I was diagnosed as a teenager with generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety. Everything gave me anxiety: people, schoolwork, making decisions—it all made me panic. Over time, I learned strategies to handle my anxiety. Then I had kids. When I thought about becoming a mother, and all the blessings and challenges that come along with it, I had glossed over my anxiety. Whether it was wishful thinking or a gross oversight, I was unprepared.
With the addition of each of my children, the volume and busyness climbed higher. Having tiny people pulling at my arm and the constant barrage of needs whirling around every day left me feeling endlessly triggered onto the cliff of panic.
With time, I had to learn to cope with the anxiety motherhood had brought me. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Accept your boundaries and limitations.
I learned I needed to set my limits. And to be self-aware of when I was reaching them, which meant listening to my body’s physical cues, such as fatigue, irritability, anger and excessive worry. Accepting my limitations and establishing my boundaries has significantly helped me reduce my panic. It also helps me to actually enjoy what I’m doing at any given moment.
Learn what you can handle and don’t force yourself into situations that push you further than you’re comfortable being pushed. It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to tell Linda from the parent-teacher association that you won’t be able to volunteer at the bake sale andthe book fair. Boundaries are not weakness, they are an established safe zone.
Find your peace.
My kids are loud. Most kids are loud. When you have anxiety the constant noise and activity around you can get overwhelming quickly. Seek out something to include in your daily routine that brings you peace. Whether it’s reading, crafts or a long shower, find it and make time for it every day (or as often as you can). Music is my peace. I always make sure to have headphones with me wherever I go, so I can take that break any time I need it.
Include your partner.
They say, “shared pain is halved pain,” right? It’s taken a long time, but I’ve learned that if my husband knows when I’m struggling it gives him the opportunity to support me. I’ve also learned this is better than me lashing out at him in a moment of panic and him taking it personally.
It’s also important for me to be open with him about what my anxiety triggers are and how they manifest before I experience them. And talking to him about it helps me check-in with myself. I find I can prevent panic with his support and gentle reminders to step back and practice self-care or use a coping skill, such as meditation, deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. The support he’s able to give in these moments helps me to intervene instead of escalating my anxiety.
Take medication if you need to.
Taking medication is not failure. If your doctor or mental health professional suggests that you should take medication, it’s important to consider it. We live in a society where if you take medication you’re often judged as having taken the ‘easy way out.’ The fact is there is no easy way out of anxiety. Sometimes you need to take medication to control your symptoms so you can function. This does not make you weak or lazy, it simply means you have a condition that requires this form of treatment. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for that.
Allow others to help you.
All my kids have been in some form of preschool. At the time, I felt extremely guilty about it. Why should we need child care when I was a stay-at-home mother? That’s my job, right? Looking back, it was money well spent. I needed a break. They all enjoyed the change of scenery and making friends. It was a win-win that I didn’t need to be so hard on myself about.
Allotting yourself grace.
Anxiety is messy. Motherhood is messy. Trying to be perfect at two imperfect things is something I wasted too much energy on. Forgive yourself for not meeting your own high expectations and move on. Your kids will not remember that you didn’t make picture-perfect dinners. They will remember you being present and happy at the table even if it is the same three easy meals over and over. They don’t care. They just want your presence.
Have animals around.
Pets have such a power to bring calm. I have always had pets. Having an animal around me has a huge impact on my mood. We have one dog that senses when I’m starting to have an anxiety attack and will come over and hug me. I don’t know how she knows, but she does, and it’s incredibly soothing to have her comfort in those moments.
Accept your bad anxiety days.
There are some days where nothing, no amount of deep breathing, music or pets will get me out of my anxiety spiral. When this happens, all you can do is accept it, adjust and don’t judge yourself. When this happens to me I bow out of just about everything. It’s necessary care for an illness. In hindsight, I wish I had given myself more patience and less self-criticism and negativity about having to take time for myself. We are all just doing the best we can, and you don’t have to apologize for that.
Living with an anxiety disorder and being a mother are not incompatible. Especially if you have the right tools to adjust and handle this major life change. Learning to accept the chaos and unpredictability that motherhood brings to most days is a key in maintaining peace. What might seem daunting will become second nature with practice. And what an incredible gift to give your children as they watch you navigate and adjust through your anxiety in a healthy way.
Vanna is a writer and mental health advocate recovering from her own twenty-year battle with anorexia and PTSD. Along with being an ambassador for Southern Smash, Vanna is also a contributor to The Mighty, Recovery Warriors, Beating Eating Disorders, and others advocacy organizations.