science of us

Watching My Daughter Develop the Same Anxiety I Struggle With

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

It is relatively early on a summer evening, just after sunset. From my bed, I notice a shadow of a spindly branch dancing across the corner of the bedroom wall. I get up and close the curtains tightly to make it disappear, careful not to step on my daughter, who’s camped on my bedroom floor, lying stiffly under the weighted anxiety blanket I’d made her. I don’t mind the shadow, but I know it will make it impossible for her to fall asleep. This is the fourth night in a row she’s spent here.

“Let’s start our meditation,” I tell her as I climb back into bed. “Close your eyes and tense your fists …” I read through the script a therapist gave us, meant to help soothe anxious children. Though it adds ten minutes to her already-long litany of nightly calming rituals, it hasn’t yet emboldened my daughter to return to sleeping in her own room.

She breathes deeply like the script tells her to. It’s a familiar tactic by now; the panic attacks have been coming nightly. At 13, my daughter has become convinced that she will die in her sleep. And as I lie there listening to her struggle to elongate her breaths, another gnawing worry washes over me: In the couple years since my daughter first developed her fear, I’ve become increasingly convinced that I caused her anxiety.

* * *

It’s now after midnight, and neither my daughter nor I have slept. Through tears, she tells me she is ready to consider taking medication, a suggestion her therapist has made to ease her through this crisis period. But medication won’t help us tonight. I sing to her a bit, a bedtime ritual we haven’t done in years, until she finally closes her eyes and I jump on the computer.

It’s possible my daughter’s condition is unavoidable — that she was born with a fear of death imprinted on her genes. There is plenty of precedent in my family, with an unbroken line of anxiety-ridden women stretching back to my great-great grandmother, who made a harrowing journey from Ireland to the United States. Researchers do believe there’s a genetic component to anxiety, but for a time, I believed my daughter was additionally cursed by epigenetics, or the idea that our experiences can write themselves into our children’s DNA. I’ve since abandoned the idea — the science of epigenetics is still sketchy, and I don’t have the time or mental energy to devote to an unproven concept when our problem is more immediate. My daughter’s anxiety is interrupting her daily life and nightly sleep.

But browsing around the internet, I come across an article on epigenetics that I’d previously bookmarked, by a professor of public health at the University of Texas at Dallas. Reading through it again, I’m struck by a single paragraph I must have glossed over the first time around:

… the study didn’t account for the influence of social factors. Children born to Holocaust survivors may grow up listening to accounts of the war’s horrors. Josie Glausiusz, a participant in Yehuda’s 2014 study, raised this point in a recent essay in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Glausiusz’s father survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She wrote, “I was troubled by a question: How does one separate the impact of horrific stories heard in childhood from the influence of epigenetics?”

My daughter hasn’t heard horrific stories, but she’s been affected by death without knowing it. When she was an infant, I lost two young friends, both within a year of each other, and these tragedies sent me into my own anxiety spiral: For years, I did not sleep through the night, so afraid was I that one of my children might die in their sleep. Reading the professor’s analysis, I wonder if my behavior during that time impacted my daughter strongly enough, and negatively enough, to make her more susceptible to the same fear so many years later.

After all, I’m pretty sure that mine was born from similar circumstances. I had only recently learned of the generations-long struggle with anxiety on my maternal side, shortly before my mother died. She’d asked me to pick up her antianxiety medication from the pharmacy; when I told her how sorry I was that she had been hit by so much anxiety in her later years, she grew somber and confessional: “Honey, I’ve had panic attacks since before you were born,” she said. “Since I was a teenager, really.”

She went on to tell me the story of our whole lineage, a chain of women with untreated anxiety. She  told me about how she’d endured her own lifelong battle with anxiety mostly in silence, how she worked hard to hide what she considered to be a shameful secret from her children.

“Mom, why didn’t you tell me?” I said. “I’ve had anxiety for years.”

“I never wanted it to affect you,” she said.

I have no conscious memory of my mother battling anxiety while I was a child. What I do remember was how often she hid away in her room, and how she would go for long stretches without seeing friends or family. Similarly, my daughter has no conscious memory of the years I spent walking the halls at night to peek in on my children, double- and triple -checking that they were still alive. She doesn’t know how many times I locked myself in the bathroom in a panic, quietly willing myself to breathe again. What she likely absorbed, though, is how tired and agitated I was the mornings after. Surely, she internalized the way my voice cracked as I read her bedtime stories, the way I grew jittery as evening approached.

My anxiety, in other words, may have infiltrated my daughter’s consciousness, even though the events that sparked it have not.

She also, I realize, has no idea about the treatment that allowed me to get it under control. The women in my family who came before me have set a precedent of largely dealing with their anxiety on their own, in secret. It’s one thing that I don’t share with them: With the help of therapy, I learned some calming techniques, most notably journaling and meditation. I also overcame my initial reluctance to take antianxiety medication after a friend shared how it had pulled her through periods of crisis. Under the guidance of my doctor, I also began a regular exercise routine. Together, these treatments provide me a level of stability that once seemed unimaginable.

I am thankful that my daughter is getting the treatment she needs, and I’m hopeful that I can help her manage her condition fully and openly, interrupting the pattern that’s plagued her ancestors. Shame and silence will not undermine her.

It’s been a rough several hours, but my daughter is calmer now, as happens when she realizes she’s made it through the night. I remember how I used to feel the same way each morning, when she and her siblings noisily roused me from my brief periods of sleep. I sit down in the living room across from her, a cup of coffee in my hands. “Honey, you know you come by your anxiety honestly, from Grandma and me,” I begin. “But have I ever told you what sparked the worst few years of anxiety I’ve ever experienced? And exactly what I did to heal?”

Paula M. Fitzgibbons is an award-winning essayist with bylines at the New York Times and Scary Mommy. She can be found at her website, Mommy Means It, and on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.

Watching My Daughter Develop the Same Anxiety I Have