Generalized anxiety isn’t often talked about, and we often even trivialize anxiety by laughing at our ‘quirks’. But anxiety isn’t quirky; it’s life for many moms. Battling high-functioning anxiety day-to-day as a mom can seem like a never-ending-cycle.
Many people don’t even know they have anxiety until they are older. In fact, generalized anxiety disorder can appear in childhood up through middle age but many people don’t even know they have GAD until they are in their 30’s or 40’s. And for those with high-functioning anxiety, it can be even more difficult to pinpoint the disorder since their anxiety often fuels their productivity and much of their daily life into what society sees as being a good thing. Some of these societal views include high productivity, “clean freak,” high achiever, and, in terms of motherhood, being a super mom. In an article on health.com, Carmen Tebbe Priebe, PhD, a sports psychologist with the University of Iowa in Iowa City states that, “There are times that anxiety is very motivating, very facilitating. It makes people work hard, so it can seem as if they’re functioning well, but they’re not [always] disclosing everything that’s happening.”
High-functioning society isn’t an actual diagnosis, but it has become a common nomenclature for many people who recognize that their anxiety disorder displays itself differently than those who have characteristic panic attacks or where the anxiety disorder disruptes their every day life. Debra Kissen, PhD, co-chair of the public education committee for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America explains that high-functioning anxiety is just a way for some people to cope with the daily stressors of anxiety. “Many people are walking around with extremely high levels of anxiety that are near meeting the criteria for anxiety disorders, but they’re white-knuckling their way through it. They’re still waking up. They’re still getting themselves to work.”
High-functioning anxiety is characterized in the following ways according to Bridges to Recovery:
- Feelings of worry and anxiety that ruin attempts to relax, or that appear even when things seem to be going well
- Perfectionismand feelings of constant dissatisfaction with performance
- Workaholism, or a need to keep moving or doing even when at home
- Overthinking and overanalyzing everything, and frequent second-guessing after choices are made
- Discomfort with emotional expression, unwillingness to discuss true feelings
- Frequent anticipatory anxiety before a wide range of events or encounters
- Obsession with fears of failure or of the negative judgments of others
- Superstitions (the need to repeat certain behaviors or patterns over and over to stave off disaster)
- Periodic insomnia, inconsistent sleeping habits
- Irritability and quickness to become frustrated or discouraged in the face of setbacks
- Difficulty saying no, no matter how time-consuming, inconvenient, or complicated the request
- A false sunny disposition: secret pessimism that conflicts with public expressions of optimism
- A range of unconscious nervous habits (fingernail biting, hair pulling or twisting, idle scratching, lip chewing, knuckle cracking, etc.)
With this in mind, it is easy to see why many people, especially moms do not even realize they have anxiety. Especially in today’s society of modern parenting where mothers are often the primary caregiver with little to no “village” to help throughout the day, it is easy to see why many people stay mislabel anxiety with the daily stressors of parenthood. Of course, there are things about your child or children that will stress you out, make you frustrated, and make you feel overwhelmed. But the difference between someone with a generalized anxiety disorder and a regular parent who is having a hard day with their child is that the frustration and stress seemingly come from out of nowhere. Every little set-back makes you lose your cool, and you can’t calm down from it with a few minute break away from the kids.
We dug back to our archives to pull out this powerful, inspiring piece on anxiety.
“I don’t want to!” my youngest yells when I tell him it’s time to have a shower.
He’s resisted nearly everything today, from hanging up his coat properly in the front hall to cleaning up the mess on his bedroom floor. He’s having an off day. It happens.
The problem is so am I.
I am a mother with an anxiety disorder, and today is definitely not a good day.
My therapist has me rate my anxiety level on a scale from 1 to 10. Today, it’s sitting at a solid 7, which means I’m on edge. I can’t pin down a specific reason for it to be this high; I just woke up like this. Sure, my son’s attitude isn’t helping, but it’s certainly not the cause. There is no cause.
But that’s the thing about an anxiety disorder; it doesn’t always play by my rules. I can be having a perfectly good week of 3’s or 4’s, only to get slammed with a surprise 9 on the panic scale and have my foundation shaken to the core.
