Anxiety comes up frequently for people in recovery and moms. When I imagine anxiety, it looks like this:
It is rigid, red and rapidly moving. Usually, we want anxiety to go away. We want to just get rid of it. But when we ask what anxiety has to say, and respond with curiosity or tenderness to the scared-self, a new relationship can emerge. Below are some examples of what the anxiety part of the self might say.
Here’s What Anxiety Says:
- I’ve made a bullet-point list for you. You should do everything on the list and then I will go away.
- (After list is complete): “OK, that was the first one. I now have several more.”
- Other people have it all figured out, so you should pretend like you do. One way to do this is to look good. I will help you with that. Try to look perfect.
- You are the only one that struggles with this anxiety. It makes you isolated, and you don’t belong because of it. Therefore, you should hide it.
- Be very busy. If you’re not busy, doing things, I can help keep your mind be very busy. I can even make your thoughts race.“
- I will always be your friend, but especially from 1:00-4:00am. At that time, I will remind you of the ways you are incompetent, the world is falling apart, and you can’t do anything about it. If you go on social media during this time, I will find lots of evidence for you.
- Other moms are doing it better. You are not qualified to be a good parent. You should read parenting books to illuminate all the ways you are f*cking up.
- Your body is the wrong size/shape. You can (and should) fix that. If you do, I may go away (but I will probably stick around because you will need me to manage you, since you can’t be trusted).
- Not eating, bingeing, purging, drinking, or smoking pot are good ways to get me to go away. (Oh, and you will need to maintain that. And you should hide that you do that, because it is shameful).
- The world is not safe. I have found lots of evidence of this for you.
As you can see, it is not a kind voice, this anxiety. It is relentlessly hypervigilant to the ways that you are inadequate. Strangely enough, this part of the self is often trying to protect you: from vulnerability, from the unknown. In my training as an Imaginal Psychologist, one way we worked with different parts of the self – and integrating them back into wholeness – was to bring fiercely compassionately objective voice into the dialogue. Compassionate awareness can take several different forms: it can be humourous, fierce, gentle. It can be rational and empirical. In my experience, this compassionate part is much more flowing and less rigid than anxiety. It feels like a deep breath down into the cooling water under the anxiety. It might look like this:
Here are some examples of what this voice of might say to anxiety. What the Voice of Compassionate Objectivity Might Say:
- Isn’t it interesting to notice the associations between anxiety and accomplishing or not accomplishing things? So interesting to notice…
- I bet you could choose to do some, all, or none of the items on the list, and your value as a human would remain fully intact and whole. How about you try and I will be the witness observing?
- Is “figured out” an equation? If “it” is figured out, does that mean fear or suffering disappears?
- Who are those “perfect,” and “busy” people? If they exist, might they be struggling with the same fear of inadequacy you are?
- If there are 7.5 billion people (roughly) on the planet, do you really think you are the only one who struggles with these thoughts and feelings? Might it not be the very thing that connects your heart, mind, and body with humanity?
- I wonder what would happen to your thought-speed if I help you breathe. Does it change if you breathe all the way into your abdomen? It doesn’t need to change. But if you are in discomfort from the racing, bringing attention to your breath can help your body shift into parasympathetic (rest) mode. Would you like to try?
- I will do everything I can to help you get a good night’s sleep, honey. I’m going to help you with loving limits: no social media at night. Not helpful.
- We can take stock of your strengths and weaknesses during the day and/or with someone who can add compassion and objectivity to the assessment. When you’re feeling weak, that’s not the time to assess your weaknesses.
- If you can’t sleep, I won’t abandon you. I’ll stay with you and the anxiety. I’ll be right there with you, surrounding you with care and tenderness.
- Body size and shape have nothing to do with your worth, honey. I know you keep really wanting it to be about that. But I’m going to keep reminding you the answers you seek are not there.
- Did you show up to the best of your ability as a Mom today? Your best can be different on different days. That is ok. Mistakes are how we learn. Oh, and put the parenting books down.
- You can tolerate anxiety. It won’t kill you. You can ride the wave of this fear without medicating it.
These are just some examples. The goal is not to get rid of anxiety. The goal is to develop a different relationship with it. Perhaps it might look like this?
Obviously, you will have to see what your own voice of Compassionate Objectivity has to say.
For now, I will leave you with a summary that I and some of the people I work with find helpful:
There is nothing wrong with you.
Nobody has it all figured out.
You are safe right now.
You are not alone.
Previously, we looked at HALT (Don’t get too Hungry Angry Lonely or Tired), Keeping Consistency, Taking a Social Media Break, Introversion Recovery Time, and Looking for Similarities. Here are 5 more ways to be mindful of your self-care over the holidays. Remember, the intent is to lean toward kindness to yourself. You are explicitly forbidden to use any of this to beat up on yourself for not doing or being enough.
(And, as I say to my new mom clients, the caveat/abbreviated version for Moms is: Take a Shower, Get Support.)
