As I stood in the play centre, I had one eye on my toddler who was furiously attempting to climb up a slide meant for much older kids, while also trying to concentrate on the conversation I was having with another Mum. I could feel my pulse start to quicken. While I knew I was in a conversation, the words were starting to sound muffled and I could not concentrate on what the other Mum was saying. The deafening noise of the play centre started to buzz and I tried to take some long deep breaths in to calm down, while simultaneously keep the conversation going and being poised to chase my son.
This is what the onset of an anxiety attack feels like.
Motherhood is a dizzying journey of highs and lows. Of poop and pumpkin puree being smeared across walls. I have no doubt that I am an excellent Mum. I have always wanted to have babies, and I have a well developed maternal side.
But I also have anxiety.
My anxiety is not the completely debilitating type that I know some others suffers from. I am generally a happy person. I am organised and able to get shit done, as I know it simply has to get done. But the anxiety is there, however I manage it, and it has made motherhood that little bit more difficult at times.
Anxiety is a mental health disorder characterised by feelings of worry, anxiety or fear that are strong enough to interfere with one’s daily activities.
I have always chosen not to really publicise my anxiety. Only those closest to me know that I have it. Only my husband knows the extent to which I sometimes suffer. I don’t talk about it much because, to be absolutely honest, I am ashamed. I feel that as a happily married mother with a beautiful family, a stable home and good health, I don’t deserve to complain.
But I think that part of managing anxiety is to be open and honest with my feelings. The more we shut down and shut off, the worse it can be. We feel comfortable to talk about suffering from a cold or the flu or a physical ailment. But we don’t feel comfortable talking about our mental health issues. Mental health can affect anyone and we shouldn’t have to apologise for it or hide from it. According to Beyond Blue, anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. On average, one in four people will experience anxiety at some stage in their life. That is a lot of people suffering, often in silence.
For me, it is the little things I have anxiety about, the things that may seem really insignificant to others. I am perfectly comfortable at the prospect of being completely in charge of a tiny human. As a Mum, I am usually calm and in control.
Instead I stress about things like driving him to his doctor’s appointments, socialising with other parents, loud play centres and small chaotic environments. I give off a pretty good exterior of being confident, but truthfully, meeting new people and being in a setting where I feel out of control completely exhausts me. I use humour as a shield to try and mask this. Even having a play date with a close friend can sometimes cause anxiety, as I go away second guessing my response to conversations, worried about offending or saying the wrong thing.
Anxiety for me manifests itself physically. It is a quickening of breath, my chest tightens, I get hot and flustered and I feel like I am floating away from my body. If I am engaged in a conversation I can look at the person and talk. But I can’t really take in their words or process exactly what they are saying. If I am being given an instruction on how to do something, I try to listen but it is almost like they are speaking through a wall and it is muffled. Particularly when I am in a group setting, and my toddler is around demanding my attention, I feel panicked that I am not giving my full attention to either my friend or my son. It can be described as a panic disorder.
A psychologist I saw described this type of anxiety as catastrophising scenarios to the point where your body enters fight or flight mode. You have the same physical and mental symptoms that you would have had back in the stone ages being attacked by a pterodactyl. It is not a voluntary reaction, your body exhibits these symptoms naturally. This realisation did bring me some peace, as previously I just thought that I was crazy to be honest.
So what do I do to manage it? I will share with you a few ways that I cope, with the hope that if anxiety affects you too, they may help.
- Try to exercise as regularly as possible
It is no secret that exercise releases endorphins which make you feel happy. Easier said than done when you are a busy mumma bear. But I HAVE to exercise. I take my son for a walk in the pram every single day. He may resist it the older he gets, but it is my meditation time. I used to walk for two to three hours. Now I allow myself thirty minutes. I also try to go to bootcamp a couple of days a week. Just try out different ways to squeeze exercise into everyday life. It really helps.
- Take time to yourself when you can
I was a woman in my own right before I became a mum. Now I feel like a mum first and a woman second. The loss of identity can be very upsetting at times. It has been a struggle, but I have forced myself slowly over time to take back my identity. Now that my son doesn’t need me so much for breastfeeding, I try to let my support network care for him while I do some of the things I used to love. Go get a facial, go to bootcamp, catch up with a close friend or just go somewhere COMPLETELY ALONE. The sense of freedom is amazing. Of course, the mum guilt sometimes kicks in, but I have to remind myself that when I take the time to enjoy things on my own, I am a much better mum when I am back.
- Live in the moment
I can get quite stressed and overwhelmed by how busy mum life can be. The endless routine of play, feed, sleep, housework, cooking, feed, sleep, calm tears and repeat, can just takeover sometimes. When I am bouncing from task to task and trying to stay on top of everything, because I feel that I need to be this ‘perfect’ mum, that is when I tend to meltdown. But when I take a step back, sit down and play with my son for an hour straight without interruption and let my husband help me, I tend to be a lot calmer. I implemented a rule that I will be in the moment with my son, without checking my phone, running to hang up washing or put on dinner, just give him my undivided attention for one hour every single day. It centres me.
This is something that I used to do very often but I admit, I don’t do as much anymore. I use my walking as meditation time. But I used to meditate using the app Headspace, and it was seriously incredible. Just a few minutes of meditation a day using this app, has a lot of benefits to managing stress and anxiety.
- Plan Ahead
When I am entering a social setting, particularly at my own home where I am having people over, I plan ahead of time. Days before my guests arrive I write a list of everything I need to get done ahead of time. That way I can check it off and I don’t feel so overwhelmed when they arrive. I minimise what I need to do when everyone is there, so I can really try and focus on a conversation and not be flitting between tasks. Even with the planning, once I am out of the social setting, I am completely exhausted. I have a headache and I need to go to bed. But without planning, it is even worse.
If you need help with coping with anxiety in day to day life, you can contact Beyond Blue and ask for help. Nobody should feel alone or ashamed and it is manageable with proper support. Parenting is challenging at the best of times without remembering to take care of yourself, so that you are not suffering alone.
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P.S. If you enjoyed reading this article you may also like to read An Open Letter to my Mum Friends