Heart vs. Head: Reflecting on Childhood Anxiety

Metro Parent's editor-in-chief reflects on the childhood anxiety she dealt with and how it relates to part one of our Kids Mental Health series.

I don’t remember the first time I felt it. I just remember feeling it often as a child.

This tightening in my chest would sometimes get so bad that I’d struggle to catch my breath. That extreme reaction didn’t happen often, but it happened enough that my mom finally took me to a doctor for an evaluation.

He ruled out asthma and other possible ailments quickly, even ordered an EKG. But there was nothing.

So, he fitted me with a heart monitor I wore under my clothes every day for a week. This allowed him to see if there were any irregularities that occurred over the course of time and not just during an examination.

I vividly remember sitting in the doctor’s actual office, across from his big oak desk with his diplomas and family photos on the walls. I’d turned in the heart monitor and the results were back. Nothing, he said. No issues at all. My heart was perfectly healthy.

My mom was relieved, but asked, “Well, what is it then? Why does she feel this way?” The doctor looked at me with slight reproach. “I think we’ve got a case of someone needing some attention, don’t you think?”

My mom looked at me flatly. I couldn’t tell what she thought. And I didn’t know what to say. I just felt small and stupid. Clearly, this was my fault. I was being dramatic.

Maybe everyone feels this way. Maybe everyone carries this sense of constant dread that sometimes amplifies so much that they can’t catch their breath. I decided then and there to just cope with it better.

It was me. I was being a baby.

It took me almost two decades to realize that the weight I carried every day wasn’t normal. I had anxiety.

No mone even thought about that back then, and truthfully, we still do a pretty lousy job of diagnosing mental health issues – particularly in children.

And yet more and more kids are suffering from mental illness than ever before. How are we as parents and as a larger community recognizing these potential symptoms that may not be as easy to detect as say diabetes or some other physical issue that can be discovered from a simple blood test? And how do we offer support to our children who have mental health challenges?

In this month’s issue, we offer the first in a three-part series on Kids Mental Health. April’s installment is on anxiety in kids – something, as you can tell, I have a personal stake in.

For me, the looming dread in my mind manifested into a tightening in my chest and the inability to catch my breath sometimes. But for other kids it could be chronic stomachaches or exhaustion or some other physical symptom.

And sometimes there is no obvious symptom, but avoidance – of social settings or situations that make you feel on display and exposed.

It’s not always an easy thing to recognize in others – or even yourself. How do we know when something isn’t normal when it’s the only thing we’ve ever known?

I can’t help but wonder how my life could have been easier if I realized as a kid that it wasn’t typical to constantly feel like something bad was looming just around the corner.

What would it have been like to not have fear force me to pump the breaks at any opportunity in my life? How much easier would my life have been if when I did push through my worries, it didn’t come with such an emotional price?

I’ll never know. But I want other kids to. I want them to have a better chance of being their best selves. And that starts with education and understanding. That can start here.


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