How I manage my anxiety as a working mum

Kinderling News & Features

Shevonne Hunt is the host of Kinderling Conversation.

When I think of ways to describe where I am at in life right now, I think of baths - and hamsters. Though not together.

On the one hand I see my life as a bath. Every object you place in the bath displaces the water. The bigger the object, the higher the water rises. Having two small children means my bath is quite full. Add in a committed relationship - i.e. husband, friends, family and a working week - and it’s getting dangerously close to spilling over the edge.

And then there’s my brain. Inside my brain there’s a little hamster on a magical wheel that’s running for her little life. It’s a magical wheel, because the hamster thinks that if she keeps running, the wheel will turn all the many facets of my life. As long as she’s running, I’ll be able to dress, feed, soothe and love two children out of the house on time. I’ll get my work done in my allotted part-time hours. I’ll spend enough time with my children, cook and feed them the appropriate food, discipline them without screwing them up, be loving to my partner, text my friend on her birthday, remember to call my mother and pay the electricity bill on time.

There are always things to juggle and I understand that many people today have similar multi-tasking challenges. But Karen Young, psychologist and blogger at Hey Sigmund!, thinks that when you add in the factor of being a parent or carer, the multi-tasking takes on an added, emotional dimension.

Listen to Karen Young on Kinderling Conversation:

“When you have little people in your life that you’re responsible for there’s so much more on the line,” she says, “If people have experienced anxiety before children that will likely exacerbate it in a lot of cases because there’s a lot more to think about, there’s a lot more to worry about.”   

I’ve had anxiety since my mid-20s. If you look at the personality traits of someone inclined towards anxiety I fit the bill. I have high expectations of myself, I’m self-critical, and I like to be in control. Tick. Tick. Tick.

And then there’s the juggle. Karen Young says that anxiety is a brain that lives in the future, and that’s exactly what many working mums are trying to do, by anticipating everything that needs to be done.

The part of our brains that perceives threat, the part that triggers our primeval 'flight or fight' response… You know, where once the threat was a big angry bear, and your body would give you all you needed to run for the hills, now our brain is triggered by the anticipation of threat.

When you’re at work and you’re worrying you’ll miss school pick-up, or your child is feeling a bit unwell and you’re not there to cuddle them, when you don’t know if there’s enough money in the account to pay for swimming classes. These are all thoughts anticipating a threat, creating neurochemicals that build and build… and because we’re not running for the hills, we’re sitting at our desks trying to get our work done, those chemicals have nowhere to go.

So you make it to the end of the day, collapse on the lounge and you’re hit by a flood of emotions telling you to run, run, run! Your first thought is “Am I going mad?” then, “Seriously? I just want to relax and watch Rake!”

But Karen Young advises that it’s important to understand that your brain is doing exactly what it’s designed to do. “Remember that an anxious brain isn’t a broken brain,” she says, “It’s an over-protective brain.”

So what can you do, if you’re a working Mum with an anxious brain?

One option could be to move to the country and start breeding chickens. I’ve definitely considered that option. But I love my job, and my family are in the city. And when you live in a city like Sydney you have to pay the bills, and work… even if you don’t love your job as I do.

Karen Young recommends mindfulness and exercise, saying there is evidence that both activities significantly help calm an anxious brain.

Here’s the thing. I’ve tried both, for many years… and it wasn’t working for me.

There are two things that have helped me to manage my anxiety.

Firstly, I decided to try medication. Secondly, I’m having a red-hot go at acceptance.

Medication was something I’ve resisted since the first time I got a panic attack. I’m of a generation who are very suspicious of big pharma. Paradoxically, I was also a huge advocate of de-stigmatising mental health. I’ve told very close friends that they should try medication and not be ashamed.

My GP suggested medication had the potential to “change my life.” Those words helped the penny drop. I’d been such a hypocrite. Here was the one thing I hadn’t tried, when I passionately believed I’d try anything to calm my anxiety.

It’s important to say here that medication has not been the silver bullet I had hoped in the early days. I need to work, hard, on my thought patterns. I need to try (as much as is possible with small children) to find pockets of peace. I need to exercise. I need to keep seeing a counsellor.

When it comes to acceptance, I don’t think I’m there yet. It’s hard to accept when your brain leaps off the train tracks and goes careering down the hill… You want to know you’ve got the power to keep it on the right course.

I’ve come to realise that I’ve almost spent more time on this earth with an anxious brain than with a calm one. So wishing I could be as I was before I got anxiety is pointless.

It’s just a part of who I am. What’s important is that it doesn’t have to rule my life.

And finally, one of the main reasons I’m writing this now is that I do feel a lot better than before I went through those two steps.

Anxiety isn’t something I’ve had every day for the last ten years. It’s come and gone with different life triggers. But each time it came to stay, I was desperate to know that one day I’d be better.

For some reason I didn’t find any stories of people who had climbed out of anxiety. I heard that it was very treatable, but I had never met anyone who said, “I had anxiety, and I’m okay now.”

So here I am, saying it to anyone, though particularly working Mums: “Anxiety can be overcome!” I know for me that it’s unlikely to ever leave permanently, but life is definitely a hell of a lot better now.

I’m not advocating everyone take medication. It’s just something that worked for me. It’s easier now to talk about mental illness. I feel comfortable saying that I get anxiety, but I feel like we still have a long way to go when it comes to accepting how people deal with their own mental illness - including taking pills.

What I am saying is that there’s a way for everyone to feel better, and we should all feel empowered to take the path that works best for us.

Hear Kinderling Conversation every weekday at 12pm or grab the podcast.