I put my hands on the wall to steady myself, I feel an odd indentation. When I look closer, I see hundreds of scratch marks, as if the person who was here before me tried to claw their way out. My heart is racing, and the room starts to get darker. I throw myself onto the bed before the lights go out completely. I stare at the dark ceiling for what seems like hours. My mind is empty. My body is numb. [reading ends]
Jay Ruderman: I don’t think many of us understand what a true panic anxiety attack feels like, and from reading that, it feels pretty awful.
Sophie Riegel: Yeah, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. And for anyone who hasn’t felt it, there’s no words, I tried my best, but there’s no words to describe how it feels. And for those who have experienced it, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Jay Ruderman: You know, there’s probably parents or especially teens, young adults who are afraid to speak out about mental health. What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give them?
Sophie Riegel: You need to talk to someone and it doesn’t need to be your parents. I will repeat that over and over and over again. Everyone needs to talk to someone. I don’t care who it is. I don’t care whether it’s a friend, an uncle, a coach, a teammate, you need to talk to someone because you cannot do this alone.
Jay Ruderman: Sophie Riegel, still an undergrad at Duke university, has already published two books: “Don’t Tell me to Relax,” which you’ve heard segments of throughout this interview, and “Overcoming Overthinking,” which she co-authored with her mom. We will have links to both on our website. We are releasing this episode as part of Mental Health Awareness Month. We hope you are inspired by Sophie’s words to take care of yourself and seek the help you or others you know may need. If you want to learn more about mental health and find possible resources please visit the Ruderman Family Foundation mental health resources page. we will link to that in the episode description.
All inclusive is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital, Jackie Schwartz, Matt Litman and Mijon Zulu. If you enjoyed this episode, please check out all of our previous conversations. Look up, “All Inclusive” wherever you get your podcasts. As always, if you have an idea for a guest or just want to share your thoughts, I’d love to hear from you. You can tweet me – @jayruderman, or email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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