mental health

What Having Anxiety as a Child Feels Like

“When I was 10, I was called out to read something. But I got so intimidated that I ended up peeing in front of the entire class. As a kid, you just endure whatever you’re feeling with the assumption that it is what it is.”
July 28, 2020, 2:17pm
child anxiety
Representational photo courtesy of Francisco Gonzalez / Unsplash

I think I was around seven when I first grappled with anxiety in my life. As a student in India, you are expected to sit for exams at the end of each school term. It is expected that in a country which places insane emphasis on exams, kids tend to be nervous about them. For me though, that nervousness shot up several notches and manifested as physical illness. So from grades one to three, I never took any exams because I used to fall so violently ill that it would get impossible for me to do so. The school was gracious enough to take averages of my other tests, give me passing grades, and move on. But in hindsight, I realise what they should've done is ask what was going on—there was clearly a pattern. 

See, here’s the thing. As a kid, you barely understand what is going on with you. All you know is this feeling that keeps cropping up now and then. For example, all teachers do that thing where they call out students in the class to answer questions or read out loud. I hated being called out. Every time it’d happen, I would start sweating profusely and end up hiding behind my friends’ backs. I would forget even simple answers to questions I definitely knew. When I was 10, I was called out to read something. But I got so intimidated that I ended up peeing in front of the entire class. That incident, although very prominent, was just one out of the many, many I remember going through because of my anxiety as a child. 

I never asked for any help or took any action about it, though. Since your brain is not fully developed as a kid, you just endure whatever you’re feeling with the assumption that it is what it is. And that is exactly what I did. I didn’t know what I was going through. I never spoke to parents or teachers about it. Back in the 90s, counselling or getting professional help was not much of an option in India. No one spoke about it let alone get the help they needed.

The few times I did describe how I felt, my parents’ natural response—like perhaps all parents of that time—would be “don’t feel scared” or “don’t feel nervous”. To a child grappling with anxiety, that was something easier said than done. It wasn’t poor parenting as much as it was the lack of awareness around mental health back then. Even colour television came to India around 1984, so it perhaps was unfair to expect people to know about something considered taboo for a long time. Moreover, I think, parents respond to symptoms better. For example, if they saw a fever, they’d give medicine for pain and fever management; if you had a bad throat, they’d get you a pill to treat an infection. For a lot of us, it doesn’t get any deeper than acting on visible symptoms. 

Over time, though, I found my own way of dealing with things. So, I grew up like this: went to college, stayed in Mumbai for a while, moved to New York for work, got settled there, and so on. It just became a thing I lived with without understanding or dealing with. 

Manas Jha

Manas Jha

A couple of years ago, I came across a story on The Mighty, a digital community for people facing health challenges. That led me to ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) and that finally got me reading about the symptoms and the issues. From what I read, and by no means am I an expert, the term anxiety disorder was actually an umbrella term—there were more specific disorders within that. Social disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, PTSD, OCD, and so on. 

It was then that I realised that what I had fell somewhere under a social anxiety—defined as experiencing extreme fear or anxiety triggered by social situations. I used to avoid interactions any way I could. Even outside the classroom, such as during evening games which kids usually looked forward to, I distinctly remember it manifesting. I would always avoid my peers. The way I would try to structure my participation is by not participating at all. I would always ask to be the goalie—not because I was particularly good at defending, but because I could avoid friends this way and stay away from the general commotion of the game. I liked hanging alone by the goalpost, but even then, my anxiety would always worsen any time the ball would come towards me. Or while playing cricket, I used to pray that I’d get out and not have to bat, so I could go and take whatever fielding position was available and be alone for a while.

This also affected my interaction with girls. Growing up, I don't remember having any friends that were girls, let alone girlfriends. Funnily enough, the first girl I spoke to in the 11th and 12th grades is now my wife and the mother of my kids. 

I do believe that moving to New York opened my eyes. In a city that was a melting pot of so many different people and cultures, how I approached these differences also changed. And more importantly, it forced me to come to terms with what I was going through as well. 

It is not like my anxiety is completely gone now, but I definitely understand it better now. I still don’t have a very big social circle. And in a lot of ways, I’m still the nerdy kid I was back then. But as an adult, I’ve found better ways of dealing with symptoms of all these things I carried with me into adulthood. And what has truly helped me is music. As a teenager, I was able to express anything that I had trouble putting in words through music. It became a way for me to express myself and cope with everything I was feeling. Now, as an adult, even though I am a consultant by day, music still is a very important part of me. 

Shades, the single for my second EP, comprises everything I used to feel as a teenager. The song is about dealing with anxiety, and it conveys what I had been going through as a child. The video, produced by Mumbai’s Ekabhuya Animation Studio, is made up of scenes from my memories of childhood.

The song, in fact, is something I wrote back when I was 18—exactly half my age right now. A lot of the words I had written back then were not very good, but they at least helped me capture what was going on. I did have to tweak some of the lyrics now, because as a kid when you are writing these lyrics down, you may not understand what is fully going on. But this EP, which is called “Reimagining”, is just an attempt to get across the same emotions I had felt as an 18-year-old, with the new-found sensibilities of a 36-year-old. 

What I want to share through Shades is that as friends or family, we may not be equipped with the skills needed to identify or pinpoint a problem. And honestly, that’s okay. Looking back, that is something that I should've changed. Right there in first, second, and third grades, why didn’t no one ever connect the dots and ask what was going on? Even at that age, I may not have been able to express it very well, but well enough for the adults to initiate conversations around my feelings.

But now that I’m an adult, I can at least help other kids with anxiety get the help they need. Maybe listening to this song or seeing the video would at least make an adult somewhere start a conversation with a kid who might be undergoing what I did. Or at least approach mental health with an open mind. I know my story would’ve been different if I had had those conversations back then. 

Follow Manas on Instagram.