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Looking At Anxiety Through the Lens of "Little Panic"

Little PanicHello dear readers, it’s me your long-winded translator of all things anxiety. In case you’re in a rush and don’t have time to read through this whole blog post, I’ll headline it here. There’s a great new memoir about growing up with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder called Little Panic written by author and my personal mental health advocacy hero, Amanda Stern. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an anxiety disorder, loves someone with an anxiety disorder, or basically anyone interested in a very important addition to the human story of our interior lives.  We haven’t heard this story before, and with about 1 in 5 children diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and about and 1 in 4 adults, this is a story that needs to be heard.

Subtitled Dispatches from an Anxious Life, Stern describes what happens when we take our built for-another-time-fear-ready brains and place ourselves down any time after wooly mammoths roamed the earth—in this case: NYC circa 1979. Amanda, who grew up trying to navigate through life with an undiagnosed panic disorder which was not identified till her early 20’s, recalls with exquisite and at times excruciating details her personal version of that universal experience: the pain of feeling alone and scared, and just plain different from everyone else—and the need to hide as much as humanly possible so her “differences” are not found out. Stern demonstrates how these threads of experiences in our young lives get woven through our understandings and misunderstandings of ourselves and others over time. It is brilliantly written, and is living proof of what we know: anxiety is survivable, treatable, and ultimately no match for the human spirit’s desire to create and grow. Please check it out! There are great excerpts below, I promise!, but first I must preamble a bit, because what struck me immediately in Stern's story, is how hard it is for adults to understand kids' struggles, and how that multiplies the struggles for all involved. Addressing this most poignant disconnect is where I spend most of my working (and waking) hours, so I'll start there...

How do you explain a fear, a terror of being alone, the amplitude of which crashes through like a tidal wave any of the myriad words of reassurance that deeply caring people might offer: "You are OK, you are not alone, nothing is happening, you are fine.”

As adults we’ve all likely dabbled in the occasional panic of everyday life. Maybe it grabs us inconveniently while grocery shopping or sitting in a movie—everything falls silent around us we are in an anxiety tunnel and are consumed by a surge, unshakable, that something is very wrong or we are precariously perched on the verge of something terrible about to happen. Some of us don’t get to enjoy the luxury of merely dabbling in an occasional existential tap on the shoulder, and instead feel its permanent grip on our souls. Where is that feeling coming from? What is it? What is actually wrong? There are no immediately apparent answers that would adequately explain the dread and terror we feel. No tiger in the bushes, no real monsters under the bed. Yet our imagination spins us like a tornado simulator. And that’s hard.

Now imagine that fear landing on the narrow shoulders of a child, who likely has never heard of the word “anxiety,” or “false alarms” or “brain tricks” doesn’t know that having these thoughts is “a thing” that can happen, they just know that something tells them that they are not safe, and they better stick like glue—to home, to mom or dad, and even that doesn’t stop the imagination from spinning, but it’s better than anything else they’ve got. What these kids don’t know until someone tells them is that those surges of fear, those dire warnings of danger, are a brain hiccup, a misfiring, a well-meaning inner protection mechanism which by sounding the alarm repeatedly without real cause is actually the problem itself. Fortunately that mis-firing alarm is fixable and kids can be the ones to fix it.

Kids wouldn’t know that those are just thoughts, that nothing is actually wrong, that as much as they feel to the contrary-- they are not on the verge of anything bad, that they are safe. And they certainly wouldn’t know (unless someone told them) that they could edit or correct those thoughts with their handy imaginary red pen, that what seems nearly unbearable those scenarios the worry brain conjures, over time, becomes something that they can nip in the bud, by relabeling, bypassing, pivoting from, changing the narrative about, and in general freeing themselves from the grip of fear. Witness the power of having the correct words, and names for experiences and the authority that such knowledge returns back to kids in their lives. 

The challenge for anxious kids is often that the adults around them don’t get it. They keep looking on the outside for the trouble that is really coming from within: “That dog is not going to bite, your bed is safe, your teacher is nice.” But because they’re looking kind of in the wrong places for the reasons why their child is so scared, they may keep asking well-meaning questions like, “what’s wrong?” “why are you afraid?” “why are you thinking this?” These questions leave kids feeling more confused, feeling weird, different, or even “dumb” for feeling the way they do. If only parents could see that the worry itself is the problem, not really life, because then instead they could begin saying things like, “Oh, sounds like here comes worry again. What’s it telling you this time? Can we fact-check it together?   

For the thousands of kids I have seen over these last decades, often the kids are faster learners and they get the idea of a brain trick pretty quickly. Sometimes it takes a bit longer for parents to learn not to fall for the tricks the brain can play. I understand why. Instincts kick in, we forget all we know, we just want to make the hurt stop.

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I’ve worked hard to explain this phenomenon to parents—trying to help them not look further for a problem—by asking, “Is it this? is it that?” Feeling their child’s forehead, taking their temperature which inadvertently reinforces the idea that something really is wrong.

