Understanding anxiety and replenishing a woman's self-worth

Developing women’s self-worth by understanding anxiety.

Understanding anxiety and replenishing a woman's self-worth

Anxiety is something we’ve all had some sort of experience with. Perhaps it was feeling anxious about the outcome of a job interview or a medical test, which then settles once results are known. Or it could be at the other end of the spectrum where the person has been diagnosed with a more serious and debilitating anxiety condition such as agoraphobia, panic, social phobia, generalised anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and/or a post-traumatic stress disorder[1].

Regardless of the degree of severity, it’s not an uncommon problem. Globally, research data shows that it’s the most prevalent mental health or neurodevelopmental disorder worldwide, with 284 million people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Women (4.7%) are universally nearly twice as likely as men (2.8%) to be affected[2]. When we stop for a moment and take into account how many more people have experienced lasting anxiety but haven’t sought help, it’s not hard to view these statistics as very likely just the tip of the iceberg. No wonder feeling anxious is now seen as quite normal, even though it’s causing havoc in so many areas of people’s lives.

Motherhood provides a prime example of the widespread nature of the outplay of anxiety in women and the above statistics are certainly mirrored in everyday sessions in my work as a counsellor with women during pregnancy and early childhood (perinatal period). Invariably, women are also grappling with low self-worth, but rarely do we take the time to understand how the two might be intimately interlinked.

In Australia, as elsewhere in the world, anxiety is very prevalent in the perinatal period, affecting approximately one in six women and often co-existing with depression[3]. Even when women don’t have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, anxiety is nonetheless often present and it’s like a parasite slowly destroying the woman’s self-esteem and efficacy from the inside out. What I’m frequently noting is that women are reporting symptoms such as:

  • Increased agitation
  • Irritability and being highly reactive
  • Increased heart rate and difficulty breathing
  • Varying levels of panic
  • Poor self-confidence and lack of self-worth
  • Sleeplessness
  • Racing thoughts, poor concentration, and an inability to think clearly
  • A never-ending sense of doom or danger which is often associated with fears about their baby being harmed or dying. These feelings and emotions can be especially intrusive when a mother lacks self-confidence to care for and keep their baby safe
  • Difficulty bonding with their baby
  • Increased rigidity – difficulty coping with change and a re-doubling of efforts to control life
  • Increased tensions within close relationships as others never quite know where the next trigger will come from, or they feel helpless to help, or simply withdraw to avoid the issues
  • Significant difficulty adjusting to the changes a baby has brought to their lives.

The self-questioning is endless and cruel as women constantly look to the outside world to re-assure themselves that they are ‘good’ mothers. There is a lot of comparison and judgment that goes on as we usually view other women’s mothering efforts through rose coloured glasses, and our own through a critical, demanding, perfectionistic lens where we are perpetually left feeling never quite good enough. What’s more, we typically use how our children are developing and behaving as a measure of how well we are ‘doing’ as mothers, compared to other mothers with similar aged children to our own. While all this is going on, anxiety in women easily creeps in and takes hold.

Even if others reassure women that they are doing a great job of mothering, women are still often feeling anxious due to the fear that at any moment something may happen which will expose them as falling short of their own and societal benchmarks for ‘good’ mothering. Caught struggling with a fragile sense of self-worth, women often search to self-medicate to override or numb the anxious feelings in a variety of ways such as:

  • Either under or overeating or relying on junk food and/or sugar
  • Seeking high caffeine or alcoholic drinks
  • Increasing drug (both legal and illegal) use
  • Turning to or increasing self-harming behaviours such as cutting or burning
  • Dwelling on new or increased thoughts of suicide to escape the tension
  • Feeling exhausted due to living continually in nervous energy
  • Constantly seeking a medical diagnosis for their baby’s behaviour, despite many reassurances that their baby is healthy, so that there is an external explanation as to why they are struggling with caring for their baby (although, of course, medical review is definitely warranted in the first instance if there are any concerns).

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What causes anxiousness?

The world is experiencing an epidemic of anxiousness. So what exactly is anxiousness and what is going on here?

The harder women try, the deeper the hole they find themselves in and the lower their self-esteem and self-confidence becomes, and the more they loathe themselves for their perceived deficits and failures.

Panic, social withdrawal, obsessive behaviours such as constant cleaning or checking that the house is locked multiple times before going to bed, becoming easily upset and crying often, worrying excessively about something and as soon as that’s resolved, starting the same process over with another matter, not trusting their decision making capacity with even basic matters, and/or having nightmares and flashbacks related to previous traumatic incidents, are all common behaviours mothers are talking about in sessions. Women are determined to be good mothers but what happens is that they fall into comparison, jealousy, frustration, resentment, anger, rage, guilt and shame etc. where they keep attacking themselves or others in an attempt to regain a sense of control. No wonder the prevalence of anxiety is on the rise because what these situations create is an endless series of cycles, which keep women constantly in unease, self-disregard and ill-health!

There are many factors we can blame for these types of situations and what I’ve found through speaking with women is that the true causes of anxiety and the drivers for the feelings of overwhelm and overload are usually remaining firmly out of the person’s conscious awareness. It’s understandable that a common response is to look for the fastest and easiest route possible to relieve the anxiety symptoms so that life can get back on track. However, while that might work at the time, inevitably we get challenged again in the future and are still without the tools to really deal with whatever has cropped up with any type of confidence and authority.

Previously, the solution to when I’ve felt anxious has been to try harder, go into drive and push on through, feeling that what I can do equates to a measure of my success and self-worth. I’ve noticed that others do the same, or they may tend to withdraw and give up and sink into depression. Neither way works in the long run because anxiety starts through an internal overwhelm and if it’s not addressed at that level, things keep unravelling from there. The external world can never be the solution because that world holds us to ransom with its ever-changing range of ideals and beliefs and we get caught in the pictures of how and what we should be, rather than what we actually all are on the inside.

When we hold ourselves small, feeing inadequate because we aren’t living up to our own or others’ expectations, we allow the anxiety to overtake us and we leave our body out of the whole equation as if it’s completely immaterial to what else is happening. The more ‘out of our body’ any of us are, the more anxiety and racing or obsessive thoughts can come in and take over. Yet, we dismiss and over-ride what our bodies are showing us because we have been taught to rely predominately on what our minds are telling us. But we don’t usually stop and consider the quality of those thoughts and where they have come from!

Women often speak about themselves in a very negative ways, but on closer inspection it’s clear that the self-loathing and lack of self-worth and self-confidence they feel within themselves is something that has been fed to them by others; a slowly absorbed poison which they now don’t question. Our world is set up for ‘keeping people in their place’ through systems of religion, politics, economics, cultures, country borders and so forth, but we also have lots of other structures that more subtly set rules and expectations on how people will view themselves and others. The most obvious of these is our family, where we learn about ourselves and our place in society as women. However, that’s not the end of the story …

Everything you are is more than enough. Connect to your inner-most and you will be the truth of these words.

Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume I, ed 1, p 196

Working on self-worth issues with women meant that I have had to be very honest about my own lack of self-worth, as I couldn’t support others if I wasn’t feeling a sense of worth within myself. I had relied on proving my worth to the world through what I could do, and completing one task after another was seen as absolutely essential to show others that I had some value and credibility, i.e. the ‘doing’ was for the recognition and identification. Perfectionism was rife and self-confidence was fragile as I worried about how to meet my own and others’ expectations of me and deal with the let down when others didn’t meet my standards.

I tried hard to prove myself in a hard and time driven manner, but any success was mentally driven and short lived, and in this environment my body was valued for its functionality and little else. I had depended for so long on my thoughts that any sense of connection to my body was so deeply buried that the mere question of what I was feeling in my body was challenging. I’d like to say it’s a simple, quick and easy process, but I found it very confronting at first to feel what was happening in my body.

Firstly, I worked on self-care and getting used to noticing when I had an ache or pain somewhere and to question why – had I sat in a way that put unnecessary strain on certain parts of my body, or kept pushing myself when I needed to stop and take a break? Was the headache I was experiencing due to racing thoughts buzzing around in my head and did that mirror the sort of way I had been pushing on through with my day?

I started to stop and take moments where I noticed my breathing and found that the more stress, the more shallow and rapid my breathing was, and the easier it was to go into overwhelm and getting caught in time-based pressures. It was quite amazing to realise how taking several deep breaths could settle things in my body! Something else I discovered was that gently placing my hands on my lap or bringing my fingertips lightly together allowed me to feel a tenderness that I hadn’t realised existing within me.

