Kids and Anxiety: Teen’s turning point came when she helped a friend
By KARA YORIO STAFF WRITER | The Record
Anxiety is the most prevalent psychiatric illness among children and teens. As many as 1 in 4 are affected by an anxiety disorder at one or more times in their lives, according to mental health experts. Even when the symptoms are similar, every situation is unique; every child and family have their own challenges and ways of handling them.
The anxiety attacks started in third grade.
“I would get stomach pains,” said Lauren Lehr, now 17. “I would start shaking. I would feel like I couldn’t breathe. I felt like my throat was closing.”
Sometimes she wouldn’t know what started it, but most of the time it was a fear of throwing up — known as emetophobia and fairly common in kids with anxiety. She would worry about other people getting sick, afraid she would catch their illness. If a classmate at her Hawthorne elementary school said he had a stomachache or didn’t feel well, Lauren’s panic kicked in.
It didn’t only happen at school. Lauren was constantly concerned someone was going to throw up.
“If her brother would just cough, she would be out the door, running down the block, hysterical crying,” said Jen Lehr, Lauren’s mom.
For the family, that was the start of years of “walking on eggshells,” according to Jen, hiding any family member’s illness, wondering what would happen when they went out. Would something set off Lauren, and how long would it take for her to calm down?
During a spring break trip to Florida, Lauren decided if her stomach was empty, she wouldn’t throw up. She essentially stopped eating, and soon had lost a noticeable amount of weight.
“That’s when I said, enough is enough,” said Jen.
They returned to New Jersey and Jen began a frustrating search for a psychiatrist. She was told repeatedly that they couldn’t see Lauren because she was younger than 13. Eventually, after failing to find a psychiatrist who would treat Lauren, Jen turned to a social worker in Ridgewood, and things slowly started to get better.
Lauren doesn’t remember when or why she started eating again, but she did so within a month or two of seeing the social worker. She saw the therapist through the summer, but when the woman left the area, Lauren was handed off to a different social worker, whom she would see for the next year or so.
A “lovely young woman, just phenomenal, excellent,” Jen said of the second therapist.
Lauren and her therapists never specifically discussed her anxiety, she said, although she was taught a breathing technique to help her focus and calm down when she panicked.
Jen searched the Internet for tips on cognitive behavioral therapy — a specific type of therapy she learned was used to treat anxiety disorders — and coping with anxiety. Lauren was a big reader, so Jen also bought books on the subject. Slowly Lauren gained coping mechanisms beyond the breathing — counting backward from 100, counting the stars on the flag at school, reading a book or putting on a movie during the middle-of-the-night attacks that left her pacing in her parents’ room.
During the day, Lauren would frequently go outside to get fresh air, which she said helped. She still leaves the window cracked in her bedroom — no matter the temperature outside — and sleeps facing it.
For years, she also relied on the family’s chocolate Lab, Coco.
“I used to have the dog sleep in my room with me,” she said. “I would get up in the middle of the night, lay with the dog, pet the dog, talk to the dog. That really helped.”
Coco died a couple of years ago, and the Lehrs have since adopted Hunter, a Lab mix who also helps Lauren when she is feeling anxious.
“It’s therapy for the whole family, it really is,” Jen said of the dog.
Lauren was in therapy for about a year and a half in elementary school but struggled with anxiety long past those sessions. The fear of sickness wasn’t always the primary trigger. Social concerns and other issues became a source of anxiety over the years. While her anxiety never kept her from going to school or out with family or friends, it definitely altered those experiences.
She would call home every day and ask her mom to come get her from school and often end up at the nurse’s office.
“In elementary and middle school, I was very, very close with the nurses,” Lauren said. “I would always be with them. They would always talk to me. Kind of like a grandmother or second mom.”
Teachers, whom Jen would alert of Lauren’s condition, would accommodate her requests to leave the classroom.
“I would tell them I’m not feeling very well,” she said. “They would probably know. I would say it a couple of times a month, a couple of times a week, just to get out of class.”
Outside of school, Lauren’s mom did her best to calm her through attacks — though Lauren had a difficult time taking her advice and often got angry instead.
“I remember getting really mad at her, because I would think, just like I thought about the therapist: ‘You don’t understand where I’m coming from or what I’m feeling, so why would I listen to you?’ ” Lauren said.
Jen understood, and tried to stay patient.
“It’s easy for me to talk when I’m not feeling it,” Jen said. “I believed her. It breaks your heart what I know she was going through.”
Their family was supportive and understanding and, with the exception of one incident, neither Lauren nor Jen remembers peers making fun of Lauren. It was a friend, in fact, whom Lauren credits with really turning things around for her.
“One of my best friends has anxiety, but she also has a stomach condition where she gets sick to her stomach,” Lauren said. “I had one instance where I sat in the bathroom stall next to her while she was throwing up. That definitely helped me get over it, because I was putting what I was scared of aside to help my friend.”
Jen finally got a phone call from school with some good news.
“I remember her calling, ‘I’m so proud of myself, she was sick to her stomach and I sat there,’ ” Jen said. “I said, ‘You did? That’s huge.’ ”
“I think that was a turning point where I knew I could deal with it,” she said. “That was really difficult, but I did it. I got through it. Nothing happened to me.”
Her freshman year in high school was the first time she was free of the daily disruption of the anxiety. Now Lauren takes the stress of high school in stride, working hard to keep from being overwhelmed and using her coping skills when needed. She wants to be a child psychologist, to help future children suffering as she did.
“I want to go into psychology because it’s very important to me because I understand what they are going through and how they feel so alone going through it,” she said. “There really should be someone there telling them, ‘You know what? You can get through it. Don’t let this hold you back.’
“I feel like the therapists didn’t understand where I was coming from. They didn’t know what I was going through, which made it harder for me to listen to them.”
She wanted to tell her story to show children and families going through it now that they can get past it and get better.
Does she consider herself free of anxiety? No. But her life is no longer ruled by it.
“I feel like being anxious is a part of life and I don’t think you ever overcome it, you just learn to deal with it,” she said, adding that she will always remember those extremely difficult years she spent struggling with anxiety, and the takeaway is what it taught her about herself.
“It’s kind of a lesson to know that I can overcome anything.”