I wondered for a long time why motherhood felt so difficult for me.
More often than not, I felt as though each day I was entering a boxing ring, me in one corner and my children in the opposite, ready to go a full twelve rounds before my husband got home from work. I always expected that some days would be hard, but I didn’t expect it to be so constant.
I wasn’t quite sure if I was suffering from something. Was I depressed? Did I have postpartum depression? Could it be anxiety?
Then one day last spring, I found clarity. I was reading an email from Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids and creator of AhaParenting.com. The email was part of a series about “spring cleaning” your own mind to help better yourself as a parent. In the email, she defined anxiety as having “a low level fear response” to every-day stressors, turning the smallest bumps in the road into an eighteen car pile up.
As I read on, I felt like she could have been describing me directly. For example, if I ran out of milk several days before our set grocery day, I couldn’t simply solve the problem by deciding to make a stop at the store later that day. Instead, I would feel my breath getting shorter and my heart beating faster as the symptoms of fear began to set in.
When would I find the time? Would I have to take all the kids? Is buckling them in the car half a dozen times worth five minutes of being in a store? If I ask my husband to do it on the way home, he’ll be late and that will throw off our whole evening. If I leave when he gets home from work, I’ll feel guilty for leaving him to begin the bedtime routine on his own.
My mind would spiral and the situation would feel unbearable. Then suddenly when my train of thought was interrupted by my five year old asking me to help him with his LEGOs, I would bark! I didn’t have time to think about LEGOs! I have to figure out what to do about the milk!
But from reading this email, all at once I realized: I was afflicted with anxiety. Motherhood is full of small little bumps in the road, and they were constantly rocketing my whole person into fight-or-flight mode.
A fight-or-flight response is the useful, but not always necessary, evolutionary ability to pin everything around you as an aggressor in order to protect yourself from danger. So whether my anxiety was caused by a minor kid-induced accident or something that happened every day—like running out of milk—my children were often seen as an enemy.
Motherhood is full of small little bumps in the road, and they were constantly rocketing my whole person into fight-or-flight mode.
Without being able to identify what I was going through or how to help myself, my reptilian brain would take over and try to fix things the hard way.
Discovering this about myself was simultaneously enlightening and relieving. I felt like I had found a bunch of missing pieces to my puzzle. My new task was to learn what to do to help myself when anxiety took over. Was I supposed to see a therapist? Could I handle this on my own?
Dr. Laura Markham’s advice helped assure me that no matter how tough things might be, I could enact change. Anxiety doesn’t have to win every time, and over the course of the past year or so, I learned how to cope with its onset in new and effective ways.
After taking suggestions from Dr. Laura Markham and digging a little deeper on the internet, I found a handful of habits that have worked wonders for me and that will hopefully help you to combat your own anxiety as well.
01. Deep Breathing
A quick Google search will show you a wealth of information on the benefits of deep breathing. In fact, it doesn’t just relieve your mental state, but the act of deep breathing can actually physiologically transition your brain and body out of fight-or-flight mode.
A full and deep breath allows your lungs to deliver a larger supply of oxygen to the bloodstream, slowing down the heart rate and kickstarting the parasympathetic nervous system. (You can read more about this here and here).
If you’re able to, walk into another room, close your eyes, and spend a minute slowly breathing in and out. If you can’t leave the room, because, like so many of us, you have a baby who loves to be held around the clock, try closing your eyes or focusing on an image or special item in the room where you are. Breathe in and out for a minute or two. You can feel the tension leave your body in those moments.
02. Coaching Yourself
The overwhelming feelings of anger, frustration, and stress can linger. Deep breathing will help your body calm down, but that remaining anger still needs to be resolved. How do you calm the inner beast of your reptilian brain which is warning you about the predator — your child — in the other room? You can start by telling yourself, “This is not an emergency.”
Fight-or-flight is survival mode! Your mind and body are assuming that you are in grave trouble. Tell yourself that you are not. Remind yourself how old your children are and that they are still learning.
And please give yourself some grace while you’re at it! If you are struggling with anger and frustration because of anxiety, you don’t need the added stress of being hard on yourself. Loving and being patient with yourself is a great catalyst for change.
Remind yourself that raising children, on top of everything else that you have going on in your life, is very difficult.
03. Avoid distractions
I used to think that if I just left the room and distracted myself with five minutes of social media, I would be okay. But even if you choose a better habit to distract yourself from anxious feelings, like cleaning or reading a book, it still doesn’t help. When you distract yourself from your feelings, it can actually feed the problem— because distraction is mental flight, as in fight or flight. You’re simply avoiding the issue.
Sure, certain activities may help you to calm down, but it is essential to face the problem underlying your reaction. In making a habit of turning to distractions, it can be harder to face the problem when you need to.
When you distract yourself from your feelings, it can actually feed the problem— because distraction is mental flight, as in fight or flight. You’re simply avoiding the issue.
Instead of burying those feelings, use those triggering moments as an opportunity to rewire your brain by helping yourself. The more you help yourself and the harder you work at creating new habits, the easier it will get!
04. Know the warning signs
After you have taken some time to calm down, quickly jot down in a note on your phone or a piece of paper on your night stand what it was that caused that fear to swell inside you. The smallest things can really set us back, and it can be hard to understand why in the moment.
At the end of the day, spend ten to fifteen minutes or longer meditating or journaling about these moments to try to figure out what really bothers you and why those things they send you into an unnecessary state of fear.
There could be any number of underlying reasons. You might have to tell yourself that it’s okay if your kids live without milk for a few days, even though you prefer to give them milk over water.
Or it may be more serious. You may feel ashamed that you once again miscalculated your grocery list and budget. The jump from “simple mistake” to “I’m a failure” is short if you don’t give yourself the grace you need to succeed as a mother.
That can be at the root of anxiety: feeling like a failure. In my experience, feeling like a failure is mistaken for having inaccurate expectations for the situation, whether it’s what to expect of your three year old’s behaviour or how quickly your family and grocery budget can grow as your children get bigger.
Whatever the reason may be, it is important to discover what is causing the anxiety and why it’s eliciting a fight or flight response so you can learn how to overcome those things and better yourself. Over time, you will conquer what triggers you.
05. Reach out
There are so many resources to help you out if you find that anxiety in motherhood is too much to handle alone. We are made stronger by using tools on our journey, not weaker.
If you need to talk to a fellow mom friend, a mentor, or a spiritual director, reach out. If you struggle to understand why you are feeling anxious on a regular basis, talking to a professional can help. There is no shame in this!
Giving yourself the love you deserve to live a happier life, especially when it helps your loved ones too, demonstrates maturity and strength of character.
Whether it’s brought on by anxiety, depression or any number of mental afflictions, the fight or flight mentality can feel so crippling. Know that you are not alone, and that it takes strength and patience to rewire your brain. You can take pride in knowing that you are setting a good example for your children by showing them how to regulate and properly handle the scary, big emotions that we all face some time or another.
I am not an expert on the subject of anxiety, but I have learned so much over the past year about something that used to be a taxing strain on my journey as a mother.
While I can’t change the past, I look forward to finally taking off the gloves and enjoying a calmer future, taking my time to respond to setbacks and reassuring myself everything will be okay. Now when the milk runs out, I take a deep breath and move on. Making a LEGO dragon with my son is more fun anyways.