Anxiety, Panic Attacks & Things I Wish I'd Noticed Sooner (Mental Health Series Pt. 3)
For a time I was convinced my 5 year-old-son was allergic to The Home Depot. Not in an “Ew, I hate that store” way but in a “Mom, my throat is closing up” way. I can remember standing in an aisle looking for some random thing, baby Josh was in the cart along with a bunch of odds and ends and Jordanne and Jacob were standing beside me when suddenly Jacob grabbed my arm with panic in his eyes, saying, “MOM, I can’t breath. I can’t breath in here. I think it’s the sawdust!” And he was so scared and literally having so much trouble breathing that I handed the baby to Jordanne, picked Jacob up and we ran out of the store—full cart stranded in the middle of aisle ten. Within minutes of leaving the store his breathing normalized and the incident faded into one of those stories you tell at family parties..."Remember that time we thought you were allergic to Home Depot?"
Thankfully it wasn’t a scenario that repeated itself (although we did stay out of Home Depot for years—just to be safe😁) however, he did have similar hard-to-understand episodes throughout the years that I now understand were related because they were all caused by anxiety. But at the time I had no clue that my little boy was struggling with anxiety and panic attacks.
I knew he was particular. I knew he didn’t like the scratchy tags on his clothes, dark rooms or going into his Three-year-old Sunday School class (despite having the sweetest teacher in the world who literally let him sit under the table for three months worth of Sundays because a classmate turned out the lights the first day he went—thus the aforementioned dark room phobia). I didn’t send him to preschool because I knew that despite his academic readiness, he wouldn’t be able to handle it emotionally. So I knew he was an anxious kind of kid.
But it wasn’t until he was around 14-years-old that I realized this was more than a little anxiety. One night he came sprinting into my room, yelling, “Moooooom” —in a chilling tone that I can still hear vividly—and jumped onto my bed and into my arms. I could literally feel his heart beating through his back. It was terrifying (for him and for me).
That was when I did what every parent does when faced with unusual behavior from their child. I googled it (obviously) and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:
A panic attack is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
- Chills or heat sensations
- Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
And there it was, in black and white. My boy was having panic attacks. And as I thought over the last several years so many things suddenly made sense. He used to come downstairs about 30 minutes after we’d tucked him in, telling me that his stomach hurt. This was often but it never seemed to turn into an actual sickness, so I just chalked it up to him not wanting to sleep. Then as he got older, he was able to articulate a little better and in addition to an upset stomach he said he was "thinking too much." Again, I chalked that up to an overactive mind that had trouble shutting off. Mine did the same thing at times. Doesn’t that happen to everyone?
But with the facts about panic attacks staring at me from my MacBook screen, it all crystalized into a clear picture. He’d been having panic attacks regularly for years and just didn’t have the words to explain it. And I didn’t have the knowledge to recognize it.
By the time I did realize it, he was an extremely independent, confident high schooler. He was a straight-A student, athlete, active volunteer at school and church and valued employee at Wegmans. No one who knew him would ever think he struggled with anxiety because he projected exactly the opposite. From the outside looking in, he was a kid with no worries who had his stuff together. And he was clear with me that he wanted to keep it that way and didn’t want to speak to a professional about it.
I think he coped by keeping himself so busy during the day and evening that his brain had no time to process any irrational fears. But once he put his head on his pillow and started to drift off, his guard was down and that’s when the intense fear would strike, sending his body into a fight or flight sequence that had him in full blown panic and questioning if he was even real or if any of us were real.
I didn't know this happened to him regularly since he's a strong, independent guy who preferred to handle things on his own. So I think he only let me see him struggling when it was unbearable. (It breaks my heart to think about him suffering silently for so long!) But by the time he was 16, I'd seen him experience several panic attacks and they were getting more difficult to control. After one particularly terrifying attack, he was despondent, staring at his grief stricken face in the mirror.
