Confessions of a worrywart

To parent is to fret -- but not to the point of paralysis. Here's how to stop anxiety before it stops you

My mother always said I worry too much, my mother-in-law calls me a fretter, and my husband — well, he says I just need to relax already. Lately, even I have been worrying that I worry too much.

For example, it’s 4:12 a.m. and I’ve been awake for an hour, my stomach churning, my jaw clenched, my breathing shallow and rapid. Inside my head, it’s like a championship Ping-Pong game. How much money is left in the account? Why didn’t Jolina get invited to the party? Is it garbage day tomorrow? I need to get the brake lights fixed before I get rear-ended. That boy on the news — what if that happened to Roan? I’m never going to let him use the Internet.

Sound familiar? Do the what-ifs multiply in your brain like bunnies? If so, worrying may be taking up too much space in there, interfering with your life more than it needs to. Here’s how to get a grip:

Why worry?

Kelowna, BC, mom Sara Mitchell* doesn’t let her nine-year-old daughter walk three blocks to school on her own. Mitchell says her daughter is responsible, but the school is located in an inner-city area, only accessed by busy roads. “I don’t think I’m overdoing it,” says Mitchell.

In fact, Mitchell is doing her job. “A degree of anxiousness makes for a good parent,” says psychologist Lynn Miller, who is president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada (ADAC). Worry prompts us to buy life insurance, nag our kids to brush their teeth, and notice when Jamie seems out of sorts after a playdate. Plus, as the Vancouver-based Miller points out, “it keeps us alert. When you are driving in bad weather, for example, you want to be anxious.”

*Names changed by request.

But how much should I worry?

What if you find yourself anxious about very unlikely, though very scary, things — like me thinking that if I send my son to an out-of-town soccer game with another family, they might get in a car accident?

I ask other moms what makes them fret. One tells me she doesn’t like to take her two school-aged daughters out of the house on her own at the same time. She gets anxious that she can’t watch both of them closely enough and while she is preoccupied with one daughter, the other could wander off and be abducted. Another mom says she couldn’t sleep the whole week before her daughter’s sixth-grade teacher was assigned, worried the teacher would be too lax academically, and her daughter would not be properly prepared for middle school.

Are these parents’ worries out of whack? One way to tell is by checking how much it affects their everyday functioning, suggests Montreal psychotherapist Rhonda Rabow. Anxious people might cancel a job interview or not go to the doctor to address a health concern (out of fear it will turn out to be something serious). And when a person is already predisposed to this kind of worrying, parenting can up the ante. “People who are anxious, on some level, feel the world isn’t safe,” Rabow says. “If you have a child, you feel doubly anxious because you don’t have control over the outside world.”

A very anxious parent is more likely to restrict a child’s activities, for example, preventing the child from going on a sleepover out of concern that the house might not be clean or that he’ll feel homesick.

Last year, my son was invited to a birthday party that involved taking the city bus across town. I wondered: Would the hosting parent be able to keep track of six boys as they transferred buses? What if my son got separated from the group? I debated driving him instead, but after chatting with the host and then talking to my son about what he would do if anything went wrong, I decided to let him go. The bus ride was part of the adventure, and he had the best time.

Children can learn from tough experiences, such as failing a test or not making the hockey team, says Miller, when they have a chance to talk them through. Plus, she points out, “if parents worry excessively that things will go wrong, kids begin to think they should worry too. You send the message that the world is a dangerous place, and you better stick close to me.”

My own anxiety spikes when I hear this. One of my big worries is that I am creating anxious kids. Anxiety does run in families, but Miller says it is difficult to separate biological and environmental factors. “Just because you are a worrier, it doesn’t mean your child has to be. It has everything to do with the way you parent.”

She tells me that anxiety is highly treatable, and that if I learn to deal with my own, my children will learn important coping skills from me.

Worry not (or at least less)

I start by reading online. The ADAC website, anxietycanada.ca, offers success stories about people managing their anxiety. It also talks about treatment options and has helpful book lists, as does the Canadian Mental Health Association website, cmha.ca.

I also open up to friends, which is both comforting and helpful in gauging where I fit on the worry scale. Rabow notes that it is important to know what you are looking for from confidants — whether it is just to listen or to help you figure something out — and then to tell them specifically what you need.

