Have you ever seen a baby’s startle reflex? A young baby can be laying comfortably on a play mat or changing table cooing and smiling in happiness when suddenly, without warning, their eyes go wide and their arms jut out to the sides because they feel like they’re falling. In reality, the baby is totally safe but in that instant their reflex says otherwise and their entire body reacts in an uncontrollable action.
This is how I feel when a bout of anxiety passes through me – in one moment I can be peaceful, happy, and upbeat. Then suddenly a wave of darkness passes over me as I combat the demons in my head that warn of the “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios.
In reality, I think I’ve always struggled with some level of anxiety. However, only in the last few years, particularly since becoming a mom, has the anxiety become elevated. Anxiety is a nasty beast. It creates terrible scenarios in my head that are highly unlikely but just as highly alarming to think about. It creates questioning, self-doubt and fear.
At breakfast with a few new mommy friends last week one of them asked “When does the ‘what if’ reflex and worrying over everything subside?”
My answer was simple. It doesn’t. As a mom, I feel like there’s always some degree of worry in my head. If it’s not worry over a potential hazard in front of my kids, it’s over an image created by my overactive imagination suggesting a worst-case scenario. Sometimes I worry when my kids are with me. Other times, I worry when my kids are away from me. I worry about something happening to them; I worry about something happening to me or my husband resulting in them being without us. It’s exhausting and overwhelming.
Recently I’ve been trying to find ways to combat the anxiety and the innumerable “what ifs” that sneak into my thoughts. Being a parent is hard. It’s hard to be entirely responsible for someone else. It’s hard to know when to hold tight to keep the children safe, and when to loosen the grip just enough that they can stumble and get up again.
Months ago, before my oldest daughter was scheduled to get her tonsils out and I was feeling nervous about the surgery, a friend told me to close the door on anxiety – every time it knocks at the door of my thoughts, do not invite it in but rather turn it away before it can poison my thoughts. This has been an important and effective technique.
Lately I’ve been trying to find the silver lining in the moments of anxiety. Trying to flip the anxiety from being something negative to something positive has been an incredible exercise. While these moments could easily be debilitating, they can also be empowering. They can be a reminder that I care and that I am protecting my children by not allowing those potential hazards to come to fruition. And, if by chance they do, I’ve mentally prepared for them so I can react in the moment. This is a powerful process.
In my experience, the what ifs and worry doesn’t seem to go away (at least, not yet). But I am trying to use the anxiety to make a choice — I can either keep those thoughts under control, or let them control me. Making the choice to maintain control over my thoughts is not always easy, but the more I can exercise that muscle the more practiced I will be. This will be an important skill on this journey of parenthood. And, if nothing else, I have a sense that these exercises will come in particularly handy when my girls start dating and driving…oy.