Updated: Oct 18, 2020
When our daughter was born in 2012, I tried to hold everything together for our family – my husband had just opened a large clinic the month before, a close loved one was in an abusive relationship, my son was in kindergarten and had a schedule to stick to, and our new baby had digestive challenges. I thought I could do it all, even though I had been working with postpartum women for 4 years, and knew better.
I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I grew increasingly anxious until, around our daughter’s first birthday, I found myself in a state of hyper-vigilance that meant I stopped sleeping altogether. My journey from that place to where I am today has been one of the hardest and most rewarding adventures of my life.
photo by Jesse Kitt
Today we find ourselves in a very anxious world. A global pandemic; unpredictable schedules, jobs and paychecks; fear of the germs that our neighbors and loved ones may carry; the fight for racial justice and pressure to become more aware and involved; as well as lack of support and connection are leading to us all being on edge. Anxiety is part of life right now.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
– Jiddu Krishnamurti
New mothers are particularly prone to feel heightened anxiety as they and their partners navigate baby care, identity transformation, postpartum recovery, and keeping everyone fed, clean, healthy, safe and happy without the support or physical presence from others.
Our society is quick to prescribe drugs for strong emotions. I am disheartened by the number of moms who are put on Zoloft by well-meaning doctors who don’t take the time to get the whole story of what is going on. Anxiety (and depression) are signals that our bodies send to tell us that something is wrong… and these days, there is so much that is wrong.
Dr Kelly Brogan, a holistic psychiatrist, says, “your mental problems, such as fatigue, brain fog, depression, anxiety, and even mania and psychosis are telling you to change your life, pointing the way for how to recover and recalibrate. Illness is part of healthfulness because your psychospiritual baggage is part of your breakthrough.”
So before popping pills to mask the symptoms of life being off-kilter in some way, here are some things to try:
1. Breathe and Get In Your Body– Sounds simple, but breath and embodiment are so important to focus on! Here are some ideas to choose from:
a. Find 3-10 minutes to sit still and listen to your body. Send your nervous system a message of safety by placing a hand on your belly and one on your heart. Notice the space between your toes. Notice the air flowing through your nostrils. When your mind wanders, come back to the breath.
b. For 3-10 minutes, inhale as much air as possible, hold your breath for 3-5 seconds, and release it slowly. Repeat.
c. For 3-10 minutes, inhale peace and calm; exhale tension. Repeat.
d. For 3-10 minutes, try alternate nostril breathing for at least 3 minutes. Do this multiple times a day as needed.
e. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes and close your eyes. Tune into your anxiety. Where is it in your body? What is its shape, color, weight, texture? No need to pass judgment on it, or push it away. Simply sit with it, send it breath, and get curious about what it may be trying to tell you (see #3).
f. Do 3-5 simple heart openers, stretching your arms wide, and shining out from your heart. Look up at the sky. Anxiety creates contraction, opening your heart creates subtle expansion.
2. Remind Yourself That All is Well– It is easy to look around and see all the things that could go wrong, things I need to be vigilant about, and I have found it super helpful to periodically tell myself that everything is ok. It’s a simple mantra: Everything is ok. I am ok. My kids are ok. I am doing a good job as a mom. I don’t have to have all the answers. While the world may be struggling, fear of germs is running high, or my home is in chaos, I can notice that we are all doing ok. The house is not on fire, we are not living in a war zone, we have everything we need.
3. See Anxiety as a Messenger– I love this metaphor: when a flower is struggling to grow, we don’t yell at it and tell it something is wrong with it; we change its environment – give it more sun, water, fertilizer, etc.
So, what do you need, sweet mama flower?
Get curious about what anxiety wants to tell you. Is it that you need to confront unhealthy dynamics in a relationship? Process trauma from your past? Is it that you need to shift your focus from caring for others all the time to focusing on yourself more? Is it that you need support in taking care of everything on your plate? What is below the surface? I can assure you whatever it is will demand your attention sooner or later, so listen as best you can now. It’s not an easy task, but this hard work will pay off in future ease…
Another approach is to envision your anxiety as a person and have a conversation with it. What does it want? How can you help it feel safer? How can you and anxiety work together to live a less anxious life?