Miller suggests that I start to address the thoughts that cause anxious feelings. “Ask yourself, if something goes wrong, what would happen, how could you problem- solve?” And so, instead of lying awake going over all the things I need to do tomorrow, I stop and think about what would really happen if I miss a few tasks — and realize the world won’t end if the floors don’t get washed. The idea is to shift your thinking from catastrophic outcomes to realistic ones and, eventually, become more resilient.

It’s an idea that is in keeping with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the treatment of choice for anxiety according to the Canadian Medical Association. Most self-help guides and many therapists use CBT to help people understand that their fearful thoughts are not rational and to address the what-ifs more logically.

Sandra Johnson,* a Calgary mother of three, has lived with an anxiety disorder for eight years. A therapist taught her some CBT techniques, including having Johnson write down her what-ifs with solutions: If I get sick, I will take my medication. “It helped to have my card saying if this happens, this is what I will do.”

Miller points out that basic self-care is especially important for people with anxiety difficulties: maintaining regular sleep, eating properly and generally following a daily routine. Anxiety can cause insomnia and stomach aches, which can, in turn, make the anxiety bigger. “This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how often I’ve found myself completely sleep-deprived and hungry as a new mom,” says Kim Taylor* of Victoria, who had postpartum anxiety.

Experts say it’s important to recognize that anxiety is normal. “My joke is that people need to stop ‘shoulding’ on themselves,” says Rabow. She explains that many people who suffer with anxiety think they should be able to cope with it on their own, so they often feel embarrassed when they become overwhelmed and this can stop them from getting the help they need.

But addressing anxiety is critical, Miller says, because when it isn’t treated, it can begin to feel out of control, or even develop into depression. Luckily, though, anxiety is highly treatable. “People who worry can be taught to think differently, to tolerate uncertainty and to trust themselves,” says Miller.

In the 10 years since I became a mother, I’ve come to believe that to parent is to worry, and that feeling scared is as inevitable as stretch marks. But what if that’s not true? What if I can be a parent and not waste every other thought on a worry? What if I can learn to calm myself and cope with my anxiety? Maybe I’ve finally found some what-ifs that really are worth thinking about.

*Names changed by request.

When is anxiety a disorder?

Anxiety is the most common mental health concern. Each year, approximately 12 percent of Canadians experience anxiety that significantly interferes with their work, school or home lives, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada (ADAC).

Formal diagnoses vary and include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive compulsiveness, panic disorder, social anxiety and phobias. People with GAD can’t stop worrying and while it may be about important things — money, the kids, work — the worrying is out of proportion. GAD sufferers might have physical symptoms (restlessness, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, irritability, muscle tension, trouble sleeping and gastrointestinal problems, such as nausea and diarrhea). About half the people with untreated anxiety will develop depression, says psychologist Lynn Miller, president of the ADAC.

If you think you might suffer from an anxiety disorder, talk to your family physician. Sometimes a physical problem, such as a thyroid condition, can be a factor. There are many good treatment options for those suffering from an anxiety disorder, including support groups, individual therapy and medication.

Baby jitters

Anxiety can serve new parents well in keeping their babies safe and healthy. But sometimes, says Saskatoon family doctor Shanna Fenton, new parents become so anxious, they have difficulty bonding. “When anxiety starts to affect a parent’s enjoyment of the baby, it might lead to guilt and depression,” says Fenton. In extreme cases, it can lead to a parent having thoughts of harming the baby or herself.

Fenton screens pregnant women for current or past anxiety issues so she can help them develop coping strategies before giving birth. She also inquires about anxiety levels during postpartum checkups. “New parents are predisposed because they are already sleep-deprived and socially isolated, which can cause flare-ups of anxiety.”

It’s not only mothers who face anxiety: Fenton thinks dads, particularly stay-at-home dads, are highly under-diagnosed. “Anxiety is not easily talked about and, socially, it’s even more difficult for fathers.”

Postpartum anxiety is treatable. Options include therapy, support groups and medication. “Nursing moms need to know that there is medication that is considered safe and often necessary,” Fenton says.

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