The first night home after my son was born, I slept for 15 minutes total. We tried for this miracle baby for years and suffered 4 consecutive miscarriages before he was born. When I left for the hospital to be induced, I still hadn’t allowed myself to fully believe we would bring our baby home. Leaving your home as the self you’ve known and coming back as someone you’ve been afraid to imagine yourself being is an alarming emotional shift. So, it’s no surprise that my fight or flight instinct kicked in. Apparently, my subconscious mind felt like it needed to fight. Constantly.
It’s totally normal to feel this way.
That’s what everyone told me and there’s an extent to which I understand that argument. After all, caring for a living, breathing child is a paradigm shift that must necessarily rock your world. But this was not normal. I knew in my core that this was not usual parenting worry. It was something deep, something visceral, something more than my exhausted, hormonal, drained-in-a-way-I-had-never-experienced body and mind could manage alone.
Within a week, I had been diagnosed with postpartum anxiety. I’ve since discovered that, indeed, a level of anxiety about your children is normal, but the level I knew for the first few months was out of the ordinary. Between years of miscarriages followed by this postpartum diagnosis, I have ample experience (thanks to wonderful mental health care) overcoming anxiety. Since worry is something all parents struggle with in some way or other, and since we seem to be parenting in a particularly anxious time, I’m here to share a bit of what I’ve learned. What works for me may not work for everyone, but shouldn’t we all take the time to actively discover possibilities for improving our own mental wellbeing?
Healthily Coping When Our World Causes Fear
There are times when it feels like there’s an anxiousness about the world. When circumstances overwhelm us and perpetuate our greatest fears. I believe this is true of all people, not just parents, but there’s a special sort of sting in worrying about the world in which your children live. And let’s be honest, in recent months, the world around us has created a heavy emotional load.
We’ve seen part of our own country—though distantly for most of us in Atlanta—deal with some of the most terrifying news our minds can even imagine. A nuclear bomb was heading their way. Although the alarm was thankfully false, the terror and adrenaline developed in response were intensely real.
We’ve experienced a flu season unlike any most of us have parented through. Warning signs are posted all around our children’s schools. Our pediatricians’ offices are running out of flu shots, and we hear grief-filled stories every time we turn on the news.
We’ve held our little ones close as we’ve mourned yet another mass shooting that took the lives of school-aged children who should still be here with us.
We’ve feared for our children’s safety, their happiness, and their lives. I’ve heard many moms confide that they aren’t even taking their children out of the house.
In my experience dealing with anxiety, I’ve learned a number of tools that help me deal with the rapid-fire fear that’s constantly swirling in my mind. Because we’ve all recently been forced to live in an anxious state, I want to share a few of those lessons to help us all get through it together.
- Be an active observer of your own emotions. Imagine you’re watching yourself from the outside, Ghost of Christmas Past style. See yourself act and react without trying to impact your action.
- Remember that it’s okay to feel the way you do. Negative self-talk (e.g. “I’m being ridiculous.” “This is irrational.” “I haven’t experienced anything severe enough to warrant these feelings.”) perpetuates the cycle of anxiety.
- Shift your narrative. Instead of berating yourself for feeling the way you do, practice gratitude. (e.g. “Thank you, mind, for trying to protect me from all that could go wrong. These strong emotional responses are part of what has allowed our species to survive, and I’m glad to be a part of that process.”)
- Take effective action, and recognize that what’s effective for you will not be for everyone. (e.g. I worried about my son getting the flu, so he got a flu shot. That’s not every parents’ choice, but it was mine. We added a probiotic and Vitamin C to his daily regimen. I changed my clothes before I hold him when I get home from work. I did all I felt like I could without impacting my own emotional wellbeing.)
- Observe when action is damaging to your own mental state, and try not to let your worry push you into negative action. (E.g. Part of me wants to sequester my baby to the house for the rest of flu season. That’s not practical for our lives. It may be for some, but it’s not for ours. By doing so, I would be giving into the “flight” response, thus reiterating to my brain it needs to fully panic at the idea of my son getting the flu. So, I still take him out.)
- Use your narrative to avoid the downward spiral of negative thoughts. (e.g. “I appreciate you, mind, for trying to protect me. I’ve done all the things that I can do to effectively help prevent my son from getting the flu. The other measures I can take would be detrimental to my mental state. I’m going to move on from this worry now. I know you’ll come back, and that’s okay. I’ll deal with you again when you do.”)
Finally, it’s so hard to do when you’re busy with kids, family, work, life, but trust and foster a sense of community. In times when fear pervades our communities, our instincts often tell us to flee. The problem with flight, in these instances, is that it’s isolating. We feel alone in our anxiety. Really, we have a community around us that is feeling many of the same things. Everyone is finding different ways to work through them.
Whether your community is at work, at home, at your child’s school, at church, or on this blog where parents from a wide Atlanta area come together, fostering connections with others reminds us that we’re not alone. Anxiety is universal. There’s no need to struggle through it as if it weren’t.