Anxiety* is a normal and predictable part of motherhood. Even so, it doesn’t feel good so why would you not want to learn to let go of it?
It sounds weird, doesn’t it? To suggest that you might willingly be holding on to your anxiety? Why would I want to do that, you might ask. After all, anxiety is unbearable. It interferes with your life. It is unpleasant at best, paralyzing at its worst. It makes you feel sick to your stomach, embarrassed, terrified, unable to cope. Why wouldn’t you jump at any opportunity to free yourself from that agony?
We hear so very many reports that therapies, new and old, can help combat symptoms of anxiety. For example, there is tons of research touting the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety. It is a non-pharmacologic, evidence-based, structured therapy that has shown to be effective in lessening symptoms of anxiety. So why isn’t everyone rushing to sign up? It helps. It works. Better for some than for others, but still. Yes, it’s hard. It’s a commitment. It’s tedious. But if it works? Why aren't folks standing in line?
If you are encumbered by anxiety, see if any of these explanations resonate for you. If they do, keep in mind that while they may make sense to you, they will also hold you back from experiencing what your life can be like without it.
1. It is adaptive.
Worry feels important to mothers. It can feel as if it makes you more alert, more attuned to the needs of our family, more vigilant, more prepared…. just in case. To an extent, this is very true. But the adaptive function of anxiety (fight or flight response) can also rapidly become an excuse to micromanage your environment and suck the joy right out of your daily experiences.
2. It is familiar.
Postpartum women with anxiety are used to it, for the most part. Even prior to having a baby, many describe themselves as excessive worriers. Thus, even though it feels bad, and it really does, it also feels oddly comfortable. It’s part of who they are. If distress gets too high or interferes too much, that’s when most women will seek treatment. But many will confess they can tolerate pretty high levels of anxiety without thinking they need to do anything about it.
3. Magical thinking.
Some women will admit that their anxiety protects them from bad things happening. Hey, when I worry a lot, nothing bad happens so I’m afraid to do it any other way. That can make sense for a while, but most of the time it can lead to rituals or avoidance behaviors that, ostensibly ease anxiety in the short run, yet reinforce them in the long run. Maintaining the magical thinking that your anxiety protects you, highlights your view that the world continues to be a threatening place.
4. Fear of the unknown.
Some women express a concern that their anxiety is so ingrained that they wouldn’t know who they are without it. After all, the acute sensitivity that accompanies anxious thinking can also be responsible for strong positive emotions, such as compassion, empathy, and relationship understanding. There is often a secret desire to preserve the anxiety so as not to lose that intrinsic connection with oneself and one’s environment.
5. Core belief that things cannot change.
Sometimes we believe things to be true about ourselves no matter what others tell us. Women who have lived with anxiety for much of their lives believe, rightfully so, that they can stay pretty healthy with fairly substantial amounts of anxiety. This is true. You could, however, also feel better, if you learned and practiced techniques to deal your anxiety better.
Let’s face it. Some of us are just downright lazy. I’m not talking about wanting to sleep until noon, not wanting to clean the house, or take a 5-mile hike, kind of lazy. We all know that feeling very well. I’m talking about the inertia that can set in when we approach a new concept or new way of thinking or new activity. It can feel overwhelming and just like too much work. If the rewards or outcome are uncertain, well, it’s even less appealing.
The key to managing anxiety is to accept that it is there. Make peace with it. This does not mean you should indulge in it or pay too much attention to it. Do not hate it. Do not wish it away. You do not have to aspire to eliminating all of your anxiety. Work with it. Do your best to understand that it is a part of you, but do not be seduced by its powerful temptations.
Pledge to learn tools and techniques to help you cope and live with it.
You can still be anxious. But you can be anxious, better.
*Here, we are NOT referring to acute severe symptoms of distress that interfere with one’s ability to function.
Copyright 2015 Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW
The Postpartum Stress Center postpartumstress.com