Sometimes I’ve been tempted to offer up what is to me the unlikely definitive representation of separation anxiety (thought to be a precursor of panic), Kurt Cobain’s song “Sliver,” wherein a child pleads not to be left at his grandparents for the day while his mom goes out. Missing his mom, finding the food unfamiliar and un-chewable, he cries inconsolably. The lyric Grandma take me home! is repeated exactly 43 times (I counted) until the child wakes up in his mother’s arms. The catastrophe was not a thing, it was a feeling, a feeling that when comforted might have dissipated.

Offering up words of wisdom from Nirvana, even if they are arguably the best grunge band ever, has not exactly seemed like a reassuring option when parents are panicking themselves about their children’s panic. But problem solved. Enter writer and mental health advocate, Amanda Stern’s beautiful memoir of growing up with an undiagnosed panic disorder, Little Panic, in which she expertly and patiently leads us by the hand through the misunderstanding, the moments of childhood, trying to make sense of how it is that no one else gets that in a world where people aren’t always nice, where a young child disappears in her neighborhood, where divorce happens, how it is that kids shouldn’t simply be standing guard at all times, waiting on the look out for danger. Because if you get busy with other things—fun things or just school—bad things can happen and then you won’t be able to prevent them when you should have. Amanda’s memoir is equal parts painful and comical and by her own example, shows how we can and gloriously do triumph over this internal battle of mismatched supply (for detecting threats) and demand (life is mostly free of run-for-your-life moments).  

I used up a pack of sticky notes marking passages that capture with great precision the invisible dilemmas and struggles that anxious kids experience every day. Listen closely and you will hear that these dilemmas and struggles are not unique to childhood, we carry the imprint throughout our life, especially if we don't know that we are in a relationship with anxiety, that this is our dance partner. When we are given the words, when we recognize the signature footprints, then we can begin to change the steps. Here are just a few gems:

About letting friends play with others because it’s the right thing to do, even though it feels all wrong:

“You can play with them if you want." I tell Melissa. "You don’t have to stay with me.” I don’t mean it. The instant I say it, I am homesick for her.

About trying to learn something in school that everyone else seems to instantly understand (in this instance about telling time). The need to rush and catch up adds to the anxiety, as does the hopscotching of catastrophic thoughts which ultimately for young Amanda plumbs the depths of existence.

"There are two twelves. One turns everything p.m., and the other turns everything a.m.”

I look back at the clock. Melissa steps in and out of her clogs.

“Where’s the other twelve?” I ask.

“The one twelve is two twelves,“ she says. “All the numbers happen twice.”

“When?” How can one number mean two things? This makes no sense to me.

Melissa pushes her lips together, frustrated. “When the clock says.”

Does everything mean two things? When Allegra writes things on the calendar, like “Class Picnic” or “Field Trip,” they become true. Before she wrote them they didn’t exist. Before I was born, I didn’t exist either, and after I die I won’t exist again. What else of the world can’t I see?

About leaving her mom:

I try to get my mom to let me stay home, and I can tell she doesn’t want me to leave, but mo matter what organ hurts, or how hard I cry and beg and plead, I still have to go.

“You’ll be back before you know it,” and “It’ll be over in the blink of an eye.” But what about before it’s over? What about the part that means “during,” the part that means “being away’? That’s what scares me most, but everyone skips over during. Everyone ignores the things I can’t, and I don’t know why.

When people try to explain…. It makes me feel worse, more afraid that my worries are right, and that the world the I live in is different from the world everyone else lives in. That means I’m different, something I don’t want other people to figure out about me. Something is wrong inside me; I’ve always known that, but I don’t want anyone to ever see that I’m not the same as they are…

About the freeing realization as an adult that she was not the only one (at all) who was anxious:

Recognizing in others what I thought existed only in me gave me a context for their shortcomings, and I was overwhelmed by compassion. I couldn't see what they suffered from because I suffered from it, and they couldn't see what I suffered from because they suffered from it.

***

It is not unusual for anxious kids to remember details perfectly, to be wise beyond their years, and truly too wise for their own good. This is part of the burden they carry, but as with any burden there can come hidden gifts. In this case, Stern has made great use of both of those attributes and we are the fortunate recipients with this generous inside look of coming of age with anxiety. There is much in the archives of her memory that is universal, that we can all relate to, and Stern's persistence in finding answers, in assembling the pieces of her story, and ultimately identifying the missing piece—the organizing principle of anxiety—allowed her not only to have compassion for herself, for others, and even to her anxiety, but to operate above its influence.

For all the folks out there who can relate—who grew up with anxiety and didn't know it, for the parents of anxious kids who are trying to find inroads to their child's experience, click here to check out the book. Want to get active about eliminating the stigma around mental health?  Explore Bring Change to Mind, the mental health advocacy organization where Stern serves as an advisory board member.

Importantly, anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric disorders and they are also the most treatable, so if you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, I’ve got lots of ideas in kid and adult sizes; check out my books here.

As always, thanks for making the world a more understanding place for all and here’s to less worry all around.

References

Stern, Amanda (2018). Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life. New York: Grand Central Publishing.