By Catherine Liggett
It was just another day and another hour-long marathon of getting out the door with my three-year-old daughter. Some days, I have patience for her stalling to give her favorite toy of the moment a new hairstyle. In fact, I think it’s adorable. But other days, I find myself in a state I cringe to even mention. In this state, I’m overtaken by something that isn’t the real me.
The tension in the middle of my chest is crushing. My body feels flooded with adrenaline for no good reason, and my heart rate increases. Even if we technically have the time, I rush her along feverishly.
In this place, I’m light years away from noticing her cuteness. I just want her to get into her freaking car seat as if my life depends on it. And I am not the kind, attuned, and patient parent I want to be.
It’s hard for me to admit that I struggle with anxiety. Writing the title of this article gives me a major vulnerability hangover. Full disclosure: I’ve never been formally diagnosed, but the symptoms I experience align with high-functioning anxiety: body tension with bouts of a racing mind, increased heart rate, intrusive thoughts, and the inability to relax.
One reason I feel sheepish calling what I experience anxiety is that it feels nearly universal among the parents I know – particularly mothers and mothering parents. Those of us who do the work of a village with one body to keep a single-family household functioning on a daily basis.
Because pretty much everything depends on us, our nervous systems are in a state of constant hypervigilance. And here’s the kicker: If we grew up in a family where we didn’t feel safe, our bodies are already predisposed to being oversensitive to threats. Our systems can’t help but automatically react to the present moment in light of our own childhood environment.
According to renowned trauma educator, Gabor Maté, MD, the root of anxiety lies in precisely this kind of childhood experience. “In early childhood,” Maté states, “anxiety is an attachment alarm.” Children whose fears were not regularly soothed by their parents often become anxious adults because that unsoothed fear is now embedded in the body.
Living in this state primed for fear, we are far more likely to subconsciously react as if there were a threat, even when our rational minds know that we or our children are safe.
This is one reason why some parents I know (admittedly very few), even with all the responsibilities that I have, don’t seem to experience anxiety. Their nervous systems may not have had the same traumatic imprint as mine.
Coming back to my experience with my daughter, it makes total sense that I react to her strong-willed behaviors as if I’m in the middle of active combat. My body believes that I am.
If our lifestyle more accurately mirrored that of our ancestors – where a child received care from an average of 15-20 people per day instead of just me (according to Michaleen Douclef’s Hunt Gather Parent), I know in my bones that my anxiety would be triggered far less. I would have access to more co-regulation, and I’d be liberated from the high-intensity pressure of meeting close to all of my child’s mental, emotional, and material needs.
The reality is that we do not live like this so how do we navigate parenting anxiety the best we can while living in modern isolation?
There’s one thing I noticed that, without fail, makes my anxiety much worse. When I avoid feeling my feelings, all my symptoms intensify as if in a pressure cooker. The only way out of this state, I’ve found, is through.
I know it sounds scary, but I’ve found a way to make it a whole lot less scary for myself and others.
It’s a process that I call FACE: Feel, Amplify, Connect, and Embrace.
During the rush of our parenting days, we often don’t have the luxury to fall apart. (Although it can be healing to cry in front of our children given the right framework.)
But when I do get five minutes to myself, FACE is the most impactful thing I can do to reduce my anxiety, and show up as the parent I want to be.
How to Practice FACE
FACE is a process we can practice as a standalone meditation (see the link to a guided version here), and also in a matter of seconds during in-the-trenches parenting. For me, it works best to practice on my own first, so that I lay down the pathways in my mind for easier access when I need them most.
I’ll break down each of the four steps briefly, and illustrate each one using an example from the story I began with:
Step 1: Feel
In this step, I notice the body sensations that are moving through me and name the feeling. Heat. Pressure. Anger. I take a deep breath and allow this feeling to just be in my body without pushing it away, and without reacting out of it.
Step 2: Amplify
Breathing and allowing this feeling to be in my body, I now take deepening breaths as I imagine opening space around it, and inviting it to take up as much space as it needs in the room around me. This helps me to unclench my body so that the feeling actually moves through me instead of getting stuck. I know this seems counterintuitive to amplify a feeling you don’t want to have, but trust me, this is the key. Most people are surprised to find that by allowing the feeling space, it actually becomes lighter and easier to hold in the body.
Step 3: Connect
This step is a simple question that unveils the roots of the strong emotional reaction you’re having to your child. While breathing and holding your feelings and sensations in this space of openness, ask your inner knowing: “When did I feel this as a child?” Rest and allow the answer to come without thinking about what the right thing could be. Within a few seconds, your mind will show you an image of yourself at a certain age. You don’t need this to be a memory, just a vague sense of how old you were when you felt this similar combination of feeling and sensation in your body.
As I asked myself this question while the anxiety coursed through my body, I immediately saw an image of myself as about 10 years old, crying alone in my room. I held this image in my mind, as I moved on to step four.
Step 4: Embrace
Imagine now that you are looking at the child version of yourself through the eyes of the strongest and most loving version of your adult self. Looking at them through the lens of care and curiosity, ask them this question: “What do you really need?” Wait for them to respond in the way that is most authentic to them. Allow your inner knowing to reveal the answer - it usually comes very quickly. Then, imagine your adult self meeting that need for them. Perhaps it’s a hug or words of affirmation, or maybe even to run away or hit something. Whatever it is, validate it unconditionally.
Asking my child self this question, I heard, “I need you to be with me.” So, I saw and felt the most loving version of my adult self sitting close to my child self with full attention. I said to her, “I’m here for you. I’m listening.” Waves of relief and some tears came to the surface.
Moving through the four steps of FACE in less than a minute, the pressure in my chest has subsided, and the intensity of the anxiety has quieted to a slow simmer that no longer threatens to take me over.
FACE isn’t a silver bullet that will take us immediately from anxious to calm (sign me up for that), but it does have the power to return our baseline to a state of presence with our kids where we have the freedom to show up as the parents we want to be.
When I emerge from practicing FACE, I am awestruck at how different my heart feels. Showing myself this depth of compassionate presence has been my lifeline for navigating daily stress and anxiety, and I hope you’ll discover the same relief within yourself.