“We can’t sell that car seat, it only has a year left until it’s expiry date – what if the person who buys it has an accident and their baby gets hurt?”
“She’s running too far ahead of me, what if she forgets to stop at the road and gets hit by a car?”
“Why is the school phoning me? My daughter must have had an accident, I hope she hasn’t broken anything.”
These are real, actual thoughts I’ve had at some point over the past few months.
I’m an over-thinker. A worrier. And yes, just a teeny bit anxious.
In my mind, these three things are pretty inter-related. In fact, feeling worry and feeling anxious pretty much exist on a continuum. And my over-thinking tendencies tend to push the needle with regard to where I am on that continuum on any given day.
Personally, my anxiety was never an issue before I became a mother. Certainly my worrier tendencies were always there, but they were pretty low-key and probably no different to most of the general population: that little sinking feeling in my belly if I ever got called into the boss’ office, or that nervous over-preparing that came with a public speaking event.
So I never identified as being an anxious person. Which is perhaps why it took me a few years to recognise my anxiety as a mother. You know that saying they have about the plumber whose home is full of dripping taps? Well that’s kind of my situation. Even though I’ve worked in this field of mental health for years, it took me a little while to realise the issues in myself – probably because they were so mild. I was used to working with people whose mental health concerns were much more compelling, and much more complex. So that led me to put my thoughts down to typical new-Mum worries. But as the years passed I started to realise that many of the quirky little thought processes I had over my six years as a parent weren’t actually your bog-standard run of the mill concerns.
Not so much the thoughts listed above, but how about this one:
“This pathway is a bit secluded, I feel pretty vulnerable. What would happen if someone tried to steal my baby from the pram here? There’s no-one close by to help, no-one would hear me scream. What can I use as a weapon? What should I do?”
This was a thought I had pretty regularly on our daily walk in our small coastal town in Central Queensland – it was hardly Gotham City, and a brazen daylight abduction was highly improbable, but my brain still went there. So, yes, in fact, I actually was meandering a bit further along the anxiety spectrum than I realised. And even though my anxiety was quite mild when compared with others’, and I certainly wouldn’t classify it in a clinical range of anxiety, that didn’t mean that it didn’t deserve my attention.
Anxiety is a sneaky little thing – particularly in emerging or mild cases. It has blurry edges and often disguises itself as something else. It’s rarely cut and dried, and it can be difficult for us to identify. We can tend to explain away our anxiety under the guise of being “safety conscious”, “over protective” or just “a little highly strung”. In fact, in our world worry and anxiety are practically state sanctioned – think of the marketing campaigns from your workplace OH&S rep: “Safety First”, or “Take Five to Stay Alive.” Or popular phrases such as : “Better safe than sorry.” Even the Boy Scouts validate our anxiety with their iconic slogan: “Be prepared.”
Of course, I’ve got my tongue firmly planted in my cheek here. But my point is that, on the surface at least, it’s far more socially acceptable to be anxious than it is to be depressed. And that’s where the difficulty begins. Everyone worries, because the world is a dangerous place. Just turn on the evening news or scroll your Facebook feed for evidence of that.
So if everyone worries – how do you know when it’s too much worry? How do you know if it’s something more than just “worry”. And what do you do about it?
So here’s a few questions to ask yourself to help you figure out where you sit on the “overthinking vs anxiety” continuum.
1: Are your worries constructive or controlling?
What do you do about your worries? Do your thoughts help to keep yourself safe in productive and socially acceptable ways – for example, making sure you have enough petrol and locking your car doors when driving at night time, or do they force you to make decisions and take actions that diminish your life in some way – for example, cancelling or turning down evening catch ups with friends due to your worries about driving at night. One of the hallmarks of anxiety is that it impacts our ability to undertake everyday activities.
2: Do your worries go away once you’ve taken action to address them?
Worrying thoughts are one way in which our mind alerts us to danger. Generally, once we’ve addressed the worry, it will leave us, but with anxiety, the fear and worry remains, despite all the actions you take to address it. For example, your daughter, who has a peanut allergy, is going to stay with your in-laws overnight. How do you handle this situation – do you give your in-laws one quick reminder about the allergy before you leave, or do you continue to worry about it for the entire night, find yourself unable to focus on the event you’re attending, and constantly wanting to send them another quick reminder text message?
3: Is your worry in your head or in your body?
Overthinking and worrying tends to stay predominantly confined to our brain, whereas anxiety is generally felt all through the body. So are your worries combined with a racing heartbeat, sweaty temples, shaking hands, tapping feet, a surging tummy, or a tightness across your chest? Physical symptoms such as these, when unrelated to physical exertion or another illness, can indicate anxiety.
4: Does your over-thinking affect the way you function day to day?
We touched on this in point one, but there are other ways that anxiety and worry can impact our daily life – more so than just avoiding certain activities. Is your work productivity being impacted by the amount of time you spend worrying, or reacting to your worries? Are your relationships being impacted – do you find you push people away due to your fears, or feel compelled to ‘put on an act’ around others? Are you delegating decision making responsibility at home or at work due to your worries? For parents in particular, are you finding you’re not enjoying your role as a parent as much as you should, because of your worries. Or are your worries affecting the amount of time you spend with your baby or child – eg. do you avoid letting anyone else hold or care for them – even trusted family members, or alternatively, do you relinquish care responsibilities more often than you want to, because you think others can look after them better than you can?
What do do about it
Anxiety is a personal experience, and it can be different for everyone. If you’re concerned you may be experiencing anxiety the most important thing to do is to speak to a GP, your Community Health Nurse, or another health professional involved in your care. A GP will be able to provide an assessment and diagnose an anxiety or depression. They can also refer you for Medicare funded services from a mental health Occupational Therapist (such as myself), a social worker or psychologist, under the Better Access to Mental Health Care program. If you already have someone in mind you’d like to speak with you can let your GP know and he can refer you specifically to that person, as long as they are registered for the program under Medicare.
When it comes to treatment options for mild to moderate anxiety, counselling therapies and lifestyle changes are generally the first course of treatment, with best practice being attempting these prior to prescription of medication if necessary. (Please note this is general information and treatment strategies are always personalised).
As I mentioned earlier though, you don’t have to be at a clinical level of anxiety to have it impact negatively on your life. Common motherhood traits such as excessive worry, stress, overthinking and the infamous “Mummy Guilt” can all impact our wellbeing and experience of motherhood. Which is why I developed my Mindful Motherhood program – a five week online program to help mothers overcome stress, guilt and overwhelm, to live a more meaningful life. You can check it out here. We start this week, registrations are open until Friday.