How to support mothers in dealing with anxiety
How to support mothers in dealing with anxiety
Anxiety is so common these days it’s considered ‘normal’, with women particularly at risk during pregnancy and early motherhood, i.e. the perinatal period. While a considerable number of women do adjust to motherhood without difficulty, the Centre for Perinatal Excellence cites research suggesting 20% of pregnant women experience an anxiety disorder during and/or after birth[i].
Often the situation is made more complex with perinatal depression thrown into the mix of the anxious mother. This statistic raises the question – what is going on here? Why are so many mothers struggling with the ‘anxiety monster’ at this significant time in their lives and what sort of things are they anxious about? Importantly, what can be done to support mothers dealing with anxiety?
Working as a Perinatal Counsellor, I find many women approach pregnancy and motherhood with a wide variation of emotions and expectations, depending on the context. For some the pregnancy was unplanned and either a welcome or unwelcome surprise. Others long for a baby to fill an emptiness they have in their lives; to have someone to love and be unconditionally loved by in return. A baby may represent a chance for women to cement their relationship with their partners and/or is a natural next step in their lives. Sometimes women feel the biological clock is ticking and that this is their last opportunity to have a child so opt for single parenthood. Sometimes there have been years of fertility treatments before baby arrives. A proportion of women also have babies because of pressure from partners and family, or feel it’s a societal expectation. Yet, regardless of the circumstances, the evidence is showing us that many women feel ill equipped for motherhood and find themselves overwhelmed and anxious.
The levels of anxiety can range from constant low-grade worry about how women are fulfilling their own and others’ expectations of the role, to the extremely severe end. At this end of the spectrum, women with an anxiety disorder often report difficulty sleeping, eating or even thinking clearly as their jumbled thoughts are racing everywhere. Meanwhile, the ‘anxiety freight train’ keeps zooming around, only stopping long enough to pick up more passengers. These passengers – comparison, resentment, frustration, rage, irritability, guilt, shame, powerlessness, worthlessness, anger, grief, loss, heart palpitations, tremors/shakes, muscle tightness, crying etc. – all add to the sense of failure and responsibility overload. Little wonder suicidal thoughts and/or behaviours enter the fray, or that perinatal suicidality is considered one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in the first 12 months postpartum[ii].
Correspondingly, anxious mothers frequently find decreased enjoyment in their child and/or they have an all-consuming focus on the baby as they worry about being a protective, ‘good mother’. The options to deal with these scenarios vary from retreating at home and avoiding all contact with the outside world, to the other extreme of going out constantly and seeking any distraction possible. Sometimes, returning to anything familiar with women’s old lives – e.g. work, sport, academic studies etc. – seemingly offer relief through the identity and recognition they provide. Social media and the internet are commonly used relief outlets. Activation of obsessive traits, for example, extreme house cleaning, along with poor dietary habits, drug and alcohol abuse, excessive exercise and so forth are all tools employed aimed at avoiding/numbing/dulling the anxiety symptoms and the crushing feeling of worthlessness as a mother.
Obviously, the implications for mothers and others around them – babies, partners, family, friends and society generally – is massive. But do we need to accept such anxious mothering as the new ‘normal’?
“A message to all mothers: It is wiser to mother from your innate knowing rather than from the ideals and beliefs that flood your head.”Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume I, ed 1, p 547
Certainly, a lot of time and money has been invested in research in this area of anxiety disorders with positive results reported from the use of various evidence-based medications and psychological, educational and social interventions. As heartening as this is, results can be short-lived with old cycles repeating themselves when a new crisis occurs. Many anxious mothers come to accept that, for them, this anxiety is ‘just the way it is’, and they adjust their expectations of life accordingly. But when the anxiety rules, self-confidence drops, leaving women open to the judgment, criticism and expectations of others and their sense of self-worth is further depleted. So how can women possibly get off this roller coaster?
A common factor with mothers experiencing anxiety has been the need, often starting in childhood, to dampen/shut down their sensitivity to the wisdom inside their bodies and their ability to read what is happening around them. Instead an over reliance on the mind develops. While seemingly the answer to getting through life, long term this strategy takes them further away from the life they are seeking. However, another way of dealing with anxiety is when women can gently and honestly re-evaluate their lives; the internal disconnection lessens as the mind and body start to harmoniously sync together again, just like when women were little children. It can be uncomfortable at times and difficult to deal with the reactions of others as changes start to occur, but nonetheless progressively the results become stunning.
“You cannot live the truth unless you are honest about where you are at. Being honest is not a self critique, it is not a confession, it is not a self-condemnation and you don't have to write a list of all your faults. All you need to do is be honest about what is not true in your life.”Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume I, ed 1, p 541
It’s like a beautiful rose; glimpses of self-love, connection and valuing start as small buds, gradually growing into glorious blossoms when the right nutrients are applied.
These ‘nutrients’ can include:
- Saying ‘no’ to others when necessary instead of feeling the continual need to self-sacrifice
- Asking for and letting others help
- Taking the time to stop and eat healthily
- Developing a positive relationship with and paying attention to messages from the body
- Giving yourself permission to take time out for personal hygiene e.g. having a shower each day
- Limiting/banning screen time
- Deleting old beliefs and ideals which sabotage due to their critical demands for perfection, ‘should’/’must’ and right/wrong attitudes, pictures of ‘good mother’, and pressures from unhelpful family traditions and loyalties etc.
- Accepting that ‘to-do’ lists need to be flexible and simple
- Taking the time to wind down and prepare for sleep e.g. using the Gentle Breath Meditations®
- Following relevant medical advice rather than viewing it as a sign of failure
- Accepting that babies are little humans with their own personalities and temperaments.
It’s always an amazing experience to witness women developing strength as they start to understand that anxiety, withdrawal and overwhelm doesn’t have to play a part in their lives. There comes a recognition that they do have the choice to make changes in dealing with anxiety; they aren’t lost in the wilderness of the anxious mother and they, in fact, have a lot of mothering wisdom naturally inside themselves. In fact, when they start to re-connect with what’s going on inside of themselves they discover an essence that contains a beauty and power which is wonderful to experience, along with an immense amount of wisdom. Furthermore, as time goes by and they learn to increasingly trust themselves, they often report that they feel a settlement deep inside themselves that feels truly loving, nurturing, joyful and meaningful. Not surprisingly, mothers often report that as the self-connection grows, their sense of self-esteem and self-confidence rises; they feel equipped to deal with what’s happening around them and feel less fearful about the future.
The extra bonus is that the baby thrives while the anxiety, starved of its lifeblood, withers away. Now, this is what I call a great ending, or better still, it’s an apt ‘starting point’ for a much more vital life!