Motherhood with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

Becoming a parent opens a new world of worry and anxiety. There is a sudden need to adopt superhero-type skills including second guessing, being able to solve the impossible, being the finder of lost things, having psychic powers, and being high functioning whilst feeling utterly frazzled. This is even before you factor in work and the rest that life throws at you.


It is no wonder that, with parents having to juggle all the balls and spin all the plates, studies are finding cases of parental burnout are increasing. There is a lot to be anxious about when you are trying to be in control and on top of everything. It was this and the sheer enormity of overwhelm I was feeling that led to the eventual diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

Daily overthinking, finding the small things overwhelming, trying to prepare for every eventuality, and not coping with the unknown are among my key anxiety-driven behaviours, and I am not alone. There are 20,000 cases of GAD every year in the UK and the numbers are slightly higher for women than men, and predominantly between the ages of 35 to 59.

What causes GAD?

Firstly, GAD and anxiety are quite different from each other. Feeling anxious is very normal, however, if the anxiety is experienced most days, about lots of things, and over a longer period (a minimum of six months) then chances are you may have GAD or another stress-related or mental health condition. At this point, you need to seriously consider reaching out for help. There are multiple reasons why an individual may have GAD but there is no definitive cause.

Reasons can include (but are not limited to):

  • Areas of the brain being overactive (specifically the parts that deal with emotions and behaviour).
  • Having previous experience of trauma or stress (e.g. domestic abuse, child abuse or bullying).
  • The brain chemicals (serotonin and noradrenaline) being out of balance. These chemicals are involved in controlling and regulating your mood.
  • Living with a painful long-term health condition (e.g. arthritis).
  • Inherited genes from your parents or a close relative (you are estimated to be five times more likely to develop GAD if your family member has the condition).

...and sometimes they just don’t know what has caused an individual to have GAD, which is why it is important to understand what it looks and feels like for you.

So, what does it feel like?

Having GAD, it feels like my brain is a washing machine on spin cycle with a full load of questions and exclamation marks going around and around. There is an out-of-control element to all the worrying and anxious thoughts that whirl and swirl around your brain. This inevitably leads to anxiety-related behaviour patterns of which there are a lot, and they are different for everyone.

For some it may look like sweaty palms, dizziness, the shakes, quick physical movements (blinking, hands waving, pacing, talking quickly etc.), and the feeling of being out of your depth. We may ramble, forget our train of thought, struggle to speak or even cry through overwhelm. When these or other behaviours are heightened it can, in some cases, cause an anxiety attack.

GAD can mean some people are constantly seeking reassurance or comfort, or the answers to the questions that are running through their heads. This can come across as aggressive, worrying, repetitive or persistent. GAD may mean saying ‘yes’ to everything because we want to please everyone, or it could also mean saying ‘no’ because we fear the question or opportunity being given to us (e.g. invitations to social gatherings).

GAD is also built on worries about the unknown and hypothetical situations (as well as those that are in front of us). The ‘What if…’ is a powerful mind game that escalates thoughts of worry and anxiety. This is a big one for me as I often overcompensate or overprepare in order to make sure I can deal with every ‘what if’ that could come up.

Of course, the overriding thing with GAD is that you have a feeling of anxiety pretty much all the time, about anything and everything, from going to the shops to going on holiday, from writing an email to giving a presentation, from choosing a gift to being invited out. Everything is tinged with worry and a feeling of anxiety.

The motherhood angle

So here are some mum-based statistics: one in five women will experience perinatal anxiety (anxiety during pregnancy through the first year after birth). More than a third of mums have experienced mental health issues related to motherhood, and 25% said they feel lonelier since having children. Mothers are more likely to have anxiety as they are more likely to be the primary caregiver, and there are a whole plethora of social and cultural expectations with being a mum and or primary caregiver. So what we can neatly summarise from this, is that being a mum is difficult and can have a massive impact on our mental health.

As a mum, there are many things that exacerbate my GAD and at times it can feel relentless. With being a parent, there is just so much to feel anxious about (sometimes real, often unrealistic, and a lot of the time exaggerated). Every phase, every age, every milestone; the menu of things to worry about seems to change, but it is always there and available for my GAD brain to choose from. We seem to have an overwhelming anxious cloud which asks “what should I do? Am I doing/saying the right thing? Would a good parent do this?”.

