I felt terribly alone and helpless at age 10, suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, thinking no one could possibly be as terrified as I in my bed late at night, night after night. I wish I’d known then that chronic anxiety is a problem for many adolescents, and that education about the causes and treatment is the key to overcoming the problem early. As it was, I spent much of my childhood and adult life trapped in Panic Prison.
You could possibly save a child from experiencing a long life of anxiety by staying tuned to the kids in your circle. I was embarrassed to talk to my folks about my panicky feelings. My father was kind of macho and not good at compassionate communication. My young mother reached out to the family Matriarch, Aunt Edna, who said, “If you think you’re crazy, you’re not.” Somehow that didn’t convince me.
Knowing what anxiety looks like and feels like, makes one an expert at spotting it. When you spot it, there are several ways to take action. If you’re the parent, read on. If you’re a friend or relative, ask the parents about the apparent behaviors and express your willingness to help.
Recognition is critical to treating childhood anxiety. I suffered needlessly for decades because no one around me, including the medical community, was able to explain the basic brain chemistry that creates anxiety and panic attacks. Had that happened, and had I learned how to overcome the problem I’m convinced I could have re-wired my panic control system early in life .… which is why I’m writing this.
If the youngster is someone you are close to, start a conversation. My advice is to be upfront right away. You could say something like, “I have had experiences with anxiety, and can kind of sense when somebody is feeling that way. I know how tough it can be. I hope you won’t mind me asking if you’re having problems with anxiety and maybe tell me how you’re feeling.” After you get the ball rolling, help in some way to connect the child with not only family support but school counselors or child therapists and appropriate medical professionals as well.
Children suffering from chronic anxiety need to hear that someone knows what they are experiencing and can help them get out of the scary trap they’re in. My anxiety was the result of panic attacks, but there can be many causes for an ongoing sense of danger. I advise you to search-engine “anxiety and the amygdala” to do the research necessary to create a level of explanation that a child can understand. Please emphasize that the system can be re-wired to eliminate the problem. Hope is a great motivator.
I created a schedule of activities and projects in “Un-Agoraphobic” designed to change the communication between the reaction part of the brain and the thinking part of the brain. In essence, a panic attack or other frightening experience alerts the amygdala to become hyper- vigilant about danger. Neural activity increases dramatically in the twin, almond shaped glands in the center of the brain, and that is what we call “ANXIETY.”
Recovery is a process of the thinking brain telling the reacting, reptilian brain that there is no longer any danger. Day after day you have to send messages that you are quite safe. After time the amygdala will reduce the force of soldiers at the gate and return to its real job of alerting you to actual speeding cars or saber- toothed tigers or whatever the case may be. Talk therapy is the best option for a child with ongoing panicky feelings, but love, support and understanding provide the safety net.
Please reach out if you know in your heart that doing so will help a kid have smiley dreams at night.
I urge you to read the linked article below for an overall view of the whole anxiety thing by another author with personal experience. Barbara Graham reveals her long struggle with anxiety and what can be done about it in this piece for Mindful magazine.