The One Thing that Lessened My Anxiety and Improved My Parenting
Anxiety and I go way back.
As a kid, my anxiety manifested in sleep issues, frequent nightmares, and perfectionistic behaviors. When I reached puberty, I developed another way of managing it- rigid behaviors around food and exercise.
By eighteen, I had a full-blown eating disorder.
It took many years of therapy, but by my early thirties I’d gained a deeper awareness of myself and of the roots of my anxiety. I’d also taken tremendous strides in recovering from the eating disorder.
But, I was still struggling.
While in graduate school getting my degree in psychology, my flexible schedule allowed me to join an adult swim team (my husband had talked me into doing a triathlon and this was part of our training). One afternoon, as I was in the locker room getting dressed, I overheard two women talking, one of whom mentioned she was a therapist.
I still don’t know what compelled me to, but after they were done talking, I approached the therapist, introduced myself and explained that I was halfway through my Masters program to become a Marriage and Family Therapist.
As we began talking, we had an instant connection. So, even though “meditation” was the furthest thing from my radar, when she told me about the women’s mindfulness meditation group she and a colleague had recently started, I accepted her invitation to join without a second of hesitation.
Little did I know that our serendipitous meeting would be life-changing and that the therapist, the amazing Lea Roussos, would become an integral part of my journey to recovery.
I entered the mindfulness group with a healthy dose of skepticism. Meditating sounds so woo woo, I’m not sure this is for me...Wait a minute, I have to sit for 20 minutes and just focus on my breath? You’ve got to be kidding!.. Um… is anyone else bored out of their minds here??
As the weeks went by, my skepticism turned into conviction. Yes! This is for me. I actually like meditating, who knew?!
The mindfulness tools I learned, combined with twenty minutes of daily meditation, turned out to be the missing pieces of my recovery puzzle. Two months after joining the group, I was able to let go of my lingering disordered eating behaviors.
Over the next two years, as I continued my meditation practice, I became emotionally, physically, and mentally healthier than I’d ever been. I felt like I had a new lease on life... until...
I had my first miscarriage.
And just like that, my world came crashing down (more on that in another post).
I remained in recovery with my eating disorder, but my anxiety came back with a vengeance. It was like a newer, improved, super-charged version and, let me tell you, it meant business. I continued my mindfulness practice, but it was no match for my anxiety.
Two surgeries, several rounds of fertility treatments, a failed IVF attempt which resulted in hospitalization, an ectopic pregnancy, an emergency C-section, a premature baby with developmental delays, and a marriage that was falling apart resulted in anxiety that was resemblant of Medusa- no matter how hard I tried to eradicate it, it came back stronger and stronger.
When I needed them the most, all the tools I’d learned and the self-care I’d consciously built into my life went right out the window. My son’s developmental delays and my severe sleep deprivation catapulted my anxiety to a record-breaking level.
My first few years of motherhood were spent in full-blown fight-or-flight-panic-mode. And it wasn’t pretty. All day, every day, was spent tending to and worrying about H and all the things that had previously made me ME - my career, my hobbies, my friendships, my marriage- were falling apart. I was a shell of myself, suffering from frequent anxiety attacks, bouts of crying, and feelings of complete and utter overwhelm.
Just when I thought things could get any worse, I hit bottom.
We’d just moved to a new city and were in the middle of a difficult transition. H was a mess (having a massive behavior and sleep regression), my husband and I were at odds with one another (tips on how we reconnected here), we were financially stressed, I was exhausted, and I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of finding all new practitioners for H (OT, PT, pediatrician, developmental optometrist, etc.) as well as a preschool (he was starting in two months!).
At the height of the chaos, I relapsed with my eating disorder.
And just like that, eight years of recovery slipped right through my fingers.
I was caught in a massive victim/shame spiral. Anyone who has been in recovery from any type of addictive behavior only to relapse knows the shame spiral. It’s a tsunami that threatens to engulf you. If you don’t get to higher ground quick, you’re going down.
And down I went.
For a year, I swam in that shame. Despite my efforts to get back on track- resuming therapy, confiding in my husband and a few close friends, super-charging my self-care- I continued to struggle.
The eating disorder and its accompanying rigidity, anxiety, and shame rendered my mind a prison with very little space to access the patience and attunement my boys needed. Needless to say, “calm” was not a word you’d have used to describe our household.
One evening, I escaped the household chaos to go for a quick walk. Feeling suffocated by a barrage of panicked, anxious thoughts, I stopped at a lookout facing the beach. I closed my eyes and let the tears come pouring down.
Then, I sat down and breathed.
At first I could only take shallow breaths, but after a few minutes, my thoughts settled down, my heart rate slowed, and I began to take some nice, long, deep breaths.
A question came to me. What’s one thing I can do tomorrow that will help me?
The answer came immediately. Meditate.
That night, I downloaded the Headspace app I’d been hearing about. I set my alarm 10 minutes earlier than usual and as soon as I woke up the next morning, I grabbed my phone, queued up the app, and meditated. I’ve been doing it every morning since.
That was two years ago. It’s been over a year that I’ve been back on track with my recovery. Meditating wasn't the only thing that helped. Therapy, keeping a gratitude journal, having a regular yoga practice, reading Geneen Roth's This Messy Magnificent Life (a must-read for anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder), the enduring love and support from my husband, parents and dear girlfriends, lots of podcasting (click here for some of my favorites), and several universe-intervention-inspired-ah-ha moments also played a role.
But, just like my experience eight years earlier, meditation was the catalyst. It created the mental space for me to reconnect with my internal “pause” button, to reset, and to access my sidelined recovery tools.
Meditation calmed and centered me. It tempered my angry amygdala and brought me back in touch with myself. It helped me to let go of the shame about my relapse and to reframe it as an invitation to do some deeper healing.
Since I reclaimed my meditation practice, I’m less reactive (with my kids and in general), less self-critical, more responsive, and more self-compassionate.
My anxiety? What anxiety?! Sure, I still have anxious thoughts, but rather than going down the rabbit hole, I’m able to say, “Thanks for sharing, but we’re not doing that today,” (a quote I adopted from RuPaul on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday) and then move on.
Good parenting depends on good self-regulation; when we’re not regulated, our kids won’t be either. This is especially true for “differently-wired” kids with atypical development.
Mindfulness meditation is a tool that’s been scientifically proven to “rewire” our brains and improve self-regulation. And the amazing thing is that absolutely anyone can do it! Even five minutes a day can significantly improve your ability to access your inner Zen master, be responsive to your child’s needs and stay calm in the midst of kid-induced chaos.
I’m grateful everyday for that chance meeting in the swim team locker room that brought mindfulness meditation into my life. In the two years since the evening walk that inspired me to download the Headspace app and start meditating again, I’ve become a better parent, a better wife, a better and healthier version of myself.
Is there something you’ve struggled/are struggling with that is negatively impacting your parenting? Do you feel “trapped” inside your own head, leaving little room to access the patience you need to tune into your child? Have you tried mindfulness meditation? If so, has it helped? Leave a comment below, the Sensory Mom community and I would love to hear from you!
Stay tuned for next week’s deep dive into Mindfulness in which I’ll answer the following questions: What is it? What is it not? How do I do it? How exactly will it help me be a better parent?