Anxiety and I have been buddies for a very long time. When I was in kindergarten, my parents enrolled me in “Capable Kids,” a program for anxious kids, after my kindergarten teacher told them that I was so afraid of doing things incorrectly that I was basically sitting there doing nothing at all during the day. I remember sitting in a small group one evening a week, working through a purple workbook, talking about things that worried us (I still remember the redhead boy who was terrified of spiders), and then having a snack at the end. I’m sure we did meaningful work during those sessions, but I don’t remember much of that.
I do however remember one thing: a breathing exercise that we were taught to help us calm down when our worry got too big. We were taught to lay down, close our eyes, and imagine there were holes in our feet. We would take a deep breath in through those holes, filling us all the way up with air, and then exhale through our mouths, blowing all of our worries out. I remember that exercise because I used it for years. It was basically my only anxiety busting tool, other than medication, for quite some time. Then I got older, began studying psychology, got into therapy, and learned so many more ways to both keep my anxiety at a manageable level and work through times when it spiked up.
I felt pretty competent when it came to managing my anxiety. Then came kids. Suddenly not only did my anxiety reach never before seen levels, but I couldn’t just put my screaming infant down to go do my laying down breathing through the holes in my feet thing. I couldn’t meditate for 15 minutes daily. I couldn’t exercise regularly. I couldn’t eat balanced, nourishing meals three times a day every day. All of those tools I had? Yeah, not so useful anymore.
Not only was I left with tons of anxiety and no workable tools, but I now had a heaping dose of helplessness on top of it. I’d worked so hard to find the things that worked for my anxiety. It had taken me a looooong time to find them! What was I supposed to do now?
For a while I flailed. I let the anxiety overtake me, too tired to even believe there was anything to do about it. And then I got even more tired. And my husband noticed. And my family noticed. And it was time to get back on track.
I began by revisiting the things that used to work for me, but with a mindset shift. Instead of thinking of each one and all of the ways it was now totally incompatible with my new reality, I decided to approach it from a place of “you have to find a way to make this work, even if that means making it look like something really different. It HAS to work.”
I wish I could say that the mindset shift was all that I needed and voila, coping skills restored! But no, it wasn’t that easy. But the mindset shift was key in opening me up to the possibility that somethingcould work. It took me a while, and lots of trial and error, but I did find a good handful of things that worked both with my anxiety and with my life as a new mom. I’ve continued to adapt these strategies as my kids get older and need more or less of me in certain moments. If you’d like to grab my list, including customizations depending on the age of your kids, you can download it here:
These skills fall into three categories: breathing, movement, and mindset.
Short, discreet breathing exercises are my favorite anxiety coping skills for moms. You can do them anywhere, anytime. 4-7-8-4 breathing is my usual go-to (details are in the downloadable list above). Even my holes in the feet exercise works well with a minor tweak. I now picture the air coming in through the tips of my toes instead of the bottom of my feet. This allows me to do the exercise while sitting or standing, rather than having to lie down. (Yes, I realize this now seems like a very obvious adjustment, but believe me at the time when I was in the thick of new mom life, nothing was obvious.) When my kids were babies, I would just do the breathing exercises on my own. As they got older, I started including them – it’s never too early to teach them how to do some self-regulation!
Movement can be a little trickier once kids are in the picture. Of course, putting baby into a carrier or stroller and heading out for a walk is an ideal way to still have access to movement, but what about those times that the weather isn’t kid friendly, or the anxiety strikes while baby is sleeping? Those are the times to either head to the stairs and some body-weight strength circuits (if your anxiety responds best to intense activity) or fire up YouTube for a quick at-home yoga practice (if your anxiety needs a gentler approach).
Mindset is where things can actually get a lot more entertaining when the kids are around. The goal is to simply shift you out of an anxious headspace, and for moms I love to use humor for this. If your child is old enough, one of my favorites is taking turns with one person naming an animal and the other person making that animal’s sound. Why is this a great activity? First, it’s ridiculous so it tends to quickly diffuse any anxiety, frustration, or anger that you’re experiencing. Second, the fact that it’s done with your child brings you back to a place of connection which can be really grounding and soothing in the moment. You can modify this if your child is younger by getting down on the ground with them (or bringing them up into your lap to get face to face) and making various sounds, noises, and faces with them. Again, this shifts your attention back to your child and should elicit at least a few belly laughs. This may seem trivial, but sometimes all we need to do to manage anxiety in the moment is to simply interrupt the anxiety cycle for a few minutes to de-escalate it.
Now this isn’t to say that I don’t use many of my old anxiety tools anymore. I use them as often as I get the chance to because there are times that anxiety strikes when I’m alone. But the point is I no longer feel trapped by anxiety if it surfaces while I’m in full on mom-mode because I know I have options. Anxiety is a liar. It tells us we are powerless. It tells us this will last forever. But when we arm ourselves with options that are flexible and adaptable, we nurture that little voice in our head that whispers “there’s a way out of this.” And that little voice is an anxious mom’s best friend.