"Why does this happen to me? What's wrong with me?" I know he must have been wondering how he could have so much control over every area of his life and yet over this, he literally had no control. I think it made him feel completely undone and ashamed. I tried to lighten the mood.
"Jake, you're practically perfect so it wouldn't really be fair to the rest of us if you didn't have some issue to deal with." He shrugged off my attempt at comfort with a defeated sigh, too hard on himself to hear the truth in my words. But he did agree to talk to our doctor and his school counselor about it. And that was huge. The doctor told him that he had seen numerous high schoolers with the same symptoms and the counselor assured him that she had kids in her office every week with similar issues. He was not a freak. And he wasn't alone. That, in itself, did a lot to relieve his symptoms. Just that understanding that he wasn't the only one, took a massive load off his anxious shoulders.
By his senior year, the nighttime attacks had increased and were affecting his ability to get up for school. He finally relented and agreed to go to a therapist to get some help in learning how to deal with the attacks. And her advice did help him. For a time. But by the end of his first semester in college, despite being able to maintain a very high GPA at Cornell, when he came home for break he was falling apart.
The scariest moments of my adult life have been the times I’ve been with Jacob while he’s experiencing a panic attack. (Like, I know that scary picture up there ⬆️ looks overdone, but that is actually a very accurate representation of the feelings that a panic attack induces.) And I was with him a lot during those few weeks, even sleeping fully clothed so I could jump out of bed at the first hint of a yell from down the hall. He was in a horrible cycle of not wanting to go to sleep because that’s when the attacks would hit but then he wasn’t getting enough sleep so it was harder to manage the anxiety during the day, so he would have mini panic attacks all throughout the day and then not want to go sleep again at night. He was in the worst shape I’d ever seen him in and it scared the shit out of me.
Because of the way the anxiety had bled into all areas of his life, he didn't fight the idea of getting more help. He spoke with both a therapist and his doctor and started a prescription medicine to help him with the generalized anxiety and over time it has made a huge difference. He was able to go back to school in that second semester feeling rested and on the mend and now, over a year later, he’s doing so well.
I’m so proud of him for taking action and so appreciative that he would let me share his story here. Our hope is that it will help another mama recognize the symptoms of anxiety in her child long before I did, or that anyone out there who may be struggling and reads this will recognize a bit of themselves and seek professional help. There is no shame in getting help. It's actually one of the bravest things you can do.
My daughter Jordanne and I both decided—independently of each other—that we were going to be talking about anxiety this week. She, on her youtube channel and I, here on this blog. She put her video out yesterday (click here or watch below) and I love it.
If I had seen something like this when Jacob was young I wonder if I would have been able to help him sooner? Maybe, maybe not. But I do learn. When our youngest started coming downstairs at night about 30 mins after bedtime, telling me his stomach hurt, (he was too young to remember Jacob doing this so it was completely organic and sooo familiar!) I caught on immediately and was able to talk him through dealing with scary thoughts and I check in with him every once in a while to make sure he’s doing okay. He is. Sometimes it pays to be the youngest.
I hope this story from our family will help you or someone you know. If you want to seek professional help (which I highly recommend) and either don't know of a local therapist or can't afford the cost of typical therapy, you do have options.
As Jordanne mentions in her video, Open Path Psycotherapy Collective is a site that gives you access to therapists across the country who will charge on a sliding scale based on financial ability to pay. Another option which I find really interesting and unique is called TalkSpace. It's an online therapy website/app that connects you to a therapist via email, text and calls at reasonable rates and with different packages. The video below explains their program. (not sponsored or anything...just think it looks interesting.)
As always, I'd love to hear from you in the comment section below or via direct message on my contact page (or at any of my socials found up in the top right corner).
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NOTE 2: Jacob has read and approved of this blog. Just didn't want anyone to think I'm telling his story without his permission! (Mom blogger tip...don't do that to your kids...they don't like it! haha)
Talk Space Video: