When One Anxiety Masks Another

February 4, 2019

  “I am having major anxiety with the mess in my house. With 3 small children home with me it is never ending and I feel like it is suffocating me! Between dishes, laundry, and toys, I can never catch up. I feel like it’s all I can think about sometimes and I can’t enjoy […]

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“I am having major anxiety with the mess in my house. With 3 small children home with me it is never ending and I feel like it is suffocating me! Between dishes, laundry, and toys, I can never catch up. I feel like it’s all I can think about sometimes and I can’t enjoy my day or my kids until everything is cleaned up, which I realize just isn’t realistic.”

A dear member of My Self Care Bestie posted this in our private Facebook group on February 1.  She went on to say, “I don’t want to look back at the time my kids were little and feel like I didn’t enjoy them because I was only worried about cleaning up, but I can’t help it because I have so much anxiety when there’s a mess that I can’t just let it go!”

Well, my sweet friend, let me be the first to tell you:  you’re not alone.  And, while that may provide a small measure of comfort to you, I’m sure what you really want me to say is:  here’s what you can do about it.  The good news?  I’m gonna!

But first, let’s talk about WHY you’re not alone.  In a recent Instagram stories poll, I asked if any other women out there share your struggle:  a whopping 76% of respondents said YES!

Another reason you’re not alone?  You’re not REALLY anxious about your messy house.  The fact is, you are probably anxious about something WAY bigger than dirty dishes and a laundry pile.  It may be that you are anxious about finances, losing a loved one, or marital problems (not YOU, dear friend, but any of us) – the stuff that can really keep you up at night and rob you of all your potential for peace.

Can I tell you something else?  I can relate.  Oh boy, can I relate.

Last Tuesday, we had our bi-annual case planning meeting for our sweet baby boy – the one that basically determines whether or not we will have the opportunity to adopt him, or whether he will be reunified with a parent or family member.  The outcome was a complete shock to us:  a family member had come out of nowhere and said they wanted to raise him – just when we thought we would finally be on the path to adoption.

As you can imagine, we were completely devastated and I spent the rest of that day in my pajamas and a good portion of it in bed.  After we put the kids to bed, my husband said, “so what do you want to do tonight?”  I looked at him and said: “I know it’s only 8:15, but I need to go to bed…I just want this day to be over.”  Real talk.

The next morning I woke up determined to choose joy, determined to enjoy every precious moment with ALL of my boys.  And for the most part, I did.  I looked at each of those precious gifts with new eyes and appreciation, praising God for letting me be their mama, for however long He decides I get to be.

And then something strange started to happen.  I found myself not sleeping well, worrying about our housing situation (our landlord is putting our house on the market in March, meaning we will likely be moving AGAIN and we still aren’t quite in a position to buy a house).  I was fretting in the wee hours of the morning about when the house will sell, IF the house will sell, where we will potentially have to move to, if the boys will have to change schools, etc.  I found myself texting our landlord a polite but cool text about how much work she wanted to do while we are still living here before she listed the house.  I found myself saying things like, “Don’t you think we need to set a boundary?!!?” to my husband, who patiently put up with my mania, deciding the best course of action was to simply agree with me.  Someone give that man a gold medal in patience.

After almost an entire week of this house anxiety (and really not much thought about baby boy’s situation), I pulled out my journal to write for just 5 minutes.  The words, as they appeared on the page, took me by complete surprise:

I have been so anxious lately about the whole house/moving/landlord situation that I almost wonder if what I’m really anxious about is baby boy possibly leaving us, but that is way too much to think about so I’m fixated on this instead.  Or maybe I feel like I have absolutely no control over the foster care situation (which I don’t) and I think somehow I can set boundaries or control things more easily with the house situation or someone who isn’t The State of Connecticut.  But the truth is, I don’t have control over EITHER situation; but I know I can trust the One who does.

So what’s the point of me sharing all this with you, aside from just to prove that even therapists have stuff that keeps them up at night, and limited insight into their own experience at times?

The point is this:  we must all learn to recognize a) WHAT we are really anxious about (and it could even be multiple things at a time), and b) the habitual ways we have coped or responded with those anxieties.  Ok, and also c) if those habitual ways aren’t serving us (they rarely do), we must find new, healthier ways to cope.

Many times, when a client presents in my office with “neat-freak tendencies” that they see are getting in their own way, compulsive eating (over or under), over-exercising, smoking, drinking too much or doing drugs, their issue is NOT with what they view as the problem behavior.  It’s with the emotions they have yet to deal with that are driving them to that behavior.  Or it could feel “easier” to have an anxiety about cleaning (or moving) than whatever else may be there on a deeper level – in my case, potentially losing our baby boy.

It sounds like a lot, right?  It is.  I won’t sugarcoat it for you.  But the good news is, with practice and consistency (yeah, these things take time, I’m afraid), you and me both can do the dang thing.  I truly recommend speaking to a therapist about this stuff because there’s likely a lot to unpack, but allow me give you a few other tips as well.  Oh, and as for me?  I’ll be taking my own advice and popping into a therapist’s office too at some point before this whole foster care thing is said and done.  Yep, therapists need therapy too, and there ain’t no shame in it for you or for me!

Write your intentions daily

There are a lot of ways you can do this, but I recommend setting at least 3 intentions in the early morning, and writing them down on a notecard or sticky note – something you can take with you and you will frequently be able to refer back to throughout the day.  We can’t get anywhere new without intentionality, so instead of just hoping we feel differently, give yourself some power (you DO have it) and write something like: “Today I intend to feel peaceful” or “Just for today, I intend to focus on my kids and not the mess.”  Whatever works for you, and whatever feels good to you and for you that morning.

Notice your self-talk

If you feel yourself slipping back into anxiety mode (or worrying about the mess mode), pay attention.  Stop those thoughts in their tracks and take a deep breath.  Think about what you would say to a good friend who had the same problem – speak compassionately to yourself.  You are a work in progress.  We all are.  You’re doing great.  The fact that you CARE about this, shows what an amazing mom you are.  Any or all of those will work.  Just be mindful not to let yourself get away with berating yourself if you fall short of your daily intentions.  We all do sometimes.  Tomorrow is a new day.

Try a loving kindness meditation

Meditation is SUCH my jam.  As I get more and more into mindfulness, I realize how beneficial it is and how it really can change my brain if I show up and practice it!  There are tons of mediations out there, but to help yourself focus on kind thoughts toward yourself (and any little – or big – mess-makers you may live with), I recommend a loving kindness meditation.  If you pray, it’s kind of like praying for the health, safety, and well-being of yourself and others.  If you’d like a little more guidance, I recommend starting with this meditation or this one.

Wind down at night

People who are running in high anxiety mode for most of the day often have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep (like me, all last week).  This tends to exacerbate the problem.  Right before you get into bed, pause and take 3 long, slow, deep breaths.  You can say the words “rest” or “calm” or “relax” or “let go.”  Something that will be your cue that the day is ending and you now intend to give your body what it needs by resting and letting go of thoughts of messes, worries, and troubles.  Getting enough sleep is so often half the battle when we are dealing with mental health issues, so definitely  create some space in your evening routine to signal your body it’s time to be done for the day.

Go for a walk in a peaceful place

Get outside your house for at least a portion of the day.  Especially in the beginning, the dishes and laundry pile will likely continue to be a trigger for your anxiety.  So get outta there.  Even if you just walk up and down your street on a chilly day, you’ll benefit from the fresh air and change of scenery.  If you have to take the kids with you, so be it.  They’ll benefit too, and even on a day most riddled with anxiety or mom-guilt, you’ll be like, “oh wait, I took the kids on a walk today…I actually kind of rock.”  Because you do.


I hope these suggestions will help you, and any other ladies who share this struggle.  Digging deep below the surface to find out what we could really be anxious about is not going to be fun, but it’s going to be SO beneficial.  Speak to a therapist, do some free-form journaling for a few minutes per day, and get to the bottom of this.  In the meantime, keep adding mindful habits like the ones I’ve shared with you here to your day.  You’ll be so, so glad you did.  And so will your little (and big) mess makers.

Much love to you all today!  You know where to find me if you need to schedule a once monthly mobile check-in, or you want to join our amazing self-care community.  Don’t hesitate to reach out!






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I'm Cathleen, your new (foster) mom friend.

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