- Practice Loving Kindness
Lovingkindness is both a Buddhist and Hebrew term that is associated with mercy, dignity, compassion, and benevolent affection. Practice this kindness and softening of judgment with yourself and others. I was recently at Mindful Self-Compassion training with Kristin Neff, PhD, author of Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (HarperCollins, 2011). She led us through a meditation in which we imagined a person who we easily love such as a young child, a pet, or a spiritual teacher. We sat with sending them love for a moment. Then we took a posture in our body-imagination of sending and feeling love such as holding this person in a hug or putting your hands on your heart. Then we transitioned to sending that love to ourselves. Try this. Try sending the love you give freely to others to yourself. In the lovingkindness practice, there are also components of sending the wish to be happy and healthy, free from suffering to a person with whom you feel neutral and with whom you feel hostile. Feel free to try this as well. If you feel your heart closes at this prospect, stay with yourself. You yourself most need your own lovingkindness. If you feel resistance toward self-compassion, watch Dr. Neff’s TED talk: Overcoming Objections to Self Compassion.
2. Practice Gratitude
I just finished reading the book The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan (Dutton, 2015). In it, she interviews Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, who states:
“Of all the positive strengths we’ve looked at, people who are highest in gratitude are also highest in well-being.”
It was also shared that if you don’t come by gratitude naturally, “gratitude interventions” can have a big effect. I love that. The founder of positive psychology has a brain that doesn’t naturally turn toward gratitude! Can you relate? It’s ok to have a mind that keeps going back to “bad alleyways.” The work is to train it differently, with compassion and perseverance, like you are training a puppy.
Gratitude interventions include: keeping a daily gratitude journal, writing a letter of gratitude to a friend or loved one and reading it to them, taking pictures of things you are grateful for throughout your day. I’m not talking being Pollyanna here. It has to be authentic or it has no effect or meaning. But it can be simple. Some of my recent examples include: being warm and dry out of the rain, making paper snowflakes with my little one (turn toward the fun and away from the scraps all over the floor), talking with a friend.
3. Be of Service
Being of service can be one of the most benevolent AND personally rewarding things you can do. If you can do something big, by all means DO IT NOW. But it doesn’t have to be big. Mother Teresa said:
“There are no great acts. There are small acts done with Great Love.”
Many, many, many people took very small steps (and many took very large ones as well) together to preserve Missouri river at Standing Rock recently. You may find that healing others with similar struggles helps heal your own. If you are a person recovering from an eating disorder or alcoholism, you have the unique gift of being able to understand someone else struggling with the early stages of healing in an empathic, helpful, and non-condescending way. (Keep in mind that you can’t keep it unless you give it away but you can’t give it away unless you have it. So if you are struggling with your own recovery, find another way to be of service right now and let others be of service to you for your recovery.) The feeling of doing something helpful for someone else has a way of providing meaning that no other gift can.
Here a few other examples:
- Return a grocery cart or pay the bridge toll for someone in the car behind you.
- Smile or make eye contact with someone you wouldn’t normally.
- Let someone else get on the train/bus first.
- Open the door for someone with a stroller.
4. Practice Radical Acceptance.
Carl Rogers said:
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”
This is a beautiful quote that sums up the environment within yourself that can help ease suffering and, if you want, create change. For the holidays, try practicing “It is what it is.” Look around you, notice and describe what you see, what you smell. Use your senses to bring yourself directly into the present moment. If you can be with that, you will most likely be okay. It is just this moment. Try practicing adding “right now” to aspects that you find difficult to accept and see if that helps soften the suffering of wanting it to be different. This is my body right now. This is my family right now. This is the cabinet of the President elect right now. You don’t have to like it. And accepting is not the same thing as agreeing with or condoning. It is acknowledging that this is what it is right now. The artist Richard Stine is attributed to saying:
“It’s simple. We are where we should be, doing what we should be doing. Otherwise we would be somewhere else, doing something else.”
There can be great relief, power, and spaciousness is the right now. You are right where you are supposed to be. Right Now.
5. Ask yourself what you need.
Only you know what you truly need. Ask the part-of-you-that-knows. Listen and respond.
What do I Need right now? (Only YOU know!)
Whatever it is, be kind with yourself. “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha
Amen (and Women)!
We all know how easy this was in our former lives. Just hop in! At any time! With no interruptions and for as long as you want! This is no longer the case. However, a shower can make a world of difference. It is actually one of the main action steps I encourage not only new moms, but also clients recovering from depression to take. Cleaning your body helps your mind. It has the capacity to wash away some of the sleep deprivation and frustration. And it has the added benefit of cleaning away stinky-ness having old milk, snot, and poo that your little one may have generously shared. For at least one moment, your body can be clean, and all your own.
Don’t stop reading yet! I know, if one more person tells you “sleep when the baby sleeps,” you are going to punch them. So I’m not going to tell you that. However, I want to encourage you to carve out in whatever way works for you and your family, a good chunk of sleep for yourself. There is a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. Sleep deprivation can cause difficulties in concentrating, irritability, problems with reading, speaking, and an increase in appetite. If the deprivation continues, disorientation, visual hallucinations, social withdrawal and/or challenges, memory lapses, and breaks in reality occur.[i] One of the main treatments for moms recovering from perinatal mood disorders (anxiety, depression, psychosis), along with therapy and medication, is sleep. And the sleep needs to be for prolonged period of uninterrupted time. (Disrupted sleep is as bad as no sleep – more on this
in upcoming sleep blog).
