In this day and age, messages for parents about what to do and how to do it come at a pace that’s fast and furious. This information (be it correct or not) is at the touch of a button, or upon the request of Alexa or Google. The struggle to do everything “right” in parenthood is real. That struggle often results in lots of worry.
The thing is, how much worry is too much? How do you know it’s too much? And once you realize it’s too much, what do you do about it? I hope to help you answer these questions for yourself and give you some practical tips for managing the worry that comes up in your journey through motherhood.
Recognizing when the worry is a problem
Most parents worry to some extent. This is pretty normal. As a therapist one of the measuring sticks I use to determine the severity of an issue is to take a look at the impact on functioning. How does this worry affect you in your daily activities of life? When your worry keeps you up at night, makes it difficult to focus on tasks and get anything done, affects your appetite and/or weight, or impacts relationships, there is now the possibility of clinical levels of anxiety.
For example, a commonly shared tip for new mothers is to sleep when the baby sleeps. If baby is snoozing away in their bassinet and you can’t sleep because your mind is racing about everything that could go wrong from now until their college graduation, it’s a good indication your worry is getting the best of you.
While worry is pretty typical in new parents, clinical levels of anxiety that interferes with your functioning, though common is NOT normal. If you feel something is not right, that your worry is getting in the way of your functioning, or you just aren’t feeling like yourself, it’s time to find someone who will listen, and who will help you get the help you need.
I have anxiety, so now what?
Once you realize your worry is impacting your functioning, it’s important to evaluate what might be impacting your anxiety. I start my clients out by taking a look at what I call the “pillars of self-care”. This is NOT the brand of self-care that includes mani’s and pedi’s occasional night out. This is basic stuff. Although it’s basic it’s so important, and often, these are the first things to go upon a new baby’s arrival.
- SLEEP: If you’re not getting enough sleep your defenses are going to be down in every capacity. In early parenthood you may have to creative with sleep schedules, trading off with your partner, going to bed early, or even bringing in nighttime support, like a family member, night nurse/nanny or postpartum doula. Try to get a 4-hour block of interrupted time if possible.
- NUTRITION: Your body needs fuel to function at it’s best. No one is expecting you to prepare a Martha Stewart style spread every meal, but it is important that you eat and make sure the choices you are making are nutrient dense. A big pot of soup made on the weekend with lots of veggies are great to nurse on for lunches or dinners throughout the week. For after baby is born, ask a friend to set up a meal train to have food prepared and delivered by other friends and family. Finally, in regards to nutrition, be mindful of your caffeine and alcohol intake which can significantly influence your emotional health.
- Exercise: Exercise is the thing we love to hate, but results are in and guess what? Exercise is good for you, body mind and soul. Exercise releases endorphins which are chemicals in the brain that can act as nature’s antidepressants. The Journal of the American Medical Association (2014) encourages 30 minutes of exercise three to five times a week for maximum benefits. The research shows this may be as beneficial as taking antidepressants and/or can enhance their effectiveness (Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2011). While 30 minutes a day is optimal, any amount of exercise is going to be helpful. If you have less time, try make your exercise more vigorous to get more bang for your buck. Go for a walk, take a bike ride, or pop in your old Tae-Bo video, your body and mind will thank you for it.
- Medical Care: Your well-being as a caregiver is just as important as your baby’s. This includes getting regular medical care. There are some medical issues that can masquerade as mental health distress if they are not properly treated, for example thyroid imbalances, low iron, or low B12 levels, which should be monitored by bloodwork. Moral of the story: if you aren’t ok, your baby is not going to be ok, so get yourself to the doctor for your regular check up annually, and don’t put off anything of concern.
- Take a break: You NEED to take a break periodically to maintain good self-care and in turn, good mental health. The break doesn’t have to be long. Think of something you can do for 10-15 minutes that just makes you feel like yourself again. Maybe this means taking a long shower with your fancy soap, an episode of your favorite show, or a trip to Target where you walk down every isle and leave without buying anything. You may have to be creative with what it looks like, the timing of it, or enlist the help of your partner, family members or friends, but the benefits are worth it. Be intentional about making it a part of your day, don’t just give yourself the leftovers.
Finding more support
Getting your self-care in check is a great start to addressing your anxiety, especially as a new parent. If your anxiety is entirely overwhelming to even think about these strategies or it is still getting in the way after implementing them, it may be necessary to get professional support. It is important to work with someone who specializes in treating anxiety in the perinatal period who understands the special considerations and nuances of navigating anxiety while pregnant or in the postpartum period.
You can check out Postpartum Support International or The Postpartum Stress Center websites to get connected with mental health professionals who are specially trained in this area. It may also be helpful to connect with local parent groups to get social support and realize you are not alone.
The most important thing is to get the help you need for the benefit of yourself and your baby. Focus on your self-care and continue to reach out until you find someone who is able to give you the support you need and you’ll be on your way to a much healthier and happier parenting journey.