Today’s guest post comes from someone I’m lucky to have met through Pregnancy & Postpartum Support Minnesota, Crystal Clancy. I asked her if she could write about how to listen to one’s intuition versus listening to anxious thoughts, and here’s what she had to say.
Anxiety, especially in the postpartum period, can be debilitating and overwhelming. It can prevent you from listening to your realistic mind and intuition.
There are a few approaches that research shows to be effective with anxiety, and they are the ones I generally use in therapy. They are: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and exposure therapy.
CBT involves reframing anxious thoughts and using tools to work on “pushing away” the thoughts. This process, as do most processes learned in therapy, take some time. For many, it’s a completely different way of approaching the world, and it takes time to build new habits. CBT works to identify triggers, pay attention to the thoughts, and how distorted they are, recognize how you are feeling, and then changing the way you cope with those feelings. Most people cope using some variation of fight (getting angry, lashing out), flight (running away, avoiding) or freeze (feeling very stuck, can’t think). Here is an example:
You wake up during the night worried that your baby has stopped breathing (trigger). You say to yourself, “What if my baby has stopped breathing? What if my baby is laying dead next to me/in his crib/bassinet, etc?” (thoughts). You feel very anxious, and may notice that heart is beating fast, or your breath is coming more rapidly (feelings). You lay in bed for hours worrying about this, trying to get back to sleep (freeze). Or you get up multiple times to check on your baby, and each time, your baby is fine (fight).
CBT would work on the thoughts, and recognizing that the likelihood that your baby has stopped breathing is really small. You may have just fed your baby, and are trying to go back to sleep. Or you get up once to check on the baby, and the baby is fine. CBT would ask you to “reality-check”, and likely use some relaxation techniques in conjunction (deep breathing, square breathing) to help you physically calm your body, and remind yourself that your anxiety is distorting your thoughts.
ACT has some slight overlap with CBT, but involves accepting thoughts and feelings rather than fighting or trying to change them. A great (although cheesy) cartoon demonstration can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-wyaP6xXwE. The cartoon shows how we can tell ourselves that our thoughts and feelings cannot “touch” us or control us, even though they feel scary. Here is an example:
You are having a bad day as a parent, and feeling overwhelmed and distressed. You snap at your toddler as your baby screams. You immediately tell yourself, “I’m such a bad mom. I shouldn’t feel this way, I should be enjoying motherhood more”.
ACT would say that rather than trying to reality-check these thoughts, or push away the feelings, you should tell yourself that they are just thoughts and feelings, and they cannot affect me if I don’t let them. I may feel anxious, and that is OK. It doesn’t mean that I am a bad mom just because I feel this way.
Exposure therapy can be especially helpful for people struggling with obsessive or scary thoughts. These thoughts are more common than people realize, but with some work, people can work through them and recognize that they are not based in reality. Exposure works because over time, you show yourself that even though something is scary, you can push through it, and each time you do, it gets easier and easier. Here is an example:
A mother is giving her baby a bath when all of a sudden she envisions herself pushing her baby underwater. This terrifies her, because she loves her baby, and would never do anything to hurt him. However, this thought scares her so much that she tells her husband that he needs to take over bath duty from now on. She doesn’t share the scary thought with him, because she worries that he will think she’s “going crazy”.
Exposure would have you force yourself through the fear in very small steps until you can perform the task you are avoiding with a manageable amount of fear. In the example above, you would create a graduated plan (starting with, for example, observing your partner while he bathes the baby) until you are able to give your baby a bath, on your own, without believing that you will harm the baby. Note that I did not say that you will no longer have anxiety about it. The key is that you are able to go about your daily life without letting anxiety be in control. A normal amount of anxiety is helpful, and can keep us and our children safe.
A good sign that you are not listening to your gut, so to speak, is that you KNOW that something isn’t quite right. Many people struggle with anxiety, it is more common than people realize. You deserve to enjoy parenting, and anxiety can sap that joy!
Crystal Clancy is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Apple Valley, Minnesota. She is also a mother of two and a survivor of postpartum depression. In her practice, she specializes in counseling women and couples who are experiencing difficulties getting pregnant, as well as during and after pregnancy. More info about Crystal and her practice can be found on her website or her Facebook page.
Crystal is also the Associate Director of Pregnancy & Postpartum Support Minnesota, which connects parents to resources to help with the transition to parenthood through its resource list and HelpLine.