Passing On Anxiety


thoughtful child

Soldiers, fire fighters, astronauts, fairies, and princesses swarm around me in the haze.  I press my face against the cold Formica, searching for my breath and confused as to why my eyes won’t focus.  I twist my fingers into my Cinderella skirt, grabbing at the fabric, squeezing my eyes shut, wanting security and safety from my own body.  The adrenaline is cycling through me, and I am unable to escape because I can neither run in flight, nor protect myself through fight.

My best friend, coincidentally dressed as Cinderella, grasps my dress and yanks at it.  “The Halloween parade is starting. Get up!” she orders.  My head spins as I haul myself off of the desk.  I know he is out there, and he is taking me with him after the parade’s end.

My biological father wasn’t what a father should be.  I was unsafe when I was with him.

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As the procession through the parking lot begins, I see him, his face in the crowd.  My stomach lurches, twisting inside of me.  My hearts races.  My breath escapes me.  I search for my mother, my safety.  She recognizes the panic in my eyes.  She pulls me from the parade, my savior, and leads me into a classmate’s home along the route.  She holds my hair and rubs my back as I retch into the toilet, as I retch and heave long after there is nothing left in my stomach but cold fear.

I was eight-years-old.  And this, this was far from my first panic attack.  These attacks, my extreme separation anxiety from my mother, and my concerning stomach ailments plagued me for years.  Much to my mother’s credit, her love and dedication kept us traveling from pediatrician to gastroenterologist to a child psychologist.  She searched for the answer, but I was very literally too smart for my own good.  I knew the shit storm that would rain down into the lives of the people I loved if I were to explain my anxiety.  I consciously decided to live with it, instead of reaching out to take the help that was being offered.

Anxiety and panic have haunted me throughout my life, rearing their ugly heads at me during times that should have been joyous: college, my first years of teaching and, especially, in the wake of each one of my children’s births.

When I woke from a dead sleep at 3 a.m. on the night of my 3rd child’s birth with my heart slamming against my ribcage and unable to control my breathing or my racing thoughts, I knew I was in trouble once again.  I immediately made my appointment with a therapist, a woman who was an expert in postpartum depression and anxiety.  She was going to save me from the torturous, irrational worries that afflicted me: the fears that my house would burn to the ground with my children inside, that my van, with my babies strapped into their car seats, would spin out of control and over a bridge into the bay, that a vampire would attack my children.  How would I keep them safe?

The therapy helped, but it was the drugs that saved me.  And, I was hoping that they had saved my children as well.  My greatest worry, far above and beyond the burglars, SIDs, and choking hazards that plague my nightmares, is that I passed along the anxiety gene.  I hoped that if they couldn’t see the anxiety in action, couldn’t detect it on me, they would never take it on themselves.  I reassure myself that they are safe, as safe and happy as any children can be.  They have loving parents, who prize their well-being above all else, who keep them safe.  But…

“Winter Wonderland” became our favorite Christmas song of the holiday season.  My 3-year-old daughter, who fancies herself the next Kelly Clarkson, sang along at the top of her lungs.  One day, just after belting out the line, “Later on, we’ll conspire as we dream by the fire,” Cecily quipped, “Why are they dreaming by the fire, Mommy? They should go up into bed to dream. It’s not safe to sleep by the fire. They’ll get burned.”  I thought that this line of reasoning was so cute and funny that I couldn’t help but share it on Facebook.  I didn’t give it a second thought until a friend commented, “Like Mother, like daughter.”

I read that simple phrase, and ice shot through my veins.  What I had thought was just a confused and tickling thought process from my little girl may actually be an indication that the fear had already set in.  I began to pay closer attention to what I had once thought were the small things over which my children fretted.

“Why, Mommy? Why does he have to die?” Cecily weeps uncontrollably into my chest as she watches Belle lean over the seemingly lifeless body of the Beast.  It will be hours, maybe days, before she will let go of the grief she feels on Belle’s behalf.  Let me remind you, the Beast lives.  This matters not to my incredibly empathetic daughter.

My six-year-old son’s eyes glaze over with terror when he was faced with the realization that he had lost his math homework.  “I can’t go to school. Can’t go! I’ll get in trouble. I lost it, and I’ll get in trouble!”  My own pulse begins to race, as I am desperate to stop his panic before it grows.  This…this is my fault.  No, I didn’t lose the math homework, but the fact that he is having such an intense reaction to a minor mistake is clearly due to my influence, both genetically and environmentally.

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He’d seen my own worry, no matter how hard I’d tried to disguise it.  He’d marinated in it as he nestled inside my body, my extreme worry over the development of those ten fingers and ten toes.  He’d nursed from it as I wept in regret my over my maternal failure to eject thoughtless visitors who had coughed and hacked their germs all over my newborn.  Throughout his six years, he had hidden in my overprotective arms, held my hand as it clenched his in concern.  I had poisoned him.

And, now, I must heal them.  I must teach them to recognize the body’s physical reaction to stress and worry.  I must give them the strategies that have worked in my own life to calm unnecessary fear.  We talk, we write, we draw away our worries.  We reason with our frightened minds, mapping out the solutions to our problems.  And, if we harbor worries over which we have no control, no solutions, we must work on letting them go thorough visualization and breathing.  I believe that I can live successfully with my anxiety.  That, most importantly, I can model for my children a healthy way of approaching life.  I can give them a healthier childhood than I gave myself.