I have what is known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, which affects just over 3% of the population. Women are twice as likely to be affected by it than men.
However, that’s only one type of anxiety. Others include Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a host of others.
If you add them all together, people with anxiety disorders make up 18% of the adult population at any given time. That’s a sizeable number. Some of the risk factors associated with developing an anxiety disorder include genetic predisposition, life events, personality, and brain chemistry.
While everyone has some degree of anxiety, those of us with disorders have an overwhelming amount that can seep into our daily lives, making everything harder, from careers to relationships.
But what I have the hardest time with is how deeply anxiety can affect my parenting.
There was a time before my diagnosis when I felt like a terrible mom. My moods were out of control. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
While I certainly subscribe to gentle parenting practices as a general rule, there were many days when I found myself going from zero to screaming in no time flat. My heart rate would elevate, my body would flood with adrenaline, and mommy would lose it over something fairly innocuous, like crumbs on the couch.
I mean, really. If you’re yelling over couch crumbs, there are bigger issues afoot.
I’m not proud of those moments. But when you’re sitting at a constant 7 or 8 on the panic scale, it doesn’t take much to push it up to a 9 or 10. My family and I were held hostage by my unpredictable mood swings. What was mom going to be like that day? How quickly would that change?
I was eroding emotionally. I felt like I was failing the most important people in my life.
Joy seeped away, and I lost interest in a lot of the things I used to love. Special moments became grey ones, clouded over by worry and hopelessness. I began to get depressed — not an uncommon problem for anxiety sufferers.
And then one day, I stumbled upon an article by a woman whose experiences reflected my own. She, too, had felt hopelessly lost in worry. She, too, was a mom who believed she was failing her family. But by getting the right help, she was able to reclaim her life and be the mom she wanted to be for her children.
Thankfully, anxiety is very treatable. And for many people, myself included, we need to take a multifaceted approach to treating it.
I began seeing a therapist and doing something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which helps me catch and reshape my automatic thoughts — in theory, before they impact my feelings. My therapist has also taught me meditation techniques I can employ anytime, in any situation. Retraining my brain has been challenging, but incredibly helpful.
Exercise, too, is a great anxiety-buster. I now go running, do circuit training and have a daily yoga routine. While I used to unwittingly use food to cope with my stress, I now know nothing grounds me faster than a pair of headphones and a solid jog through the park.
Good sleep is paramount to my mental health. Granted, anxiety can be a total sleep killer. And good rest is definitely trickier with little ones. But I found co-sleeping helped me get as much uninterrupted snooze time as possible when my children were small.
Good nutrition plays a role, too. I eat a diet rich in protein and fiber, which allows for a longer, slower energy burn, rather than the highs and lows brought on by simple carbohydrates. And while I still enjoy coffee, I’ve cut way back. (Most of what I drink now is decaf, but don’t tell anyone. I have an image to maintain)
I stay connected to good friends. There are a handful of people in my circle who I can reach out to and say, “hey, I’m having a high anxiety day.” Just being able to voice it is empowering, and talking my worries out with someone who cares often helps put things in focus again.
And please don’t discount medication. It is a valid, necessary option for some people. I haven’t had to go that route, but I know folks who do everything I do and still need medication to manage their disorder. There is no shame in that. We do what we need to do to get healthy and stay that way.
I am still a mom with an anxiety disorder. I doubt that will ever change. But my high-anxiety days are fewer and farther between. I now recognize potentially bad days or moments much faster, and I’m usually able to employ the tools at my disposal to bring my anxiety down to more reasonable levels.
So, despite being at a hefty 7 today, I’m not yelling back at my hygiene-resistant son.
I’m catching my panicky automatic thoughts, calming down, and maybe mapping out a future run in my head.
I’m glancing down at the tattoo I have on my wrist, my permanent reminder not to let anxiety take over this time: Breathe. Now, shine.
And it’s working.
Today I am the woman telling her story in the hopes of helping others. Anxiety is a healthy human emotion. But if yours is overwhelming and taking over your life, please know it not your fault and you are not alone. There is help, there is hope, and you can reclaim your life.
You’ve got this.
Image credit: “Breathe. Now, shine.” by Amanda Jetté Knox