Postpartum depression may get more attention in public airwaves, but postpartum anxiety is actually more common. If you’re a new parent coping with overwhelming worry and self-doubt, research-based mindfulness techniques can begin to turn things around.
Multiple celebrities have helped to destigmatize postpartum depression by pulling back the curtain to reveal some of their darkest struggles. Serena Williams, Brooke Shields, and Chrissy Teigen are just a few in a long list of women to come forward with their stories, helping the public to realize how simultaneously common and debilitating this disorder is.
Yet what many women do not realize is that postpartum depression’s ugly stepsister—postpartum anxiety—is actually more prevalent, and is often a predictor of later-onset postpartum depression. Six percent of pregnant women and 10% of postpartum women develop anxiety, according to Postpartum Support International. Common symptoms include:
- preoccupation with your infant’s health
- fear of your new baby being injured
- excessive worry about being a bad mother
- panic symptoms, which can include racing heart, sweating, and nausea
The worries may be intrusive, leading to distress and a feeling that they will never go away. You may feel on edge, cry, and have difficulty sleeping. Many women try to cope by avoiding situations that could trigger the anxiety, such as social settings or running errands with the baby. For example, Chrissy Tiegen, who revealed in Glamour that her true diagnosis was actually “postpartum depression and anxiety,” reported she refused to leave her house unless she had to work. You may try to cope by constantly checking to make sure the baby is okay, even if it means your sleep is interrupted or it takes up time you could use for self-care or completing daily tasks.
This is a real problem, but treatment can help. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based approach that incorporates mindfulness, tends to reduce the symptoms of postpartum anxiety. Using tools from this treatment can decrease the fog of overwhelm and settle the calm back in.
Allow yourself to observe, not avoid, the anxious thoughts
Much research has inquired into what to do about unhelpful thoughts. While conventional approaches have often told us to challenge unrealistic thoughts, this often doesn’t make the thoughts go away. While this is what we want when we feel anxious, the truth is that the best way to cope with anxious thoughts is not to try to make them go away. Instead, it’s best to develop a different relationship with them. Spending our energy fighting them not only makes them get bigger and gain more control over our lives and our choices because as we wrestle with them, we lose the energy to do what really matters in that moment. So, in the face of an unwanted thought, the trick is to mindfully notice it. “Oh, so I am having the thought that (Insert unwanted thought here.).” This allows you to label the thought just as a thought, not true or false, good or bad, just something that popped into your mind. It puts space between you and the thought, enabling you to decide how to respond in that moment, without the thought taking over your actions.
Let metaphors do the heavy lifting
Another technique for changing one’s relationship with their thoughts is to use metaphors. A common metaphor used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is the passengers on the bus metaphor. Imagine you’re the driver of a bus. There are many passengers aboard, each representing various thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and memories. One passenger may be the tightness in your chest; another the anxious thought about whether your baby is breathing while sleeping, and another that pesky feeling of overwhelm. These passengers may tell you that you can’t sleep because you need to keep checking on your baby every few seconds. You can listen to these passengers and do what they say, which may temporarily decrease your anxiety. However, that won’t provide long-term relief, and it will probably make the anxiety worse. On top of that, your mood will suffer from sleep deprivation. Instead of listening to the passengers, you have the option to just notice that the passengers (your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations) are there and focus on getting some sleep.
Choose meaningful, values-based actions
There are oh so many reasons a worried mind finds to distract you from meaningful, values-based actions. It may tell you that the trip to Target you have been looking forward to can’t happen because it is simply not safe–your baby might start crying, people will look at you funny, and you’ll freeze up. If you accept these thoughts at face value, they’ll rob you of your fresh air break and stop you from acquiring the thank you cards you had planned to get for the baby shower gifts, the new lip gloss you wanted to feel pretty again, and the cookies you like to reward yourself with at the end of a long day. Yet if you see the worries as precisely what they are–merely anxious thoughts, or metaphorical passengers–then you still get to go to the store and execute your plan, regardless of whether those thoughts join you. In these situations, it is most important to orient yourself to your values, keeping in mind that your value of motherhood need not eclipse the other values you hold dear, such as self-care. This will require you to take time for yourself, take a shower, and get rest. Even if the anxious thoughts or feelings are there, remember that doing things for yourself not only helps you feel better, it also helps you to be a better parent.
Lastly, talking to a therapist can help you navigate what is happening internally and map out a plan that works for you. Serenity Solutions specializes in postpartum anxiety and can help. Call us at 267-317-8817, or click here to schedule your free, 15-minute phone consultation.