With so many questions and anxious doubts flying around our brains, it is no wonder that parents with GAD can often feel stressed, have a short temper, find it difficult to sleep, have low frustration tolerance levels, and feel overwhelmed and forgetful. And it isn’t just the child/ren element – work, family, social life, finances, and wellbeing all add to the mix of things that GAD can make us feel constantly on edge about.

There are many times that GAD will get the better of me when I am out with my daughter. A tantrum, losing her from my line of sight, playing roughly with another child, her randomly taking another toy out of the shop without paying (classic) are all examples where I will suddenly catastrophise the situation. GAD will take over the rational thinking part of my brain and will envisage social workers knocking at my door, jail time for toy theft, my child growing to be a deviant etc. Extreme thoughts aren’t they?! That’s the power of GAD.

What can I do?

Firstly, if you think you have GAD, you don’t need a diagnosis before you can do things that could help alleviate the symptoms. Of course, going to your GP will open the door for an official diagnosis, possible cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) work, and medication options (there is never any pressure to go down the medication route), but you may want to consider trying to adopt the following:

1. Manage your expectations

I am not the perfect parent. You are not the perfect parent. In fact, there is no such thing as a perfect parent. We are all finding different ways of steering our cars through the journey of parenthood (and most of us will stall, get a flat tyre, need a lot of services, and encounter numerous road works and obstacles). GAD can become worse if our expectations are high and our successes are about being perfect (or as near to it as possible).

If we are always wanting our kids to be happy 100% of the time, for us to never get things wrong, to never make a mistake – then of course our anxiety is going to be overwhelming. Make your expectations realistic, celebrate the little wins, and avoid the need to have everything perfect.

2. Be out of control

Worry and anxiety can come from the fear of not being able to control everything. Parenthood is full of things we can’t control, so it is the perfect setting for GAD. What we need to determine are the things we can control, the actions we can take to change or influence the things we are worried about, and the things that are completely out of our control.

By having a list of things we can control and those we can’t, we can then dig deeper to understand what is causing us to feel anxious about those particular things. There is a great exercise you can do called the Rings of Worry which you can find on my website.

3. Real or hypothetical

GAD can exacerbate the small things and make them into big issues, particularly if they are in the future or haven’t happened yet. It is important to try and ground the thoughts. Is the thing that is making you anxious in front of you now and can you solve it, or is it a ‘what if’ worry, that may not happen, that you can’t influence and is draining your energy? Worry diaries are effective at sorting this problem out. Literally, write down the worrying thought or the thing that is causing you anxiety, work out if it is real-time or if it is something you can leave in the diary as hypothetical.

4. Challenge the negative

GAD is brimming with negative thoughts that come up in our minds. They are usually unkind and very unhelpful. They tell us we are doing things wrong or make us even more anxious. It is important to grab hold and interrogate it. What is the evidence this negative thought is right? Where did this thought come from? Could you be wrong in believing this negative thought? The more you challenge it, the less powerful it becomes.

5. Exercise, water, and sleep

It sounds cliché but healthy ways of dealing with anxiety begin with a healthy body. As parents, we tend to feel run down most of the time and, because of that, we feel the effects of GAD a lot more. Making sure we raise our heart rate, move our bodies, keep hydrated and try our best to get as much sleep as we can (pah!), will ensure that our brains can be a bit clearer when dealing with those intruding anxieties.

6. Find a strategy that works for you

GAD can be all-consuming and affect your behaviour, feelings, and decision-making abilities, so it is important you find a method that helps you. Not every person will find the same thing works for them. For some, medication really helps them, whilst others prefer meditation or a combination of a couple of things like cognitive behavioural therapy. The key here is that there are lots of things that can help, you just need to be kind to yourself and find what works best for you.

7. Use your human scaffolding

Your support structure is so important, and it needs to be the right humans to hold you up when you need it. Other friends who are parents can often be perfect for understanding why you feel anxious at times in relation to your children but actually, the right friends and/or family who will listen or help problem solve as you need; who will be patient and kind; who make you feel safe, are invaluable.

Don’t forget that life coaches, like myself, are also an incredible help with anxiety and detangling negative thoughts and behaviour patterns. If this all sounds familiar and you would like to talk it out, then please do get in touch with me.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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