How Mindfulness Helps Me as a Mom Living With Anxiety
Spoiler alert, I have anxiety.
My husband and I were recently enjoying a date night at a small local bar when, for whatever reason, a wash of anxiety suddenly came over me. He looked at my face and knew something wasn’t right. My heart started pounding, my body temperature started rising, my breathing became shallow, and I scanned the room for signs of danger (a shady character, a fire hazard, a blocked exit). Then I recognized this panic attack for what it was, and in my head I said, “Oh, hello anxiety. I know it’s you again.”
Along with my chiropractor, PCP, neurologist, transplant docs and nurses, and acupuncturist, a psychiatric nurse practitioner is part of my health care team. I have a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and have tried a dozen prescription medications, a dozen more supplements, and numerous alternative medicine techniques, but my anxiety is not going anywhere. And I’m not alone.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18 percent of the population.”
That’s a lot of people. Maybe like me, you are one of them. Or maybe you know someone living with anxiety.
Anxiety Feels Like…
For me, anxiety produces the same feeling as unexpectedly running into an old fling or an ex-friend. Do you know that feeling? Even though you are not involved with that person anymore, seeing him or her is like a ton of bricks hit you in the chest. That’s what a panic attack feels like to me. My anxiety is like the ongoing fear of running into that person, having a confrontation (or not having one!), second guessing everything that happened, and expecting something terrible to occur as a result. The irrationality is that in this metaphor, the ex now lives in Siberia and the likelihood of a chance run-in is tiny.
Mindfulness and Anxiety
A few weeks ago, I had an Aha! moment when I realized (while talking to my NP) that yes, I still have anxiety, but I now can recognize it as anxiety. Recognizing when my thoughts are anxiety-driven takes away some of their power. Being able to identify a wave of panic for what it is makes it less scary. In the best times, I can catch my anxious thoughts before they start to spiral. It is still super hard (and not so fun), but at least I can give irrational thoughts a name when they show up. The mindfulness I’ve been “practicing” for years seems like it finally has made a difference in my mental health. I have focused on mindfulness as the key to my sitting meditation ritual and have used mindfulness to examine physical symptoms in my body for years. Now I’m starting to use mindfulness to notice when my thoughts are anxiety-driven rather than reality-based.
When Mommy Has Anxiety
It’s one thing to have a panic attack when I’m out with my husband, and a completely different thing to battle constant anxiety or a encounter a panic attack when I’m with my kids. What’s a mommy to do? I breathe. Notice how it feels to squint my eyes tightly. I pray. Listen to the sounds around me. I put on sunglasses. Ask Alexa to tell us a joke. I randomly break into Pilates (another reason I always don athleisure wear). Breathe again. And I call out the anxiety or panic for exactly what it is. In the best times, my mindfulness helps me to notice my anxiety like I notice that my daughter needs to blow her nose. Hopefully it is in that order. In the worst times I put on the Beatles, text one of my closest friends, have a cry under my sunglasses, make avocado pudding, and bring the kids to the library.
When you fly, you put your own mask on first. As someone who has anxiety, I learn to recognize my own anxiety first, and then I can move on to mommy duties. I try to avoid triggers I know will make me anxious, but that simply is not always possible. I am not a mental health practitioner, but I can tell that my anxiety isn’t going anywhere despite my attempts to evict it. Instead of fearing anxiety as the ex that I should fear seeing on campus, I try to accept that if I can notice my anxiety first, then I can give a requisite head nod and keep walking. And that feels OK.
Follow this journey on Mom Seeking Balance.
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Thinkstock image by TakakoWatanabe