Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
Mother Kim Walters* found herself one day struggling with a painful, nagging earache that wouldn’t go away. She managed to get two reluctant toddlers dressed and into the car so she could get herself to the doctor.
As a stay-at-home mom who worked part time remotely, juggling children was her normal — but this day took a particular toll on her.
“My heart was pounding out of my chest, I felt short of breath, and my mouth was like cotton. While I knew these as symptoms of anxiety I had battled — and hidden — for most of my life, it occurred to me I would be ‘found out’ if I couldn’t get it together by the time I got to the doctor’s office and they took my vitals,” Kim shares.
Adding to her anxiousness was the fact that she and her husband were flying out the next day from Chicago for a kid-free trip to California wine country.
“The thing is, if you worry about anxiety coming, it will come. And it did,” says Kim. “I had my first panic attack in that doctor’s office in October 2011. I couldn’t see, had to be walked to the scale, and my blood pressure was through the roof.”
While Kim went on the trip to Napa Valley with her husband, she says it was a turning point for her mental health.
“When I returned home, I knew that my anxiety had reached a peak and was not going down. I had no appetite and couldn’t sleep at night, sometimes waking up in a panic. I didn’t even want to read to my kids (which was my favorite thing to do), and that was paralyzing,” she remembers.
“I was scared to go anywhere that I’d been and felt anxious, for fear I’d have a panic attack.”
Her anxiety struck almost everywhere she went — the store, library, children’s museum, park, and beyond. However, she knew that staying inside with two young kids wasn’t the answer.
“So, I kept going regardless of how terrible I had slept the night before or how anxious I felt that day. I never stopped. Every day was exhausting and full of fear,” Kim recalls.
That’s until she decided to get help.
Finding a therapist
Kim wanted to uncover whether her anxiety was compounded by physiological as well as psychological reasons. She began by seeing a primary care doctor who discovered her thyroid wasn’t working properly and prescribed appropriate medication.
She also visited a naturopath and dietitian, who attempted to evaluate whether certain foods triggered her anxiety.
“I felt like I was chasing after something because this didn’t help,” says Kim.
Around the same time, an integrative medicine doctor prescribed Xanax to be taken as needed when Kim felt a panic attack coming on.
“That wasn’t going to work for me. I was always anxious, and knew these medications were addictive and not long-term solutions,” explains Kim.
Ultimately, finding the right therapist proved most helpful.
“While anxiety had always been in my life, I made it 32 years without seeing a therapist. Finding one felt daunting, and I went through four before I settled on one that worked for me,” Kim says.
“For instance, ‘I’ll never not be anxious again’ became ‘I may have a new normal, but I can live with anxiety,’” explains Kim.
The therapist also used exposure and response prevention (ERP), which exposes you to your fear and keeps you from avoiding it.
“This was most helpful. The idea behind exposure therapy is to expose yourself to the things that you’re scared of, repeatedly, at a gradual pace,” she says. “Repeated exposures to feared stimuli allow us to ‘habituate’ to the anxiety and learn that anxiety itself is not that scary.”
Her therapist assigned her homework. For instance, since getting her blood pressure taken triggered anxiety, Kim was told to watch blood pressure videos on YouTube, take her blood pressure at the grocery store, and go back to the doctor’s office where she had her first panic attack and sit in the waiting room.
“While walking into Jewel to take my blood pressure seemed silly at first, I realized as I did it repeatedly, I was less and less scared of being scared,” says Kim.
“As I faced my panic triggers, instead of avoiding them, other situations such as taking the kids to the museum or library also became easier. After about a year of constant fear, I was seeing some light.”
Kim visited her therapist a few times a month for three years after her first panic attack. With all the progress she made, she felt the urge to help others who experience anxiety do the same.
Paying it forward
In 2016, Kim went back to school to get a master’s degree in social work. She says it wasn’t an easy decision, but ultimately the best one she’s ever made.
“I was 38 with two kids and worried about money and time. And I was scared. What if I failed? By this time, though, I knew what to do when something scared me — face it,” says Kim.
With the support of her husband, family, and friends, Kim graduated in 2018, and now works as a therapist in an outpatient program at a behavioral health hospital in Illinois where she uses exposure therapy to help adults with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety.
“While more in the background than it has ever been, my anxiety still likes to come to the forefront at times. As I learned to do when it plagued me the most, I just keep going in spite of it,” explains Kim.
