Anxiety sucks and parenting with anxiety sucks in its own special way—here's how I cope
Anxiety sucks. It swoops in, builds up, and leaves you feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and out of control. For me, anxiety is like a storm raging inside a paralyzed shell of a human body. When the worst of it passes, I’m exhausted and not sure how to find the energy to get through the rest of the day. And parenting with anxiety is a separate challenge.
I’ve dealt with anxiety, including anxiety attacks, for years. Eventually, I got myself into therapy and developed a number of useful strategies to help deal: meditation, exercise, and, my favorite, giving myself permission to opt out of life for a few hours by turning on the TV and turning off my brain. Then, I became a mom and all the good habits and coping strategies went straight to hell. A toddler doesn’t understand that you need to be left alone for 20 minutes to meditate, and you can’t head out for a calming walk if you are the only caregiver at home. The Netflix and popcorn strategy doesn’t work if there is a little one in front of you who needs a bath, dinner, four books, two songs, and long snuggle before he goes to sleep.
To make matters worse, parenting itself may be triggering your anxiety. An estimated 10% to 15% of new moms develop some form of postpartum mood disorder, like postpartum anxiety or postpartum depression. If you have a history of physical or sexual trauma, being clung to, climbed on, and followed around can tug on past issues. Toddlers are just beginning to learn about boundaries and cannot be counted on to give you any semblance of personal time or space. Caring for a newborn (barely a separate human being, if you ask me) is a body-centered experience. All that beautiful, but relentless, holding, nursing, and rocking leaves many moms feeling “touched out” at the end of the day.
The most important thing I do to tame my anxiety is to be intentional and pro-active about therapy. I’m tempted to cancel every other appointment because of the circus act of trying to juggle work, home, family, and self. In those moments, therapy can feel more like another thing on my never-ending to-do list than a form of self-care. But I’ve learned that, at least for right now, I need that weekly check-in so I can sort through how everyday life stressors are pulling my past issues into the present and try and untangle some of those ties. I’ve been fortunate enough to find a therapist who will do a phone session if getting away for an hour isn’t going to happen, and who charges on a sliding scale based on income.
The second most important strategy I have is to proactively schedule a little time away each week from both work and parenting. Sometimes my husband/co-parent can offer me the time away that I need to deal with my anxiety, but I’m more prone to an anxiety spike if he is out of town or otherwise unavailable. Finding time alone can be even more difficult for single parents. When a babysitter is not in the budget, consider a two-hour child care swap with another parent or a community center that offers child care while you workout for an hour (and by that I mean exercise for 20 minutes, shower for 20 minutes, and sit in glorious silence for 20 minutes).
Of course, despite doing the work to prevent anxiety, there will always be those days when it sneaks up on you and becomes overwhelming. The best way I’ve found to calm down when I’m actively parenting and start to feel anxious is a grounding technique my therapist taught me. The idea is to look around and name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. I do this out loud when I’m with my son; he joins in and thinks it’s a fun game. You can play over and over again until you start to feel better, going from room to room or outside to find different answers. If the senses game is too much to handle at the moment, my other tried-and-true technique is the “meditation minute.” I’ve found that literally just one minute of breathing acts on my anxiety disproportionately to the time spent. A five-second breath in, five seconds out, then repeat five more times.
Sometimes, nothing works and the anxiety avalanches over me anyway. I’ll try to get myself into another room so my child doesn’t have to witness the worst of it. When that happens, the only comfort I can find is the knowledge that I did the best I could that day and I’ll get another chance tomorrow.