Oh, Anxious Mom Brain. If you’re a mom with anxiety, you probably know what I’m talking about without me elaborating much.
It’s that voice inside your head that likes to give you a minute-by-minute mental playback of every possible, horrible thing that might happen in any given situation. It’s a Worst Case Scenario remote control with the volume turned alllllll the way up.
You’ll be merrily minding your own business, carrying on with life as normal, when BAM! Anxious Mom Brain hits and suddenly, what was a normal trip to the store, bath time with the kids, or merely writing a work email, turns into something god-awful and gut-sinking.
You might feel it physically like a pressure on your chest, as if someone is sitting on top of you or squeezing your lungs. Or maybe it hits you in the stomach like a leaded weight. Whatever it feels like, it doesn’t feel good, that’s for sure.
It might register as worry thoughts and endless questions and “what-ifs” that play and re-play through your mind, relentlessly.
“Did I remember to pay that bill?”
“Is my friend mad at me?”
“Do my kids think I’m a horrible mother?”
“Is my boss going to fire me?”
Why, oh, why does our brain do this to us??
Well, before we talk about what to “do” about anxiety, I think it’s helpful to understand more about why we have anxiety in the first place. Interestingly enough, there’s actually a function to these kinds of thoughts!
When I say that anxiety has a function, what I mean is that our mind isn’t trying to hurt us when we experience anxious thoughts; it’s actually trying to be helpful. Anxiety is a tool that the human brain has evolved as a way to help keep us safe. Russ Harris does a great job of explaining this in some short, fun videos that I highly recommend checking out.
It’s also important to be clear that, If you’re like most people, there have probably been legit situations and circumstances in your life where you weren’t safe, so let’s be up front about that right off the bat. You’re not “crazy” for thinking bad things might happen-especially if you’ve been on the receiving end of bad things happening before!
But how does anxiety help with keeping us safe? Let’s imagine an everyday scenario where we can see this play out. If you need to cross a busy street, for example, what do you do? You probably look both ways and take stock of your environment before crossing. Why? Because your brain sets off an alert (anxiety) that says, “DANGER!” and reminds you to check for cars before you cross. Without that signal, well, we can imagine what might happen (thanks, brain!).
Where things get tricky is when this internal safety system goes haywire and starts sending out signals ALL.THE.TIME., perceiving danger when it’s not helpful. When this happens it can leave you feeling paralyzed by fear and makes enjoying life pretty hard. Those are the moments when we feel stuck and hopeless because our mind can be a pretty scary place to live and yet…it’s not going anywhere.
The good news is that there are tools that can help us feel less distress about these worry thoughts. Here’s three of my favorites that I share with my clients:
01. Make friends with your anxiety.
Okay, okay. I know you’re probably rolling your eyes right away with this one, but give me a chance to explain!
If we understand that anxiety is our brain’s way of trying to keep us safe rather than a menace to be banished from existence, we have an opportunity to change the way we interpret our anxiety and how we respond to it.
Making friends with anxiety doesn’t mean we have to like everything about it and it doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to have around all the time. I didn’t say you had to be BEST friends with your anxiety. But maybe it means noticing how it’s trying to help you, even when it doesn’t feel helpful. Sometimes I will straight up name my anxiety and say, “Oh hi there anxiety (or call it whatever you want-something silly sometimes works). I see you. Thanks, but no thanks right now. I’ve got this situation covered.”
When we stop trying to battle with ourselves and our thoughts, a lot of the struggle and suffering shifts. It’s not a magic wand-the stressors are still there, but we can practice letting go of judgments and self-blame for having the anxiety to begin with.
02. Notice your thoughts as thoughts, not facts.
Our brain likes things nice and tidy so we often think thoughts as absolutes (always/never, all/nothing, black/white). So, “Is my boss going to fire me?” often sounds more like, “My boss IS going to fire me,” in our mind. What this means is that we are creating (and believing) thoughts as statements of fact when, in reality, the thought is merely a possibility, and may or may not be true.
Notice the difference between these two statements:
“My boss is going to fire me.”
“I notice I’m having the thought that my boss is going to fire me.”
One is a statement of fact. “My boss is most definitely, 100%, without a doubt, going to fire me.” The other acknowledges the thought without making it an absolute truth.
When we notice our thoughts as thoughts it loosens the grip they hold on us and frees us up to get curious and ask ourselves what other (less terrifying) possibilities might exist.
03. Ground yourself in the here and now.
Do you notice how anxious thoughts are often about something that we anticipate happening in the future, or are ruminating on from the past? Anxiety is rarely a here-and-now kind of thing. If we go back to remembering that anxiety’s purpose is to help us stay safe, this makes sense. We need to anticipate what might happen so we feel prepared for it. While that’s all well and good in many situations, if we spend a lot of time future-or-past-oriented, what are we missing out on now?
A helpful tool to reestablish yourself in the present moment is to use your five senses and name things you can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. Don’t overthink it, just name stuff. Try it now. I’ll do it with you.
- I can see my desk, laptop, ear buds, water bottle, and lamp.
- I can touch my chair, keyboard, and the floor.
- I can hear my dogs, my washing machine, and the air conditioning.
- I can smell my essential oils in the diffuser.
- I can taste my Coke Zero (love that stuff-the lifeblood of champions!).
If anxiety is stealing the joy from your life, try these tips and let me know if they are helpful! You don’t need to suffer with anxiety; reach out to schedule an appointment and get support if you’re ready for professional help. It’s also important to know that anxiety can be heightened during the perinatal time (pregnancy and postpartum period). Knowing the symptoms and getting help can make all the difference!