Being a mom is hands down the hardest job you’ll ever have but for some moms who also struggle with anxiety, depression or another form of mental illness, parenting is that much tougher. As a mom with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), I live with that struggle every day.
I’ve had anxiety since childhood, but shortly after I graduated from college, I saw a therapist who finally put a name to the constant worry about everything and anything that I was experiencing.
Writing about my challenges as a mom with generalized anxiety disorder is not easy because let’s face it: there is still a huge stigma around mental illness.
Yet the truth is that although being a mom with generalized anxiety disorder makes life challenging, it hasn’t held me back in life. I have a thriving writing business, a loving family and supportive friends. GAD doesn’t make a person weak (quite the opposite) and it’s not a character flaw, so if you are a mom who struggles with GAD, I want you to know, there is hope.
What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
GAD is a type of anxiety disorder that’s marked by constant, excessive worry around just about anything: health, work, family, and finances. GAD puts a negative lens on your outlook on life and causes you to anticipate the worst about things that are happening or could happen, whether they’re likely to or not.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 6.8 million adults have GAD but women are twice as likely to be affected.
For me, when I wake up in the morning, I do my best to pray and be still, but my heart and my brain are always off to the races.
I think about the what-ifs and the how-will-Is and the when-will-Is and the what-if-I- dos and what-if-I-don’ts.
As I try to plan and feel in control of my life, the worry ramps up that much more and everything feels even more out of control.
But it doesn’t only happen in the morning. It continues throughout the day and into the night until I finally fall asleep.
When it comes to work, GAD has its benefits and its drawbacks. As a health journalist, I think it has helped me track down stories, stay organized and make all of the deadlines.
But as you can imagine, writing about health all day can also cause my anxiety to ramp up and make me think, what if I have that condition too?
I also often worry about making deadlines and getting all the work done—even when there’s no reason to worry.
These thoughts can take over so quickly that one minute you’re feeling fine and the next you’re not. For example, earlier this year when my provider said I was anemic and suggested I see a specialist, I headed to Google and I diagnosed myself: cancer!
As a mom with generalized anxiety disorder, it’s also no surprise that I often worry about my kids, but probably more than a mom without the disorder.
For example, my kids are in elementary school but when I check on them at night, I still check to make sure they’re breathing. When one of them gets a cold or has a stomachache, I worry that it’s something more serious.
When my husband takes my daughters out to run an errand, I make sure to give them hugs and kisses and then start to worry, what if they all die in a car accident?
And if my husband says he’ll be home by 7pm, and it’s 7:05, I immediately think he’s been in a car accident too.
Money is another hot button issue when you have GAD. Although we’re fortunate and can pay our bills and save, I worry that one or both of us will lose our jobs, not be able to pay the bills and go into debt.
Another way being a mom with generalized anxiety affects my life is that I feel overwhelmed by every responsibility big or small: cooking, cleaning, Target runs, the kids’ homework, their doctor’s appointments, parent-teacher conferences and meetings, paying the bills, sending in health insurance claims. The list goes on and on.
GAD can also make me irritable. When my kids act silly, run around the house, have a meltdown or shriek with happiness because their dad is tickling them, it feels like fingernails on a chalkboard.
It all sounds completely irrational—because it is—but getting yourself out of the worry cycle is tough. People can tell me “be positive,” “relax” or “stop worrying,” but if it were that easy, then no one would have GAD.
GAD Symptoms and Signs
If you experience anxiety from time to time or around a certain life stressor, you know what it feels like. But for people with GAD, they find it hard to control the anxiety, and experience 3 or more of the following symptoms for 6 months or longer:
- Feeling nervous, irritable, restless, or on edge
- Being easily fatigued, feeling weak or lightheaded
- Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
- Muscle aches and tension, headaches, stomach aches and other pain
- Problems falling or staying asleep
- Having a sense of impending doom, danger or panic
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing, sweating and/or trembling
- Feeling easily startled
GAD causes and risk factors
It’s unclear what causes GAD but experts say biological processes and the brain play a role as well as:
Genetics: GAD runs in some families.
Personality: people who are negative or apprehensive and avoid danger may be more likely to have GAD.
Life experiences: significant life changes, stressful or negative experiences, and trauma may all contribute.
People with GAD are also more likely to be diagnosed with other mental health disorders including:
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts or suicide
When it comes to effective treatments for generalized anxiety disorder, there are several options.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): a type of therapy that helps you to identify, understand, challenge and change irrational thoughts and behaviors.
CBT has been very helpful for me through the years. You can find a trained therapist but I also recommend “The Feeling Good Handbook,” by David D. Burns.
Medication: there are several types of medications that doctors prescribe for GAD including antidepressants, benzodiazepines and buspirone, an anti-anxiety medication.
Before you take medication, I recommend you ask your doctor to run a genetic test to determine which ones are right for you.
While medication does help some people, it didn’t for me. I also don’t believe they’re as effective as doctors and the pharmaceutical industry pegs them out to be.
Deep breathing exercises and techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, where you tense every part of your body and then release, can help ease anxiety.
Mindfulness meditation, a practice that focuses on breathing, mind-body relaxation, and accepting your feelings and thoughts, has become mainstream and may help those with GAD. In fact, a March 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests 30 minutes a day of meditation may improve symptoms of anxiety and stress.
How I cope with being a mom with generalized anxiety disorder
Although GAD is a daily struggle for me, there are several ways I’ve found through the years that help me cope.
In my 20’s, when I ate a lot of processed foods and ate out a lot, my anxiety was much worse. Today, I eat a mostly whole foods diet that consists of fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources including many plant-based foods, whole grains, and healthy fats. I also work with a naturopath who has prescribed supplements to correct nutritional deficiencies and help ease anxiety.
Whether it’s running, lifting weights or taking my favorite BODYCOMBAT class, sweating it out at the gym 5 to 6 days a week is a must to help me cope with GAD.
Get enough sleep
Sleep was definitely hard to come by when my daughters were babies—and even for years afterwards when they would wake up during the night. But now I try my best to prioritize sleep and get 7 to 8 hours because when I don’t get enough, it really affects my mood.
Every month, my daughters and I volunteer at a local non-profit organization where we “shop” for and deliver groceries to families in need. Not only does it help others and teach my kids how fortunate they are, but it helps me put things in perspective when I’m in a negative rut.
And science actually backs this up. According to a September 2017 study in the Journal of Clinical Pyschology, people who had anxiety and/or depression and focused on “compassionate goals,” or striving to help others and avoid selfish behavior, was associated with lower levels of symptoms and less relationship conflict.
The old adage laughter is the best medicine is important when you have GAD because it helps you change your perspective. For me, it can be watching a funny show, or videos of Kristina Kuzmic or Cat and Nat. Most of the time however, it’s my husband who makes me laugh about anything and everything—sometimes so hard I can’t breathe!
When life gets stressful, my anxiety ramps up. Although it’s really hard to relax when you’re a mom with generalized anxiety disorder, I try to carve out time at night or on the weekends to sit, read and relax.
Last, but certainly not least, my faith in God has been a tremendous source of strength in my life. When worry and anxiety consume me, I turn to the Lord, pray and ask for his strength. By His grace, he helps me through.