We all get nervous or feel anxious about something at some point. And when we do, our bodies have a physiological reaction. Our hearts beat faster, pupils constrict, focus narrows, our digestion slows, and chemicals are released in our brains and bodies that allow us to run faster, be stronger, and think quicker. Our survival instinct kicks in.
In some cases, this fight or flight response is so intense, that when we’re in a situation that we can’t escape, the perceived fear response becomes overwhelming, and we believe we’re about to die, when we’re not.
As a child, lots of situations would make me nervous or anxious. But it wasn’t until my last semester of college that I had an honest to goodness panic attack. One day, sitting in class, all of a sudden, it felt like my heart stopped beating. I waited to feel it beat again, and nothing. The longer I didn’t feel it beat, the more I was sure I was about to die. My field of vision narrowed, and before I was about to pass out, I felt my heart pounding in my chest, and came out of it.
It was terrifying. Especially because it happened again and again. I had no clue what was happening, and thought I had something wrong with my brain.
Long story short, after visiting the student health center and having a neuro consult, I was put on an antidepressant. It made my head fuzzy and hard to think. Not what I wanted when I was spending my days trying to learn and pass tests. After about a month or so of a foggy and fuzzy brain, I decided to stop the medication. I honestly don’t think it helped with the panic attacks, but I realized that all I had to do was wait them out, and they’d pass. They finally left after I graduated and made some difficult life choices that I hadn’t want to make.
I didn’t think too much about anxiety and panic until I had a child and he was in elementary school. By the time he was in second grade, he begged me to stay home. He had headaches and stomachaches, and absolutely dreaded the idea of having to go to school.
Detective Mom kicked into gear, trying to figure out what was causing so much distress in my child. I knew he had Sensory Processing Disorder, so I deduced that while he was sedentary in a classroom, he wasn’t getting enough physical movement to help his brain work properly, so I arranged to have him sit on a big exercise ball instead of a chair, and we experimented with having him wear weighted vests.
Riding the school bus became an issue. Over the years I talked with the bus drivers. Some were better than others about making changes or helping out. By the time my son was in the later grades of elementary school, it was just easier for the both of us if I drove him to school.
Every school year, I’d start with great optimism, meeting with my son’s teacher to help her understand him. And every year I’d learn more and more about my son, having him diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety when he was ten. After exhausting other means to address my son’s challenges of being able to focus when he was in school, we decided to give ADHD medication a try, and my son tried medication after medication.
When we reached a therapeutic dose of the first short acting medication, I was helping my son do a worksheet after school one day, and he became frustrated, his brain froze up, and he lost control of his bladder. He was ten. Two days later, I realized the medication wasn’t helping, and in fact, was hurting. After less than a week on a different medication, my son became suicidal. We switched to a different class of medication, and after one pill that scrambled my son’s head so badly that he spent half the day crying because he didn’t feel like himself, he wouldn’t take another pill. And I didn’t force him. None of the medications had a desired effect of helping him be able to focus and pay attention at school. All of them had intolerable side effects.
There were too many days when my son couldn’t handle going to school, and by the time he hit sixth grade, he missed about a quarter of the school year. My demanding he get in the car and walk into his school, created a child who was no only 100% resistant to school, but it tore me up inside. I can’t tell you the number of days I’d have to force him into the car, and after I dropped him off, I’d sit in the parking lot at school, bawling.
In seventh grade, my son hit his breaking point. Going to school became so intolerable that non-existence was preferable. In other words, if I’d kept pushing and pushing him, it very likely would have ended up with him becoming so self-destructive that he probably would have ended his life. Either very intentionally or unintentionally. But it would have ended. When life hurts, people either act out or internalize their pain. My son has always internalized things.
In February of seventh grade, my son complained about not feeling well. It took almost a month, but the truth finally came out that he couldn’t handle one more day in school. He had shut down mentally, having chronic and debilitating panic attacks. His anxiety had grown into a monster that ate him alive.
At that point, I could have put him into a mental hospital, have him medicated, and put him back into school. (The wait to see a pediatric psychiatrist in my area is six months). After the ADHD meds trial, both my son and I wanted to save that option for last.
I made the decision to take my son out of school and work with an intuitive naturopathic doctor. Another reason why I didn’t jump at the chance to medicate my son was, I’d thought that after a week or so of being out of school, my son would relax and would be able to do school work at home. But it was not so. He was shut down for a few months. Slowly, over time, I began to get my son back. His body and mind began to heal.
After spending the rest of his seventh grade focusing on healing and unschooling, at the end of the school year in June, I took him across country to a talented healer who’d worked on him when he was little.
The fall of his eight grade, my son started working with a friend of ours who tutors. I had her work on him with math because I knew this was an area of challenge for him. Despite knowing her and being comfortable with her, he lasted four sessions. Anxiety kicked in and took him down.
Since we took our son out of school, every intervention we’ve used has helped somewhat, but this fall, when our homeschooling shifted it’s format to look and feel more like regular school again (because my son is fulfilling more specific educational requirements this year) it became evident that my son is still extremely affected by anxiety.
The good news is, much of the day, he functions much like any other teenager. But when he and I sit down together so I can teach him, his anxiety becomes triggered. When I call him to do school work, he’s triggered. Some days, he can hold it together long enough to plow through a subject or two. On a bad day, he’s completely shut down and can’t do any work with me at all. Sunday nights, his sleep goes to pot in anticipation of having to do school work the next morning.
This past fall, I’ve been dealing with my own stuff (an extreme Kundalini awakening), often exhausted or unable to think clearly, so my ability to do something about my son’s anxiety has been put on hold. Over the past few weeks, my ability to function at the most basic level has improved enough that I see quite clearly that my son’s anxiety when it come to academics isn’t going away. And this is holding him back.
I’ve talked with my son about anxiety, and as much as he doesn’t have the perspective that an adult has on the need to do school work, and doesn’t clearly see the affect anxiety has on his life overall and the implications it might have on his future, he understands it’s really uncomfortable when it hits. And it shows up five days a week.
As much as I understand very clearly that anxiety is a very real thing, and it’s effects range from making a person feel very uncomfortable in certain situations, to completely shutting a person down, I sometimes come across well-meaning people who are clueless. (Like a few of my son’s former teachers).
If I share that my son sometimes can’t do his school work, they think he’s being willful or obstinate, and they throw in their two cents. They’ve never experienced having their brain lie to them to the extent that they feel like they’re going to die, when they’re not. They’ve never been so traumatized by an everyday occurrence that thinking about it makes them want to die, vomit, or loosens their stools, sending them running for a bathroom. They have no clue and it’s really annoying.
Having anxiety is a very real thing. For me, panic attacks were thankfully short-lived, passing after several months and a life change. For my son, unfortunately, the triggers that bring on his panic attacks are things he can’t escape from.
Because of that, I’ve recently given him a few options to create change for himself. One thing I’ve learned in the world of healing is, if I can’t change a situation outside myself that becomes intolerable, the one thing left to change is me. Lucky for my son, there’s an option out there he’s hesitantly willing to explore before medication. Fingers crossed that it goes well this week as he dips his toe in the waters of change.