“Watching people who struggle much more than I ever have face their worst fears every day is an inspiration for me to keep living alongside my anxiety, too. I like to think I did rise out of my circumstances of being ruled by fear and anxiety — by facing them.”
Tips for moms with anxiety disorders
Patricia Thornton, PhD, licensed psychologist in New York City, says anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) tend to emerge around 10 and 11 years old and then again in young adulthood.
“Also, there are times in someone’s life if they have OCD or anxiety that will bring on a new onset of symptoms,” Thornton tells Healthline. “Sometimes people have been able to cope with OCD or anxiety and have managed it pretty well, but when certain demands become more excessive that’s when the OCD and anxiety can escalate and be triggered.”
As with Kim, motherhood can be one of these times, adds Thornton.
To help manage anxiety during motherhood, she suggests the following:
Recognize it’s your anxiety, not your child’s
When in the depths of anxiety, Thornton says try not to transmit your anxiousness onto your children.
“Anxiety is contagious — not like a germ — but in the sense that if a parent’s anxious, their kid’s going to pick up on that anxiety,” she says. “It’s important if you want to have a resilient child to not transmit your own anxiety and to recognize that it’s your anxiety.”
For moms whose anxiety is triggered by fear for their children’s safety, she says, “You have to help alleviate your own anxiety so you can better take care of your kids. Being a better parent is allowing your kids to do things that are scary, whether it’s the process of learning how to walk or explore playgrounds or getting their driver’s license.”
Don’t ask loved ones to do what scares you
If taking your kids to the park causes fear, it’s natural to ask someone else to take them. However, Thornton says doing so only perpetuates the anxiety.
“Many times, family members will get involved in doing the compulsion for the patient. So, if a mom says, ‘I can’t change the baby’s diaper,’ and the dad does it every time instead, that’s helping the mom practice avoidance,” explains Thornton.
While many people want to help by stepping in and relieving your anxiety, she says the best thing is for you to face it yourself.
“This is tricky to navigate because loving people want to help, so I have loved ones go into [therapy] sessions with my patients. This way I can explain what’s helpful to the patient and what’s not.”
For instance, she might suggest that a loved one say to a mom with anxiety: “If you can’t leave the house, I can pick up the kids for you, but this is a temporary solution. You have to find a way to be able to do it yourself.”
Accept that you’ll feel anxious
Thornton explains that anxiety is natural to some degree, given that our sympathetic nervous system tells us to fight or flight when we sense danger.
However, when the danger that’s perceived is due to thoughts brought on by an anxiety disorder, she says fighting through is the better response.
“You want to just keep going and admit you’re anxious. For instance, if the store or park are dangerous because you had some kind of physiological response when you were there that made you upset and triggered your sympathetic nervous system, [you have to realize that] there is not a real danger or need to flee,” she says.
Rather than avoiding the store or park, Thornton says you should expect to feel anxious in those places and sit with it.
“Know that anxiety is not going to kill you. You get better by saying ‘Okay, I’m getting anxious, and I’m fine.’”
Get professional help
Thornton realizes that all her suggestions are no easy task, and oftentimes require professional help.
She says research shows that CBT and ERP are most effective for treatment of anxiety disorders, and advises finding a therapist who practices both.
“Exposures to the thoughts and the feelings [that cause anxiety] and response prevention, which means not doing anything about it, is the best way to treat anxiety disorders,” Thornton says.
“Anxiety never stays at the same level. If you just let it be, it will go down on its own. But [for those with anxiety disorders or OCD], usually the thoughts and feelings are so disturbing that the person thinks they need to do something.”
Make time for self-care
In addition to finding time away from your kids and time to socialize, Thornton says exercising can have a positive impact on those with anxiety and depression.
“Anxiety symptoms like your heart racing, sweating, and light headedness all can be the effects of great exercise. By exercising, you are retraining your brain to recognize that if your heart’s racing, it doesn’t have to be associated with danger, but can be caused by being active too,” she explains.
She also points out that cardio exercise can elevate mood.
“I tell my patients to do cardio three or four times a week,” she says.
Finding a therapist
If you’re interested in talking with someone, the Anxiety and Depression Association of American has a search option to find a local therapist.
*Name has been changed for privacy
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her workhere.