Your pregnancy and postnatal period is one of the biggest experiences of your life, so it’s no surprise that this time may bring up lots of big emotions like worry, fear, and ambivalence. It’s also common for new mums to diminish these feelings as they surface, and consider them as simply a part of motherhood to be endured.
However without effective strategies in place to manage these feelings when they become overwhelming, they may begin to impact your ability to enjoy and take care of your baby, and equally importantly, take care of yourself.
So what exactly causes anxiety and what can you do when it takes a firm grip on you? Let’s take a look.
Understanding stress vs anxiety
Anxiety is different to stress although it stems from the same part of the brain (stress response system which includes the amygdala and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis). This part of the brain helps us stay safe by detecting danger in our external environment and helping us to respond. Problems occur when our threat detector becomes trigger-happy and misinterprets the level of danger in a situation or can cause us to craft and attend to stories of threat in our mind. In other words, we develop unhelpful thinking habits that have a heavy impact on how we feel and act.
What can anxiety look like?
The fingerprint of anxiety is very individual and it is easy to miss or overlook signs of anxiety and normalise it as par for the course.
Anxiety can show up in your body in the form of:
- Tension in the body
- Change in energy levels and sleep patterns
- Change in appetite
- Difficulty breathing
You may also notice changes in your mood with increased experience of sadness or agitation. Anxiety can also present as intrusive thoughts around the safety of you and your baby.
If we scratch the surface, these symptoms are almost always preceded or accompanied by the above unhelpful thinking like catastrophising, mind reading, and rumination on the negative.
When we think and feel in this way, the way we interact with the world often changes – it’s common to withdraw and avoid certain situations, people, and places or seek reassurance and control over our environment and those in it.
What to do when you notice anxiety taking hold
Given that anxiety is linked to a hyperactive stress response, we need to find ways to balance out and soothe ourselves.
We know that social support buffers stress. Whilst physical restrictions of pregnancy and logistical hurdles of having a baby can make it difficult to connect with others, social interaction and opportunity is fundamental to wellbeing. It may be parents, friends, mothers group, or even your barrister – getting out and feeling seen, heard, and connected can help reduce stress, get outside the chatter in your head and take perspective on your worries. Even if face-to-face opportunities are not available jump on a video or phone call or exchange photos and texts with those around you.
Do activities you enjoy
This may be walking, cooking, sitting in nature, exercising, or simply finding a change of scene. These activities help release brain chemicals that make you feel good and help to down regulate stress hormones (cortisol).
Gentle to moderate exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on mood. Activities like swimming and yoga can help to regulate your breath and ground you to the present, which is always helpful to combat your hyper vigilant mind.
Whilst breathing isn’t rocket science we often do not harness the potential of breathwork as a stress management tool. By relaxing your body position and placing one hand on your chest and one on your belly, breathe in gently and expand your chest, hold for a count then gently breathe out through the mouth (two counts longer than the in breath). The breath out is the most important as by contracting the muscles around the diaphragm we properly expel breath and via the vagus nerve, we send a message of ‘it’s ok, turn down the alarm bells’ to our nervous system.
Gently tense and hold your toes for 10 seconds then release. Then tighten your calf muscles for 10 seconds and release. Work up your body gently tensing, holding, and releasing. This helps to ground you in your body and unhook from your busy mind. It also helps you recognise what tension feels like and helps you practice release.
Chunk your day
Break your day into small zones, which can help to contain your focus to the present and provides the opportunity for a sense of order and positive reinforcement.
If you are experiencing anxiety, remember that anxiety is temporary and treatable. Let those around you know how you are feeling as getting help early can aid your recovery.
Have you experienced anxiety as a new mum? Let us know in the comments.
Expert author: Belinda Williams
Belinda Williams is a Psychologist and co-founder of The Bumpy Road. She specialises in supporting wellbeing in the journey into and through motherhood.