Cognitive-behaviour therapy has taught us that there are certain themes to our anxious thoughts. These themes are referred to as “cognitive distortions” or “thought traps” in CBT lingo. Anxious thoughts can happen to any of us, irrespective of whether or not we have a clinically diagnosed mental health issue. More often, they tend to pop into our minds when we feel vulnerable. Unfortunately, during the postpartum year, there are numerous vulnerabilities that new parents face. Examples of these vulnerabilities include lack of sleep, hormonal shifts, adjustment to a new life, changes to routine, and an increased sense of responsibility. The following are a list of common thought traps, and examples of how they may show up for postpartum parents.
Common anxious thought patterns that new parents experience:
When we over-generalization, we are making assumptions based on limited information. This means we come to a conclusion about someone or something from a single piece of evidence. In future circumstances, we overestimate the likelihood that the same set of events will happen again. The following are a few examples of how over-generalization can show up during the postpartum stage:
- “My baby is not latching right away, I’ll never be able to breastfeed.”
- “This baby has been fussing for nearly an hour. I am never going to be able to get to sleep.”
- “My spouse was so tired and cranky when he came from work yesterday. I don’t trust him to take care of the baby on his own in the evening now.”
This anxious thought pattern basically means we are magnifying an issue into something awful and disastrous. We may do this by exaggerating the meaning or importance of certain events. Often times when we catastrophise, there is a sense of dread in facing uncertainty. We don’t feel we have the skills or confidence to manage in this situation. Examples of catastrophising during postpartum care include:
- “My spouse and I argued this morning. We must be heading towards a divorce.”
- “I got angry with the baby. We are never going to have a good relationship. I’m not cut out to be a parent.”
- “Sleep training was so hard yesterday. I can’t imagine that it’s going to get better.”
- “My daughter freaked out at the doctor’s office. The staff must have been pissed that I couldn’t calm her down. I can’t go back there.”
All-or-nothing thinking keeps us stuck between two restrictive options. This anxious thought pattern refers to when we things as falling into extreme categories without any middle ground. We are either perfect or a complete failure. Things are either good or bad. Life is either easy or impossibly hard. When we focus on these polarized options, we forgot to notice exceptions to these extreme thoughts. We don’t take into account all of the various and complex factors that may have affected achieving full success. We don’t consider how our self-worth is separate from our achievements.
Personalizing is when we take on the responsibility of a situation or take ownership of other people’s behaviours. This happens quite often with parents who take on the responsibility of their child’s behaviours as if they are fully to blame. It does not allow space for the many external factors that could have also influenced what had taken place.
- E.g. the baby is teething and unable to fall asleep: “I’m a lousy parent. I can’t help my baby get some rest.”
- E.g. Your partner received negative feedback from his/her boss. “It’s my fault. I kept my spouse awake by asking for help during the feedings.”
- “It is my fault that my baby is not walking, talking, or meeting a developmental mile stone at this time. I must be doing something wrong.”
This anxious thought pattern is really tough during the postpartum period. We are all trying our best as new parents, but the pressure to manage these high standards can be incredibly straining. Perfectionist thoughts involve terms like should, shouldn’t, must, must not, ought to, have to, etc. We use these thoughts as if they are iron clad rules. Unfortunately, there is a lot of frustration and resentment when we cannot meet these high expectations.
- “I should be able to do the dishes, make supper, tidy up and take care of the baby.”
- “I have to get to the gym. I can’t be walking around with all of this baby weight still.”
- “I should be calm and soothing all the time, even when my baby is cranky.”
Do these anxious thoughts sound familiar?
Anxious thoughts can happen to any one. However, there is a higher vulnerability for anxiety during the postpartum year. If you are concerned that you may be experiencing postpartum anxiety, the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale is a quick self-assessment that reviews signs of depression and anxiety in parents. Postpartum anxiety is treatable. If you are struggling, please reach out.