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Our Worried Minds: Anxiety and Motherhood

We worry. We worry about the bills we have to pay. About whether our kids are talking soon enough. About who will be elected president and whether or not we should order dessert.

For some of us, the day-to-day worries that crowd our minds take on the character of monsters, seizing control and paralyzing us against other action. Nearly 20 percent of Americans suffers from an anxiety disorder. Xanax is the leading psychiatric medication in the country, with over 46 million prescriptions written each year.

Are we an anxious generation? Or simply a better medicated one? The New York Times explored this question recently in an interesting essay about the history of anxiety.

The gist: we have it a lot better than past generations. We lived pretty much safe from plagues, starvation and wars, here in the U.S. Yet we worry. What is up with that?

Parents especially worry. We pride ourselves on our busy lives, our worried minds. As author Christine Carter wrote for Psychology Today, busyness has become one of the hallmarks of motherhood. She writes:

Ask a mother how she is, and 99.9% of the time she’ll answer: I am so busy. “We say this to one another with no small degree of pride,” writes Wayne Muller in his treatise on rest, “as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a real mark of character. The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others.”

What does all that busyness earn us? Anxiety. Carter points to research showing that eliminating play and rest from a day can cause major anxiety symptoms in just 48 hours. Parents, especially new moms, work like this all the time. We wipe ourselves out and then our brains are left flailing with anxiety and depression we can’t manage on our own.

That’s the theory anyway. Here’s another: maybe pathological anxiety, like depression, is just fairly common. An affliction like the mental equivalent of a common cold, that will affect most of us at some point and a few people to a crippling degree. Maybe lifestyle choices and changes can help ward against it.

But it seems crazy-making (and probably not true) to blame mothers for their fragile mental states on top of everything else. Feeling anxious? Probably you’re causing that, just slow down and everything will be fine. Didn’t work? Well, you’re still doing it wrong. Not exactly a helpful message.

What does help then?

In her Psychology Today essay, Christine Carter challenges mothers to steal back some time for themselves by committing to getting rest and play, even if it costs them some productivity. I think we need both more and less then that to deal with the mountains of worry that haunt our parenting.

We need more social support from our governments, workplaces and communities. We need real family friendly policies that will help new families absorb the impact of a new person coming into their lives and depending on them for everything under the sun.

We also need to worry less about worry. As the NYT puts it:

we shouldn’t be possessive about our uncertainties, particularly as one of the dominant features of anxiety is its recursiveness. Anxiety begins with a single worry, and the more you concentrate on that worry, the more powerful it gets, and the more you worry. One of the best things you can do is learn to let go: to disempower the worry altogether.

For me, the main thing that helps me learn to let go and live with worry, sadness and my restless mind is meditation. Sitting for just a few minutes can clear my mind; a longer session has lasting impact on my ability to concentrate and relax.

What helps you deal with anxiety?

Photo: Vinni123

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