Postpartum Scary Thoughts (part 2): Strategies that can help
Postpartum Scary Thoughts (part 2): Strategies that can help
In my first article and video about scary thoughts in the postpartum period, I explained what they are, where they come from and what to do if you experience them like talking to someone you trust and seek professional help if your scary thoughts are causing too much distress. In this second part, I am sharing with you some practical strategies you can use in your day to day life to feel better when you are having scary thoughts. You can read my article or watch the video below.
The self-help strategies and nonprofessional interventions I am about to share with you come from this great book: Dropping the Baby and other Scary Thoughts: Breaking the cycle of Unwanted Thoughts in Motherhood written by Karen Kleiman and Amy Wenzel. The authors explain many strategies and I will summarize and comment on a good number of them for you here.
When you have a scary thought your first reaction is probably to try to deny its presence or do your best to make the thought go away. Another response you might have is to react with intense fear that is paralyzing you. In other words, you panic. These three reactions are common, and it is easy to understand why they are the first things you might think of to try to feel better. But they are not the best way to deal with scary thoughts. In fact, according to Kleiman and Wenzel, these strategies can even make you feel worse. When you refuse to acknowledge your scary thoughts, it prevents you to take the necessary actions that could help you deal effectively with them. When you try to suppress your unwanted thoughts, they can get bigger. And when you panic, you are certainly feeling helpless and experiencing a loss of control.
There are better ways to manage your scary thoughts. Let me explain them to you.
First, you can use distraction. You might think that this strategy is a form of denial or avoidance of thoughts, but it is not. When you distract yourself, you are remaining in in the stressful situation by coping with it. The idea is this: when your thoughts are scary, do something that feels manageable in the present moment. By doing that, you keep you mind busy with something else which then gives less space for anxiety-generating thoughts and images. This requires some efforts because you must absorb yourself deliberately in a specific activity. Your mind needs to be actively focused on the activity you chose to do. This allows your body to settle down a bit and helps you to feel more in control. Here are some examples of activities you can try: making a phone call to a friend, playing a game on your phone or on your computer, reading a book you love, exercising, go for a brisk walk, counting the tiles on the floor, organizing a closet, doing a craft, etc. You can also combine a distraction with self-soothing behaviors meaning incorporating one or more of your senses to your activity. For example, listening to the sounds of birds when you are taking a walk, smelling your favorite food that you are cooking, cuddling with someone you love or smelling the soil and the flowers when you are gardening. Engaging in a pleasurable activity can help calming your scary thoughts. The main idea is that being anxious and relaxed at the same time is incompatible. Your brain finds it hard to worry and engage in a fun activity at the same moment.
A second strategy is to do controlled breathing (sometimes called belly breathing), relaxation or mindfulness exercises. The authors suggest setting aside anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes a day for these exercises. With practice on a regular basis, controlled breathing can help you restore a feeling of composure. Or you can try the technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation. It involves tensing and releasing different muscles groups in your body. Mindfulness practice is also a good choice. It has been claimed that it may improve mood and anxiety symptoms.
A third strategy is SELF care. You might have heard it a lot, but it is important to listen to people who are telling you to take care of yourself. It can really help you. The authors use the acronym S.E.L.F. to help remember the important elements of self-care.
- S is for Sleep. It is essential that you get a good night of sleep. I know it might seem impossible with a baby who is waking up more than once during the night. But you need to find ways to make it work because a lack of sleep makes anxiety worse. Ask for help. Your partner can help with one feeding or more during the night. You can also hire a postpartum doula who can come for the night or during the day to help with feeding and taking care of your baby while you sleep. It is suggested in a training I attended on postpartum mood and anxiety disorders to try to get at least 7 hours of sleep with one decent chunk in a 24-hour period.
- E is for Exercise. Even if you don’t feel like it, trying one small activity is better than doing nothing. Exercise releases endorphins, the chemicals in the brain associated with feeling good. It has been shown that exercise combats anxiety in general (DeMoor, Beem, Stubbe, Boomsma, & De Geus, 2006). I know it works for me when I am feeling anxious. It reduces my tension, makes me feel better afterwards and improves my sleep.
- L is for Laugh. According to Berk et al., laughter has been shown to lower levels of adrenaline and cortisol – the hormones that are released in times of stress – and to raise levels of endorphins. Try to watch or read something funny. Talking to a friend who can make you laugh would also do you good.
- F is for Food. Making some changes in your diet can help
reduce your anxiety. Kleiman and Wenzel
give these suggestions:
- Eating frequent small meals which can help stabilize blood sugar. Swings in blood sugar can cause symptoms that mimic anxiety.
- Drinking lots of water
- Eating complex carbohydrates (whole grains)
- Restricting sugar
- Increasing intakes of fruits, vegetables and fish. And decreasing consumption of processed foods and high-fat dairy
- Avoiding alcohol and caffeine
Something you could add to your diet is Omega-3 Fatty Acids. You can find them in fish, such as tuna, salmon, herring, and sardines. Certain plants are also a rich source such as flaxseed, canola oil and walnuts.
A fourth strategy is support groups. Support groups for parents who are experiencing postpartum anxiety or depression are useful because they can help you feel less isolated in your suffering. It is a place where you can feel validated and understood sharing your concerns and listening to other participants personal experiences. However, if you are more introvert by nature, you might not feel comfortable in that kind of group setting.
Another option to consider is online support. Online support communities can be a great source of ongoing and unconditional support where you can also find other parents who share a similar experience than you and it can be in a context of anonymity. If this is something that interests you, the authors recommend online communities from these respected sites: Postpartum Support International (postpartum.net) and The Postpartum Stress Center (postpartumstress.com). These sites also link directly to additional highly regarded resources.
Hopefully, all these strategies will help you feel better if you are experiencing scary thoughts. But remember, if your scary thoughts are causing you so much distress that you are obsessed with them and cannot function normally, that’s when it becomes a problem. Then, it is time to talk to your healthcare provider or a trained professional who can determine with you the type of support or treatment that will suit you best. Do not hesitate to ask for help. You deserve to feel better.
Karen Kleiman and Amy Wenzel, Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts: Breaking the Cycle of Unwanted Thoughts in Motherhood, 2011
(Second edition will be released on November 10, 2020)