I have lived my entire life secretly navigating anxious thoughts and panic. Earlier this year I received a diagnosis that would be alarming to most, but left me feeling freed: I have panic disorder. Receiving this diagnosis opened doors to my history that I hadn’t explored before, and offered me comfort in the knowledge that I was different from some, right down to the cellular level.
Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that includes recurring and unexpected panic attacks. The panic comes on suddenly and without warning, and can cause the individual to experience intense fear about further uncontrollable attacks.
These panic attacks may look different to each individual, but they are typically short and intense periods. Physical symptoms may include sweating, palpitations, a racing heart, dizziness, and nausea. Along with the physical symptoms comes the inner turmoil: a sense of impending doom, the feeling that you’re going crazy, and the sudden need to flee the situation.
I’ve always experienced panic attacks, but I have never known what they were. As a child and adolescent when I would experience panic I would pretend to faint, or be severely ill, because that was the only way that I knew how to get the attention I needed. The panic would creep up, when I was sitting at my desk at school, working my part-time job, or playing at the playground with friends.
I always thought that my attacks were because I was weak, or needy, and would have never known to seek help.
As an adult with a panic disorder diagnosis, I now understand myself better, but I still struggle with hiding my panic. I have three young children, and when I’m by myself with them I try and hide my panic and quietly wait for it to pass. Sometimes I feign illness, still buying into the lie that physical illness is more worthy of attention.
But as my kids grow I have realized that pretending that I’m like everybody else is probably not healthy for anyone. Chances are, my own children may one day experience their own anxiety, and by hiding my own lifelong travels with anxiety, I am missing a great teaching opportunity for my children.
A recent study by the University of Wisconsin concludes that anxious parents pass on these traits to their children. According to the brain scans of our cousin, the rhesus monkey, there are three parts of our brain which carry over-active brain circuits, and these are passed on to our offspring, generation to generation.
The worst thing that I can do with this information is bury it, or hope for things to turn out differently. As a parent with a mental illness, I hold the key to normalizing anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues within my family. I know that every time I call my husband crying because I am nauseous, that I’m shrouding my illness in secrecy and shame.
My kids deserve to know that their mother suffers with a variety of mental health issues, because it will inform them of why I do certain things, and it will create empathy for others who they may encounter that are similar.
Being open will also lead to deeper and more meaningful conversations about our inner life, the parts of ourselves that we often hide from others, out of fear and shame. If I am open about my mental health, my own children will hopefully be more open about their own struggles.
I’m working on it, and it really does take work, to create an open dialogue. I have spoken to my oldest daughter about my brain, and the reasons why I sometimes panic or cry suddenly. She’s started to understand that mental health and physical health don’t need to be at odds with each other, and that one isn’t more important than the other. We’re talking about invisible illnesses, and the importance of speaking about the parts of ourselves that stay hidden - the fear, panic, and anxious thoughts.
The day might come when my child will come to me and share that they’re feeling panicked, or ill. Because I’ve lived through it I will know the questions to ask, and how to support them. I hope that by being open and honest with my kids about my story, that I’ll be able to navigate whatever might arise with my own children.
Who better to help their child navigate the complexity of mental health than their own parent, who has walked the path themselves?