How do you deal with a parent with severe anxiety?

August 19 | Guest post by Dreamdeer
Anxiety Faerie doll by Etsy seller Snotnormal
Anxiety Faerie doll by Etsy seller Snotnormal
I love my mother to death and she is a wonderful, caring person, who takes up so much of my heart. Which is why her anxiety disorder is so awful for me.

She's been like this for years– doing things like suggesting that everything I do will kill or harm my baby. But now her anxiety over everything is giving ME anxiety over everything (and causing anxiety attacks).

I don't know how to approach the situation to convince her to get real help and counseling. Does anyone have tips for dealing with a parent with severe anxiety? -Anna

Ooh boy do I know this one! I was raised by a grandmother who was deliberately overdosed on amphetamines by a doctor who got referral kickbacks from a mental hospital. After getting off the little green pills her body substituted adrenaline, which meant she needed to find any possible reason to feel anxious or angry.

Sometimes you have to accept people as they are and stop trying to fix them. Comfort her without trying to be logical–hug her, hold her hand, make soothing sounds, but don't let her dictate your decisions based on her mental illness.

Trust that your judgment is better than hers. She cannot reason, and she can't help it. Your instinct might be to turn to her for wisdom, but it's not there, honey, so just love her without expecting more than she can give.

Above all, don't let her backseat-raise your children! The poor thing is not competent to do that. The reason you feel so vulnerable to catching the contagion of anxiety from her is that she made some mistakes with you that you don't want to repeat with your own kids. Yet, God bless you, you have the strength to protect your children from her illness, and you're going to do a much better job of mothering than she ever could.

Sometimes that means mothering your mother as well, whenever anxiety reverts her to a pre-logic state. You don't let a frightened child run screaming into traffic, and you don't let your mother do harmful things while in a similar frame of mind.

My blessings go with you. You will do just fine!

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  1. Not really got any solid advice… I have a depressed and anxious mother in law. I have been kind, patient and helpful – but I find my self unwilling to socialise with her any more, as it is so difficult and uncomfortable – not just in the usual way that can come with mental illness (been there my self, plenty of friends too, not encountered this feeling), but something else… that I can't find the words for. She won't seek help, and I am out of energy to keep trying – she needs clinical help, not just friends.
    Which I think is a way to say boundaries. Maybe sign posting to help, but knowing she might not take it. And then what can you do… so counselling for your self,or having a good structure of your own coping stratagies and support network is probably a good idea too. Good luck.

    7 agree
  2. I wish I had the answer. I am studying to be a therapist and I can't fix my own mother problems. My mom is severely depressed, agoraphobic, anxious, and is showing some signs of paranoia… and I just seem to make it worse when I try to talk to her about it. I think that if you could convince her to try therapy, maybe even with you at first, then alone… that's what I am trying to do, but the agoraphobia makes that hard… plus, family therapy usually isn't covered by insurance, so we are figuring out how to pay for it.

    1 agrees
    • Can you get your mother online and see if there's a therapist who will skype with her?

      Also, at least online she's not so closed off. Even if she retreats into a gaming world, that means she's practicing courage vicariously all day, and sometimes that helps, with the right nudges to apply lessons learned to the real world.

  3. Hugs. I've been unable to convince my mother with anxiety to get treatment. I can't control what she does but I have learned to set boundaries in conversation s with her to prevent her triggering my anxiety. I would suggest visiting a therapist if you haven't already who can help with this and discuss options for managing your own anxiety. Be aware that you can't make others change, just encourage them to seek help. This is hard when you love someone, but it's important to recognize.

    5 agree
  4. I don't know how you can get her to a professional but that is what she needs along with meds. I suffer from anxiety and depression and PTSD and I am on two meds and I would not be able to function without them, even though I am not as extreme as your mother seems to be. She needs to see a psychiatrist who can prescribe meds and give her appropriate treatment. If there are other family members who can help you then maybe you could do a compassionate intervention and insist for her own good that she get treatment. I might ask her if she is really happy and content to live with the extreme anxiety, and that perhaps she would be willing to explore a life without such stress.
    Somehow you must get her help before she proves to be a danger to herself or anyone else. I hope that doesn't sound too scary, it's just that I know that when I was without meds there were several times I contemplated suicide and now I am thriving and truly happy and my life for me and my son is more than I could ask for. Medication and treatment can really make a difference. In the meantime you and your mother will be in my prayers.

