Barbara's blog: Food glorious food? Eating and anxiety
How do you ensure an anxious child follows a healthy diet? And what if the anxiety is related to food itself? These are the questions that I have had to ask myself in the past few years, since my son Harry, who is now nearly 13, started to experience episodes of anxiety.
It is difficult to chart the exact sequence of events that triggered anxiety in Harry, as the episodes happened in a trickle at first: a little doubt here, a worry there, an issue becoming an obstacle to doing something or going somewhere. Put it simply, the chronology roughly went like this: Harry went on a school trip in year 5 of primary school, which required two nights away, and he was ill with such severe hay fever throughout that when he came back I thought he had bronchitis. The year after, we had a holiday in New York just after Christmas and Harry was sick on the day we landed back home. And then, the summer after that, he contracted tonsillitis on holiday in Mexico, fortunately on the last day, but still having to endure a difficult journey back home. These significant episodes were then punctuated with smaller events: a cold two years in a row on Harry’s birthday, random skin rashes, reluctance to eat. The worst anxiety attacks brought shivering, shaking and queasiness. Once, he sobbed in my arms telling me all he wanted was ‘to be a normal boy’. For a while, at bed times, Harry and I would hold hands and visualise his worries, enwrapped in bubbles, popping one by one, a well-known analogy to teach children how to dissolve worries. Sitting on Harry’s bed, with a side lamp for moonlight, I would stare at the back of my eyelids trying not to freak out and ask myself why we kept trying to trap worries in the fragility of a bubble, when these were really designed to enchant children. In the calm of the night, I dreamt of sledgehammers and axes, to pulverise the worries and set my son free.
The anxiety was worse at meal times, as one of Harry’s greatest fears was being ill from eating too much. This fear gradually spread into many other aspects of life: travelling in the car straight after food, leaving long enough between dinner and bedtime, checking best-before and use-by dates obsessively, refusing to eat anything that expired on that day, worrying about others eating food that was close or slightly beyond the best-before date (most foods are fine, within reason!). The range of foods he liked became quite small and changed frequently. He lived and still lives on a staple diet of home-made ragù, lasagne, chicken in breadcrumbs, pizza and garlic bread, which I feed him for dinner in rotation. Lunch, when at school, is much more difficult, so I take a deep breath and give him what I know he will eat, which is a variety of sweet snacks. I know it’s dreadfully unhealthy, but it’s either that or he doesn’t eat at all. The only compromise is half an apple a day. Trips to restaurants need to be planned to ensure there is food on the menu that Harry will eat. The same applies to going on holiday.
Our family doctor could only relieve the symptoms of the recurring hay fever, with strong, prescription-only antihistamines, and the hospital consultant confirmed that the red and angry rashes were hives, likely brought on by stress. The NHS’s CAMHS (Children and Adolescents Mental Health Services) was so over-subscribed that it did not accept new patients unless they were self-harming or suicidal – not a stage Harry was at, thankfully. I finally found some help through the local Youth Emotional Support (YES) centre, who provided a few sessions of counselling, tips to deal with the worst of the anxiety and friendly but expert advice for the parents.
I learnt that being supportive doesn’t mean saying ‘I know how you feel’ because unless you have anxiety yourself, you don’t know what it feels like to be rendered powerless and terrified by an invisible enemy. I learnt that anxiety, as well as other mental health issues, takes place on a spectrum of intensity, rather than as the polar opposite of well or poorly. I learnt that it is useful to know yourself if you want to help your child, and for ages I reflected whether my own relationship with food was to blame. Being Italian, food is so much more than just something you need for sustenance: food in Italy plays an essential part in people’s lives. It feeds the body, nourishes the soul, it brings families together. It is the social fabric of life. I grew up equaling a well-fed child with a happy and loved child. For me it was preposterous not to love food. But I learnt to flex my principles and review my priorities. I also accepted that eventually you have to make peace with your shortcomings and concentrate on the matter at hand. And that creating a space – a home - where a child can be himself, feel listened, considered, nourished, supported and loved is very important.
More recently, the attacks have decreased in frequency and severity, maybe an indication of the fact that Harry might be growing out of it, maturity bringing some intellectual ability to process and rationalise his worries a little more. It has not completely gone, it just sits below the surface, like a crocodile watching the shore, profiling its victims for weaknesses. But overall, Harry seems better.
One more observation, before I end this very long blog. My intention, in writing this was not to simplify anxiety. Each child is different and so will be the way that anxiety manifests itself. This story is based on my experience with my own son, so these are lessons learnt not a diagnosis. And ultimately rather than a silver bullet, it is a combination of small changes that has had the biggest impact and love is probably the most important of all.
Barbara works for a regulator in Canary Wharf but lives near the Sussex Downs with her creative and cheerful 14 year old daughter, ingenious and funny 12 year old son and brilliant husband.
Category: A Citymother's Diary