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  1. Fel Bloomfield says

    My family carries a heritage of mental illness, and it seems to have flowered most fully in me. But. There is more than genes at play, and more than maternal anxiety being copied. I don’t know what your partner is like, but I’d bet a million dollars he’s better than your biological father. My own left when I was less than a year old, and hasn’t been seen since (except in the occasional newspaper clipping – last I heard he was in jail for yet another minor offence). My partner, on the other hand, adores my daughter, who is already two. . . even if he dropped dead tomorrow, she has known a father that loved her and held her. You and I have both given our children a better parental experience than we had, and that counts for a LOT.

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  2. claire says

    This made me tear up. I’ve struggled with anxiety my entire life. When I was little, we called it a nervous stomach. When I got to college, the panic attacks intensified. At my wedding. When I moved. When I travel. I’ve done medicine, gotten off of it, seen a therapist, a counselor, and finally made the decision to take a low dose of Zoloft. I hate medicine, but it helps. But not when I’m having a particularly stressful time; the panic takes over occasionally still. And the racing heart and thoughts of tragically dying. Oddly, pregnancy calmed me (something I hadn’t expected), and I feel like I LARGELY keep the panic issues at bay from my kids….

    …But… I know genetics play a giant factor, and passing that particular trait on is my greatest fear. I see some of the things you talked about in my oldest child, and it breaks my heart a little.

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  3. shelly sue says

    I cant relate to this. My anxiety came later in life and I have no idea why (maybe I should look into that) but I worry that my some of my 5 year old son’s behavior is all my fault. Extremely cautious of things that may be “dangerous”, always worried about being late, and getting in trouble at school. He is still a playful, rowdy, sweet little boy, so I try not to dwell on it. Thanks for this article, makes me not feel alone and crazy. Lol

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  4. Raw Bean says

    I think I’m fortunate my anxiety manifests itself in stomach aches, frequent trips to the bathroom – but over the years I’ve gained insight on how to handle the onset of my symptoms. Medicine has definitely helped – I remember being in middle school and remember the days I *DIDNT* have stomach aches…every other day was the same stomach aches and embarrassing trips to the potty…going home almost every afternoon sick from school. I’m grateful for the medications they have today – I’ve been on a low dose of prozac for almost 20 years. It makes me “normal” and that’s why I’m OK knowing this is a drug I’ll be on for the rest of my life – it’s worth it.

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  5. Melissa says

    Brilliant. I have anxiety as well. I think about my daughter who also is showing signs of this. I’m so glad I’m not the only one! Thank you for reminding me I can help her handle this possible anxiety with stratagies I have learned as well.

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  6. Nikki says

    This post really hit home for me. The separation anxiety, the stomach issues, “‘panic attacks” that I have always kept hidden from others, causing such severe stomach pain I would stay home from school, never stay the night anywhere, come home from school camps. Continuing into adult hood, every step my children take, worried about every little cold, jumping to the worst conclusion. Web MD doesn’t help! I have never “addressed” these issues with a professional, with anyone for that matter. I don’t know the root. I have two loving parents, mind you my mom has anxiety issues, maybe it’s hereditary? I just wanted to say thank you for writing this post, and taking these words directly out of my mouth.

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  7. Kim says

    Thank you for this! I too suffer from anxiety/depression/bipolar disorder and thank God I am healthy and drugs help to control my worries to a manageable degree. I started to notice my 10 year old daughter have severe panic attacks and immediately brought her to a therapist to work through her issues. This aspect of my life has been the most difficult, coming to the realization that I gave this to her. But after my own therapy I now know that the best thing for my kids is to have a healthy mom (btw this is after many years of my own therapy) and not worry about what I cant change. All three of my kids have some form of anxiety and they will be okay because they see that their Mom is.

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  8. says

    Glad you are working on getting your family better. I lived with anxiety pretty much since my childhood until I was 27 (ish). It wasn’t until I knew what I was so embarrassed to share with anyone was called anxiety.

    I was lucky I looked for help. I got my anxiety under control (close to an 85%) by facing the root of the cause of my anxieties, I joined a free program called CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and it was excellent. I learned so much about myself and how to re-train my brain and thoughts. I am so happy I took it because for so long I feared of being a bad mom and being unable to protect my kid.

    There’s still some other tiny things that sticks still in my brain, and I got some light-small dose to help me go through some bumps.

    Glad this post got shared in this big site – Scary Mommy.

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  9. Amy says

    Thank you for sharing this, it brought tears to my eyes. I have struggled with anxiety based in childhood as well and the stomach/health issues that go with it. After reading your post I wanted to share just one thought I had… Try not too have too much anxiety over your anxiety. If your children grow up a little more cautious or with an issue or two that is based in your anxiety issues, it will be okay. We all have issues, no one is perfect and no one can escape whatever issue they get from something that wasn’t perfect in childhood. I try to see the bright side that hopefully my anxiety issues have kept me safe a time or two, just like how someday your daughter will be the one that remembers to blow out a candle before bed, has a few extra smoke alarms or practices good fire safety. Just try to keep it at a healthy level and make sure they are comfortable with talking about it. I think the most important part of handling anxiety is to not internalize, that is how it ends up in the stomach. Instead of stifling my anxiety or trying to eradicate it, I try to work with it and keep it under control. Less stressful that way.

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