    Carole

    • The very first thing you need to do before you take on anyone else problems, is look after yourself and get yourself safe and supported. This is true anytime (put your mask on before helping others and all that) but especially if you are already having anxiety over this.

      Get yourself a counsellor/therapist and get them to help you work out how to tell your mother that you need her to get help and what her not getting help is doing to you, which is a totally reasonable thing to tell her. It may even be that a therapist can facilitate this dialogue.

      Ultimately though you need to be seeing the therapist for you and helping your mother because it what it does for you. Of course you want to help her but you need to do it such a way that you don’t take responsibility for the situation because that won’t help either of you. It may also be that your mother is more motivated to do this for you than for herself, but ultimately of course getting help will help her.

      7 agree
      • Listen to Stripey, she had better advice than me. She is right. You need to take of yourself first.

        • Oh Carole you sound like someone with a great big heart! You are right that meds and treatment make a huge difference, they did to me. Take care

      • This. So much. Therapy needed to reset my normal meter for my kids.
        I had to distance myself from my parents for a 100 reasons that boil down to boundaries. I need to keep my kids safe by keeping me safe.

        2 agree
  5. I don't have any solid advice but do have some experience. My mother is a very non-trusting, suspicious, slightly paranoid, worst case scenario type person. I suppose she could probably be classified as anxious though most of the time it just comes of as kind of harsh and mean! Anyway, I tend to let comments like "Make sure you take a pepper gun when you go to Wal-Mart" or "You need to keep your front door locked all the time" just go in one ear and out the other. I just say "okay, sure!" and then forget about it.
    Not sure if that tactic will work for you but might be worth a try!

    3 agree
    • This very well could be anxiety. A lot of times it doesn't come across as fear, it can come across as aggressive or overprotective behavior in many people. Anxiety presents itself in many ways, which is why a lot of people don't know they suffer from it.

      • OVERPROTECTIVE! Thank you, that is the perfect word! She gives me shit for things like walking to the grocery store without my husband. The grocery store is less than a mile from our house, we live in a sleepy little down where the average age is about 60, and I go in broad daylight.
        Nothing is going to happen! It's odd because she's gotten "worse" as she's gotten older. When I was little we never locked our doors at our house whether we were there or not. Now sometimes I drop by in the middle of the day and have to use my key.

        1 agrees
        • I am a Cinical mental Health Nurse and I STILL have troubles trying to get my Dad to seek help. Now when we are together and he is anxious about something/going somewhere/doing something etc (you know the anxious drill) I give him little tidbits of info on how to cope a bit better. I have found this endlessly useful. He prefers it to the long drawn out conversations we used to have about seeking help. Sometimes now he will even call himself on it and remind us both about a suggestion I had made last time. I suppose what I am saying, is the more you can learn, the more you can pass on 🙂

          1 agrees
  6. Oboy do I know this one! I was raised by a grandmother who was deliberately overdosed on amphetamines by a doctor who got referral kickbacks from a mental hospital. After getting off the little green pills her body substituted adrenaline, which meant she needed to find any possible reason to feel anxious or angry.

    Sometimes you have to accept people as they are and stop trying to fix them. Comfort her without trying to be logical–hug her, hold her hand, make soothing sounds, but don't let her dictate your decisions based on her mental illness. Trust that your judgment is better than hers. She cannot reason, and she can't help it. Your instinct might be to turn to her for wisdom, but it's not there, honey, so just love her without expecting more than she can give.

    Above all, don't let her backseat-raise your children! The poor thing is not competent to do that. The reason you feel so vulnerable to catching the contagion of anxiety from her is that she made some mistakes with you that you don't want to repeat with your own kids. Yet, God bless you, you have the strength to protect your children from her illness, and you're going to do a much better job of mothering than she ever could.

