6 Ways I Cope with Anxiety in Motherhood
What can I say, it’s a process. I have been living with anxiety for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are intrusive thoughts and panic. I have some happy childhood memories sprinkled in, but my anxiety always seems to take the forefront of my thoughts, if not in the moment, at least in the long term memory. Clear as crystal. I have been to therapy on and off through out the majority of my life. First in my teen years and now again as an adult. My last pregnancy really took a toll on my emotions and I knew that my usual coping mechanisms were not going to be enough. Still, it took me a year after the birth to make an appointment and start to process the anxiety brought on by pregnancy and postpartum.
I had been in therapy for about 3 months and I didn’t know if I could really put into words how life changing it was.
After a heart to heart with a friend who also is a therapist and a conversation with my primary care provider, I also made a difficult choice to go on medication. I was reluctant because in the past medication felt mind numbing. I felt like I didn’t have any emotions. I was younger, my teenage brain was probably pumped full of hormones so maybe the effects were more extreme or it was the wrong combination of meds and therapy, who knows. I didn’t want to be a zombie but something had to change. I needed relief. For the last 2 years I have been struggling with my anxiety. Feeling sadness and anger and resentment against myself. How could this be me? Why was my own mind turning against me? Why couldn’t I just enjoy a moment? I love being pregnant, I love babies, I love my babies, why couldn’t I enjoy these fleeting moments like I so desperately wanted to?
It felt like I was on the verge of crawling out of my skin my entire pregnancy, and by the birth I was being pummeled with intrusive thoughts, nightmares and the all consuming physical sensations of anxiety. I was worrying about everything intensely and feeling so disappointed that this was happening again. It felt like there was nothing I could do to stop it. Like I was doomed to feel this way forever. Maddening.
Then, the day before I went into labor my anxiety let up. Finally some physical relief. I could breath deeply into my chest and I was hungry again. I didn’t know then that labor was imminent. I was calm and focused and excited… for about 6 hours. My water broke shortly after I went to bed and I went into labor. I had a quick, peaceful, gentle labor and birth at home with my midwife in attendance and was so relieved to not feel the constant pull of intrusive thoughts and panic 24/7. My anxiety went dormant for a few months but I stayed in a dull place. I kept telling myself it was better. I felt like if I couldn’t enjoy every moment at least I didn’t feel like I was terrified of every thing.
After a year, on my sweet baby’s 1st birthday, I knew that I couldn’t go on this way. I wasn’t even excited about the party or my family coming, it was all anxiety, all the time. My anxiety became a focus again and I felt trapped in my own body. Desperately wanting to get out but too overwhelmed to go anywhere, even to the grocery store. I didn’t enjoy anything in the way I wanted to. I finally made a call to my midwife, who asked me if I felt like I was enjoying anything. I could not tell her yes, there was not one thing that made me feel joy, no warm and fuzzies, and that made me so sad. She told me, “life is too precious to feel like shit”.
I made an appointment after I received a referral from another therapist with someone who specializes in OCD and Anxiety disorders. It changed the game.
After 3 months of therapy and a low dose of Zoloft I was a different person, a better person, closer to myself than I had been in years. Things look hopeful. I am rediscovering how to coexist with anxiety and learned some great coping skills to move forward.
Accepting that I have anxiety, but I am not my anxiety.
Learning to let go of the guilt and sadness and anger towards myself and letting anxiety just be anxiety. Just thoughts, sometimes disturbing, but they are only thoughts and I can let them go.
Below are some of the tools I have implemented in my daily life to cope with living with anxiety.
Thank You Brain…
Thanking my brain for my intrusive thoughts.
I know it sounds crazy, it certainly sounded unreasonable to me to say thank you to my brain after 2 years of all of the angry things I had said to myself for having intrusive thoughts. Who needs to see their baby or other children and husband die 100 times a day in their mind while just trying to complete simple tasks like making dinner and walking across the house?
I thought what good is that going to do?
Well, it was pretty amazing actually.
The way that it works is when I have an intrusive thought or thoughts throughout the day I pause and say thank you. Anxiety, for me, is usually revolving around my safety or the safety and well-being of my family members. So when I have an intrusive thought of something happening to my baby or myself or another member of my family I say thank you.
I acknowledge that my safety trigger in my brain has switched on to detect danger and for some reason or another has gotten stuck.
