Are you in the throes of anxiety right now? Much like your children, does it not even leave you alone when you go to the bathroom? Or perhaps you’re feeling like you’ve got this parenting malarkey down at the moment, but you’ve been anxious in the past and know you probably will be again in the future? Here’s your sister.
Anxiety is a regular visitor in my life. One of those visitors you don’t get along particularly well with, who gives you no warning and just rings the doorbell one random day with its elbow, due to its hands being busy carrying enough luggage to stay for who knows how long.
Anxiety sucks. For me it sucks the joy out of being a mother. It sucks the spontaneity out of our days. It dulls the little moments that make motherhood worthwhile and crystallizes the bad bits. It makes me second guess my every move. It makes me tired, not in the need-more-sleep sense but in the weary, unmotivated sense that means I’m more likely to wake up with a “same shit different day” sigh rather than an “I can’t wait to see what today brings” bounce.
If any of this sounds familiar, repeat after me: It’s not me, it’s my amygdala.
Let me explain.
The science bit
Way back when every day meant new threats to life, snap emotional reactions were the difference between life and death. To put it another way, it was always best to presume a stick was a snake and look a bit silly rather than give it the benefit of the doubt and die.
The brain began with the brain stem, which deals with basic life functions. From this stem the emotional centres – the hippocampus and the amygdala – grew to make the limbic system. Millions of years later the thinking brain – the neocortex – was added. It would make sense that the higher, more logical centres were always in charge, but that’s not the case. In emergencies (or what are deemed emergencies) the limbic system takes control. The ever-alert amygdala will shout “emergency” on encountering something that even reminds it of trouble, even while the neocortex is mulling the situation over. As we get older, the amygdala is more likely to shout “emergency”, because it has diligently been stockpiling data throughout our whole lives and so has more things that remind it of trouble.
Nowadays most of us don’t face constant physical life threats, but our emotional responses haven’t changed and the reactions that served us so well in the past are still evoked. Take anxiety. It’s a normal, useful part of life. Rooted in the brain’s limbic system, it’s a vigilant warning system that prioritises protection and survival and works on a “better safe than sorry” approach. Feeling anxious before walking down a dark street, for example, is useful – making you more careful as you do something potentially dangerous. It’s when it takes over your day that it becomes rather less useful.
Help, I’m being hijacked
Daniel Goleman wrote a book I really like called “Emotional Intelligence”. In it, he describes what he calls “emotional hijacking” – when the amygdala takes control because it recognises something in the current situation that reminds it of a past danger, even though it’s not actually the case in the present situation. As per emergency procedure the brain follows orders given by the limbic system, even though in an emotional hijacking situation the response isn’t appropriate. Does that sound like anxiety to anyone else? He also says that at times of great stress the brain’s cognitive ability is impaired, leaving us more vulnerable to emotional hijacking. I’m not sure about you, but as amazing as being a parent is, being responsible for little lives has upped my stress levels significantly. It’s unsurprising then that the door is left open for anxiety to step in.
What can I do?
The goal really is to recognise and name feelings and what has caused them, and ultimately manage them. If you fancy a bit of extra homework you can then extend that to other people – recognising emotions in others and having the skills to take both your and other people’s emotions into account when dealing with everyday situations.
But let’s concentrate on ourselves for now. We’ve kids to rear as well after all!
Here are some strategies that have worked for me.
Tips for parents with anxiety: Me time
Anything will do. If you can carve out quality time for yourself, please do it. It’ll make you more relaxed, which in turn will make you less vulnerable to anxiety. I can’t seem to carve out anything that resembles me time at the moment more than making myself a cappuccino every day though, so that’ll have to do for now. In the past feeling like my me time wasn’t good enough made me more anxious, so try not to fall into that trap!
Tips for parents with anxiety: Mindfulness
Bringing your attention to what’s happening in the moment is all the rage these days. You can do loads of things mindfully, but I find the easiest one is breathe. When anxiety threatens to overwhelm, just concentrate on breathing lovely deep breaths. (FYI, this can also work when your little people have been pushing your buttons all afternoon.)
Tips for parents with anxiety: Set aside time to be anxious
It’s hard to go cold turkey on anxiety. Try giving yourself a set time period – half an hour maybe – to be anxious each day. When you begin to feel anxious outside of the set time, mentally reschedule it. Within the set time don’t hold back, really go to town on feeling anxious.
Tips for parents with anxiety: Pare down the to do list
I love my to do list, but it works against me when I overestimate what I can get done on any given day. If you’re the same, try cutting the number of things on it by half. You’ll get through your list and get that lovely little lift completing the list brings. Try also putting relaxing on your to do list. If it’s there you have to do it!
Tips for parents with anxiety: Write it down
Or say it out loud, or tell it to a tree; whatever you fancy that gets how you’re feeling out of your head.
Tips for parents with anxiety: Catch the thought
Constant worrying is like a rolling snowball; it gets bigger and bigger and flattens everything in its path. Trying to catch a worry early is hard, but with practice is gets easier. When you find your mind going there, stop it by shouting “STOP” (effective, but it can lead to your children/the neighbours looking at you a bit funny) or snapping an elastic band or hair tie that you keep on your wrist for that very reason.
Tips for parents with anxiety: Challenge the thought
I find it helps if you pretend to be your best friend here. What would they say to the negative, anxious thoughts? What are the other possibilities? Try to externalise your anxiety for a minute – take it out and have a look at it from all angles, and try to think of some other options to avoid taking your anxious thought as gospel.
It’s just a phase
Your anxiety is not the whole story. You might be in the middle of it right now, but that doesn’t have to mean it’s forever. It might be a sentence, it might be a chapter, but the rest of your story has yet to be written and it doesn’t have to include anxiety.
Laura Ryder is a mama to two-and-a-half year old Matthew, five-and-a-half month old Victorine and a puppy. A former journalist, I have retrained as a counselling psychotherapist but am currently working full-time at home for my two little overlords.
Thanks to Laura for her great advice. I approached her to share her tips after many, many mums contacted me after they read my anxiety story, who said they felt exactly the same.