4. Create a Bubble– there is SO much going on in the world today and it can be easy to convince yourself that you need to know it all, but really, you don’t. Our nervous systems are not built to handle this much stimuli! Your baby needs you to be a calm, responsive, joyful, present caregiver and that does not entail knowing what our president said today or the list of 10 books you should read to be a better person. Turn off the news, stop talking with family and friends who are negative. Surround yourself with uplifting music and people. It is ok to do this. Really. You can catch up on what you missed once your nervous system can handle it.
5. Get Outside– Time in nature is soothing to the nervous system, but it also brings perspective – seasons changing, animals looking for food, sunshine, rain, wind, a starry night sky. All these things remind us of our small place in the universe. In Ayurveda, anxiety is associated with the vata dosha, which is connected with the elements of air and space. It can leave us spinning and ungrounded. A great way to counteract these elements is to bring in the element of earth, to get grounded and centered. Try standing barefoot on the earth and imagine roots growing from your feet, releasing the weight of all you are carrying, gaining strength from the immense nurturing energy of Mother Earth.
Getting outside often involves moving our bodies, which allows the release of endorphins, and that feels great! Starting off your day with a morning walk or stretching outside can make a world of difference.
6. Keep Your Blood Sugar Stable– This piece has been huge for me. Did you know that high blood sugar causes inflammation, which is a huge underlying cause of depression and anxiety? I followed a diet for many months to help balance my mood. It doesn’t mean you’ll eat this way forever, but cutting out sugar, gluten, GMOs, and dairy while increasing protein and fat helps calories last longer and your mood stabilize. I totally feel my anxiety rise the day after I eat certain foods. Check out the recipes on my blog to find tasty dishes that stabilize blood sugar, are easy on new-mama digestion, high in nutrition, and simple to cook!
7. Sleep - Everything is better when you’re well-rested. Prioritize sleep and watch your perspective change. This may mean delegating responsibilities, letting go of ‘shoulds,’ or slowing down more than you think you ought to. Listen to your body, mind and spirit more than cultural standards. Sleep!
8. Check for Nutritional and Hormonal Imbalances–An astounding number of postpartum mothers have thyroid problems, so find out how yours is functioning. I take supplements daily to support mine, and boost my Iron and Vitamins B12 & D. If you are breastfeeding, talk with your health care practitioner about what herbs or other supplements are safe to take. Working with an Integrative Medicine or Functional Medicine Doctor who does blood and urine tests may be super helpful in identifying imbalances that can be easily corrected with diet and supplements. Likewise, acupuncture, Ayurvedic protocols, and herbalism will support your healing.
9. Get Connection and Perspective– There is a lot of shame around postpartum moodiness, and it can be tempting to feel like you have to hide your anxiety, or keep a lid on emotions that are about to explode. Connecting with others who can look you in the eye and witness your struggle is a human need. Sharing your challenges with someone who has struggled in the same way, and come out the other side, can be particularly helpful. Please don’t hide. Please don’t soldier through. Reach out to someone who knows and loves you, or is a trained therapist and can help you sort through your feelings. Even if it is over Zoom or FaceTime, these connections are important; our systems are hard-wired to need them. Talking with someone trained in all things 4th Trimester (like me!) can also help you get perspective on your challenges and successes, as well as help you take steps forward.
We, our new babies, and the world need us to have regulated nervous systems right now. Let’s work on listening to anxiety’s message, and creating environments that suit our sensitivities. There’s nothing wrong with you; you’re simply trying to adjust to a profoundly sick society.
For more perspective on the mistreatment of postpartum mood disorders: https://kellybroganmd.com/postpartum-depression-is-brexanolone-the-answer/
Life Beyond Birth provides support for expectant parents, and new babies & their families, online and in-person. Find a class or contact Molly at www.lifebeyondbirth.com.