So I say thank you brain for recognizing the danger. I try to look at the facts. Is my baby safe? Is she happy and smiling right in front of me? Is there something I need to do to remove any actual danger to her? If I answer no to all of those questions, then I can move on about my day or task. Sometimes I have to say it again, and again.
Thank you brain for keeping my baby safe.
Eventually the thought will pass. I can chose to let it pass instead of struggling with other emotions, like guilt and sadness and anger, for my brain to show me such a vivid, intrusive example of what could be.
Twice a day I do a breathing exercise. Those of us with anxiety tend to hold our breath or breathe shallowly, this can further the physical affects of feeling anxious and triggering the mental side of anxiety.
So in the morning when I wake up and at night before I go to bed I do a simple breathing exercise to release some of the tension in my chest.
It goes like this.
I breath in deeply through my nose for the count of 4, then I pause and hold my breath for another count of 7. I slowly release my breath out of my mouth for the count of 8. I repeat this process 4 times. It takes about a minute and offers so much relief.
I do this exercise at least twice a day and on most days I do it a few more times as needed.
It really helps when I am feeling irritable, another fun side effect of anxiety. It works really well when I do it consistently as a wellness activity and not just when I feel like I need to take a deep breath.
Guided Meditation with YouTube Videos
You can find everything on the internet and while I am sure there is a lot of hullabalue to sort through, it is also a great resource that can be really helpful.
I can get lost on the internet and it can turn ugly quickly.
One glance at webmd and I will diagnose my self with the rarest disease based on a pain in my right elbow… I am aware of that so I try to reign in freely surfing the internet when I need an answer, after all I am still a person who owns books.
There are two videos that my therapist has shared with me and suggested I practice. One is about anxiety and “the struggle switch” and another is a 15 minute guided meditation called leaves on a stream.
The first video I like because it’s a reminder of all the emotions that are connected with anxiety, the inner dialog that makes the anxiety carry so much weight. When I think about letting go of the guilt and anger and sadness associated with the anxiety then the weight of worry doesn’t seem so heavy. It’s a nice reminder with a great visual.
The leaves on a stream exercise has been great. I try to do this a few times a week. Now that’s it’s summer it has been more challenging to find that chunk of time to relax and listen to it but I have it saved to my phone and I can usually fit it in to a busy day. Then I take pieces of it with me and even if I only have a few minutes of quiet time during the day I can pull from my memory and practice.
Physical Activity and Daily Exercise
My goal is to incorporate at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. I love to go for long walks to the park and back. I think this has been the hardest to implement.
I really love yoga but don’t make it to as many classes as I would like and for some reason developing an at home practice has been challenging. As I have deemed this the summer of self-care for my family I have a goal that I will work towards finding a balance that helps me get to a place where I feel good about my routine but don’t feel stuck in it.
I like to keep things open and flexible.
Journaling has always been an important part of my ability to process my emotions. It’s like I can slow my thoughts down to match the pace at which I am writing. If I can’t write I will doodle. I have piles of journals with pages over flowing with emotion packed in a box from the last 15 years. One day I will go back and read them… writing can be very healing and when I write I know that it’s likely no one will be reading my personal journals, so I don’t have to worry about it being perfect, just the act of writing down some of my thoughts can feel like I am letting them free.
When in doubt, or panic, I drop everything and craft.
It may be anything from a small canvas painting or refinishing a piece of furniture. Creating and crafting is my most reliable go to to calm my mind. Sometimes if I can keep my hands moving and my brain focused on what I am doing and I can make it through challenging times without losing my shit.
Hopefully you have found this article helpful, if only to find out that you are not the only one mothering through anxiety.
My only wish is that I wouldn’t have waited so long to ask for help, but I did and it was hard but it is worth it and even though I waited so long I still saw positive change in a relatively short period of time.
I am still experiencing anxiety. I still have days that hard and long and at the end I wish that I could do it over. But more often than not I am making it a priority to put my self first so that I can be the best mother I can be and I am feeling hopeful. There’s a popular saying in our community of mommas right now, “You have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, so you can help others”.
I might have anxiety forever, this road is long but I am working on acceptance that I can coexist with anxiety and OCD. I think that having anxiety has made me more compassionate and understanding person and it isn’t an easy thing to live with but with the right help and support it is manageable. I am starting to feel like I can have a life again outside of my own thoughts.
Until next time…