From there I started to become more obviously aware of how my body would signal when something was either on or off track. I could feel a type of unsettlement; a niggle inside when I was pushing myself or when my thoughts were taking over, and the opposite when how I was moving and thinking was in harmony with my body. I began to realise just how much our bodies keep track of every little thing we do throughout the day, and that this sets us up for the quality of our sleep at night.

A big trap I found myself caught in along the way in addressing my lack of self-worth, and one I commonly see others fall into, was the tendency to doggedly work away at ‘doing’ the things that theoretically support bodily connection. I came to realise that while I might be doing a lot of things that sounded technically correct, I was pushing myself with thoughts of ‘needing to do this’. It looked good from the outside but was more of a tick box exercise as I wasn’t allowing myself the space to truly feel and be with what my body was communicating to me. However, over time and certainly without perfection, I’ve built a kind and more loving relationship with my body and become increasingly aware of what is going on within and around me.

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The human body cannot lie

We can lie to ourselves but our body always tells the truth.

One of the most beautiful things in this journey has been learning to increasingly self-nurture and honour myself and through that, to feel a real and powerful sense of myself as an incredible woman. My self-esteem and self-worth have grown and there is a feeling of confidence in knowing who I am and what I can bring that is endlessly developing.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing and there have certainly been plenty of ups and downs along the way. But the more I look at everything that happens as an opportunity for growth, rather than something that is too much for me to handle, I’ve found greater levels of self-acceptance, self-appreciation, understanding and joy emerging and new doors continually opening for me. It’s an internal rather than an external growth, but it’s undeniably something profound that others can feel through my reflection and interactions with them. The truth, integrity, love and sense of commitment and purpose in life that I am connected to within myself is a holding and steadiness that I can now bring to my sessions with mothers and their families.

Energetically people can feel where another person is at; we are covertly assessing others every time we meet. People can’t be fooled by what they feel unless they want to be. What women are ultimately seeking when they come to sessions is someone to truly meet them and see their worth on the inside despite what has, and is, happening in their lives. The outcome of my lived experience is what others are witnessing and it’s more powerful than any special words and professional techniques I’ve learnt along the way through my studies. Understanding this means I have an enormous responsibility to genuinely offer all that I am so that others have the opportunity to know that they are also capable of making changes to their lives if they so choose.

Importantly, as women, we are being offered the chance to know that, while our understanding of ourselves has been fed by many external pictures, ideals and beliefs, it is not set in stone. Instead, womanhood and motherhood are fluid concepts that can be lovingly transformed over time with effort and support. Free from the limitations of our self-debasing thoughts and beliefs, we have the chance to develop a fresh relationship with ourselves that lets us know that anxiety is not normal and nor is it the prison or character deficit that we might have been led to believe it is.

Through a connection with our bodies, we have a compass for living life and if we choose to notice what is being conveyed to us, our self-awareness can’t help but grow and thus the quality of our decision making is considerably more astute. Some people may not feel they want to do down this path of self-awakening, which is absolutely fine. But for those women who are ready, taking the body-based approach is certainly an empowering way of understanding anxiety and to front foot life with a steadily rising level of confidence and sense of self-worth that is too priceless to measure.

References

  • [1]

    beyondblue. Statistics. Perinatal depression and anxiety conditions 2017 [cited 2019 29/12/2019]; Available from: http://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/research-projects/statistics-and-references.

  • [2]

    Ritchie, H. and M. Roser. Mental Health. Our World in Data 2020 [cited 2020 26/01/20]; Available from: https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health.

  • [3]

    Mayo Clinic. Anxiety disorders. Patient Care & Health Information, Diseases & Conditions 2018 [cited 2020 27/01/20]; Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961.

Filed under

Self-worthSelf-loveMotherhoodConnectionAnxiety

  • By Helen Giles, Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, MMH (Family Therapy), Post Grad Cert Family Therapy & Counselling, M. EPA Recognised

    I love that life is amazing with every relationship offering constant drops of pure gold, whether that be in my work as a perinatal counsellor or through friends, family and others I meet in everyday life.

  • Photography: Matt Paul