    Sometimes that means mothering your mother as well, whenever anxiety reverts her to a pre-logic state. You don't let a frightened child run screaming into traffic, and you don't let your mother do harmful things while in a similar frame of mind.

    My blessings go with you. You will do just fine!

    2 agree
  7. I am sorry to say you can not "fix" someone else. I wish I had other advice, but this was my experience. Believe me, I nearly burned myself out trying to help my mom. If she does not aknowledge the problem, there is little you can do. I was estranged for several years before I was strong enough to face her again.

    And even more tragically, you need to think of your kids first. Which might eventually lead to a difficult choice and boundary setting

    As they grow older, children become aware of what is "usual" trustworthy adult limits and what is erratic, manipulative antics (admittedly, my mom has more than just anxiety, but the point holds.) When my daughter was around five, she began to challenge my mom's outrageous claims, (you can't play by the hedge- why?) which caused her to outright lie, (because you will get AIDS from the damp- wtf?) which then caused my not-naive kid to blatantly to her face tell her it was not true which escalated to a horrible agressive manipulative incident. Kiddo no longer trusts her Grand-ma, and I have never left them alone together since.

    Try to maintain some contact. Find situations that are easier for her. Either staying at her home or being completely outside like a restaurant helps. Keeping her mind busy helps withdistraction, so I will for example invite her to the zoo with us but not spend an afternoon relaxing at her place. Being in an environment she can control is a double-edged sword. We can do short visits at her place, but my kid can not play or move anything. My house is out of the question because mom will not sit and try to control everything, from the dishes to the room temperature. Surprisingly, being completely out of her element helps too. We spent Christmas at a hotel and I have never seen her so relaxed in ten years!

    Anyway, find your boundaries and stick to them. Remember, you are not her mom, rather it is the other way around!

    1 agrees
  8. This going to sound harsh, but ignore her. Avoid her calls if you have to. There is nothing you can do unless she wants to change. Further, our bodies adapt to constant endocrine stressors. Plenty of peer-reviewed science shows she may be physically unable to relax now. Don't let her do that to you.

    You'll feel bad about it, but it's like having an alcoholic parent. You can try an intervention, e.g. "Get help. Here's some contact info for various psychiatrists." In the end, she has to acknowledge that she has a problem. She will also probably need both psychiatric and psychological help to change.

    There is nothing you can do but help yourself. If it makes you feel better, letting her drive you crazy will only hurt your child. You may have to pick between the two.

    I speak all of this from experience.

  9. Does she trust her normal doctor/physician? Maybe go with her to a normal doctor appointment (say you'd like to ask him something for yourself, if needed?) and let the doctor know about your worries, although if in front of your mother maybe say how much it's affecting you. He may just be able to give your mother some medication to help with it right away, and if she trusts him then it won't be like going to a new therapist or anything. If she's not comfortable with a normal doctor, then I don't know. 🙁

  10. As people have touched on before, I feel like this issue really swings on whether or not she is aware that her anxiety is a problem.
    If she knows she's experiencing anxiety spirals, I find it helpful to have a "flag phrase" that you can employ when what she's saying is stressing you out. With my mom, it's actually just a tone of "Mom" I use that lets her know I want her to stop.
    If she doesn't think it's a problem, and doesn't see why you're not more grateful for her "help"? That's a different problem. I'd sit her down and frame the conversation in terms of you and your needs; begin with the fact that you've been having anxiety attacks, and explain that you need to change up some things in your life. Say that you've been getting a lot of advice from a lot of sources and that it's just overwhelming.
    As a compromise, if she feels like there's some advice she really, really needs to share, to send it in an email with an article backing up the claim. This may be enough to dampen her interest in backseat parenting. If she continues to worry and seems to be sending a lot of those emails, then it's time for an intervention about her anxiety… and you'll have tangible, date-stamped evidence that she's fixating on worrisome thoughts.

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