Here some ideas: hire a night doula, have your partner or grandma take over night feedings for one night, ask your partner to do the middle-of-the-night feeds, or do modified sleep training. Preserve and protect your sleep, however you can. Don’t succumb to the temptation for late night Facebook/Online shopping/Great-ideas-planning-your-new-business-vnture-as-a-mommypreneur. If these are still appealing when you are rested, you will know they are coming from a true need. Otherwise, it’s adrenaline-fueled exhaustion that would be better fed with restoring your sleep.
Did you know that vitamin D is one of the best antidepressant vitamins? Low vitamin D has been linked not only with postpartum depression for the mother[ii] but also increased risk of eating disorders in female offspring.[iii] Getting out of the house can be one of the best ways to bring new perspective to what can feel like drudgery of new motherhood. So pack up all your new accoutrements – diaper bag, pacifiers, bottles, snacks, diapers, etc.- and get out into the sun. It may just be to walk around the block. It may be an adventure like getting to the playground or the coffee shop. You may even coordinate this adventure with another new mom, which leads to the next tip…
It is a recent cultural phenomenon that moms are trying to care for their babies alone, at home, by themselves without a “village” of support. This used to be the extended family, or way, way back in human experience, the tribe. Humans thrive on attachment. Without it, we wither. There is no wrong way to have support as a new mom, other than to not have support as a new mom. Your support could be a mom’s group. It could be your partner. It could be your therapist. It could be YOUR mom. It could be your non-mom friend. It could be your friend who is also a mom. It could be your doula, lactation consultant, or mother-in-law. It could be all of these or some combination of these. But having none of these is a recipe for trying to be Supermom (who doesn’t exist, and lives in the isolated perfectionist imaginations of moms who have no support), which can to Postpartum Depression. I love this quote from Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of emotionally focused therapy:
“Being the “best you can be” is really only possible when you are deeply connected to another. Splendid isolation is for planets, not people.”
If you are providing attachment to your new little one, YOU need to be strongly attached.
Trying to hold, provide food, and give emotional sustenance to your baby without support yourself is like being a tree without roots. You will fall over, you will wilt, you will not thrive. An then this will happen to your baby, too… It is not only okay, but also essential that you have support! Put on your oxygen masks first, Mama.
- Spiritual practice
Last but not least, having a mindfulness practice can be a helpful tool for tolerating the distress and practicing acceptance with all the learnings of new parenthood. This may be 5 minutes of meditation per day. Or it may be one bite of mindful eating during a lunch otherwise filled with Cheerios being thrown on the floor. It may be a yoga class or writing 1 page in your journal every day. You could practice deep breathing every time you hear your baby cry and your stomach tenses up with anxiety or discomfort. For new moms, it is important to Keep It Simple. Remember: the Buddha was NOT a parent when he became enlightened. Unlike him, you don’t have seven days to sit under a tree uninterrupted. You may have seven minutes. Take it. A good practice is to breath in the suffering of all new moms all around the earth and breathe out loving-kindness to all the new moms all around the earth. I used this practice when I was a new mom. It made me feel so much less alone at 3am.
You are not alone, Mama. Keep going. Keep practicing any and all of these self-care practices as much as you can for as long as it takes. You are NOT allowed to use this blog to beat up on yourself for what you are not doing. If you are doing that, stop now. Thousands of other moms are struggling right along with you, trying to sleep, shower, get support, see the sunshine, and do spiritual practice! Try, to the best of your ability one moment at a time, to find the kind mother inside yourself for yourself. This kindness is where the real strength of motherhood is: it is this place that is rooted and flexible, fierce and tender. It is the one that defends her right to practice her own self-care as a way to then be able to care for others. It is the mother putting her own oxygen mask on first. In the words of Sue Monk Kidd:
“You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside.”
You can do it mama. If you can’t find her, keep looking. You may need to grow your capacity to be a good mom to yourself along with learning to be a good one to your baby. That is okay. She is there, waiting for you to feed, nurture, forgive, and grow her. Oh, and shower her, too!
Linda Shanti McCabe is a Mom and Licensed Clinical Psychologist in San Francisco.As always, this blog is written to provide experience, inspiration, and hope – not to provide psychological treatment. If you are struggling with a perinatal mood disorder, a good resource is Postpartum Support International.
All original art images copyright Linda Shanti McCabe
[i] Bulkeley, Kelly, “Why Sleep Deprivation is Torture” Psychology Today, December 15, 2014.
[ii] Robinson et al. Low maternal serum vitamin D during pregnancy and the risk for postpartum depression symptoms, Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 2014.
[iii] Allen KL, Byrne SM, Kusel MM, Hart PH, Whitehouse AJ. Maternal vitamin D levels during pregnancy and offspring eating disorder risk in adolescence. International Journal of Eating Disorders. Jun 26, 2013.