Sydney McCall Patel
How to Navigate Parental Anxiety to get Closer to the Joy of Parenting
Updated: Feb 17
by Sydney McCall Patel, Marriage and Family Therapist, Marin County, California
Parenting undoubtedly can bring us great joy and even bliss. Nevertheless, becoming a parent can also feel like you’ve chosen to ride the terror train express. My husband and I worry about our son in different ways. He worries about his safety and development, and I worry about how his generation will deal with climate change and the instability in the world, and of course there is so much overlap. We both feel the tenderness of his vulnerability and a strong urge to shelter him. Whether we notice it, or whether we shove it deep down underneath our conscious experience of our daily emotions, loving our children often means being sick with worry for them. That’s the live stick of emotional dynamite we play with by inviting amazing little humans into our care and hearts. It’s not always fun. In fact it can be terrifying.
The dark night of the soul can find me anywhere and at any time. Sometimes it jolts me awake at 2 AM or as I’m drinking tea in the early morning. My mind can run at terrific speeds through dark tunnels of potential catastrophes. As a therapist I know this instinct to worry is entirely necessary. Adaptively we have learned to focus on danger; without it we won’t survive. But my alert system can move into overdrive and this state is not helpful if I want to actually sleep. And the more unsettled my anxiety is, the more my son feels it and becomes anxious himself.
Spinning with worry doesn’t help me to more accurately predict future threats. The only way to prepare for such crisis is by seeing if there is something I need to do in the moment to take care of the present stress. I can slow down to notice what’s happening inside. I can breathe deeply and check in with myself to see if there’s an action that might help me to relax: Stop fighting against imagined fears, start examining the nature of fear itself.
A technique that helps me find ease during heightened anxiety is to scan my environment for signs of safety. This let’s the external feedback calm my nervous system, so I know it’s really ok to let my guard down. It moves my animal body out of fight or flight and into a conclusion of security. Our highly intelligent brains can imagine all sorts of dangers and maybe we can’t settle all those more elaborate anxieties, but we can tell the instinctual animal that it’s not about to be eaten! At least we’ve got that going for us…
In my office in Marin county I train my clients, and also myself, to choose a color and take the time to look for it in every possible place in our surroundings. By doing this we are entering into the refuge of the present moment, which is the antidote to anxiety. We can cultivate trust in our ability to respond when a real threat presents itself, knowing we have the reflexes to calm down enough to react appropriately.
The tendency with anxiety is to push it away because it’s so uncomfortable. But when we really acknowledge our discomfort we can learn from it. It shows us how we’ve been hurt and where our values lie. Pretty much universally our values are safety, well-being, belonging and nourishment. But we build a house of cards on top of them, in wanting to give ourselves and our kids a sense of everlasting security. Nevertheless, the house of cards we hold onto is the impossible false security that keeps us anxious. In this process, as we try to grasp for something unachievable, we lose track of our simple happiness.
We are fortunate to have the ability to be our own healers by noticing the honest emotions underneath the anxiety. This honesty can lead to crying with laughter and sometimes with pain, or maybe no tears at all, just an honoring of our tender emotions. What is this life if we’re not living it deeply and in the innermost movements of the heart? So we come full circle to the seeming insanity of caring for a child in a dangerous world. It can be terrifying, but it has opened our hearts — and if we hold the pain of that opening instead of always trying to desperately patch it with fixes, we might sometimes be surprised and blessed to see it flip into a wonderful groundless joy.
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.”- Rumi.