It’s unavoidable as a new parent that you are sleep deprived. You’ve got endless disruptions at night from numerous feedings, diaper changes, and the ever-present grunts and squawks coming from your newborn. You may be turning towards different coping strategies (e.g. asking friends and family for help, grabbing naps, consuming endless cups of coffee, or having an iron clad determination to figure out sleep training).
For many new parents, the lack of sleep is one of the most difficult parts of early parenthood. Poor sleep does not cause mental health issues, but it can influence your vulnerability. A lack of sleep can contribute to starting or worsening mental health struggles. But, there are things you can do to ease the exhaustion and reduce the mental health challenges of early parenthood. In this blog post, we’ll share some tips for getting better sleep and managing postpartum mental health.
What does sleep do for you?
Before diving in, let’s take a moment to understand why sleep is so essential. The ideal amount of rest for a person is approximately 7-9 hours. This is a laughable amount of time for new parents to consider, especially when night feeds occur every 1-2 hours. But, irrespective of the amount you’re getting at night, it’s the amount needed for an adult to function.
During sleep, your brain and internal organs are working hard. Your learning capacity is significantly influenced by this nightly practice. It is during sleep that your brain learns to integrate memories and new information. Your brain works through the various thoughts, emotions and information you experienced that day, and learns to sift through these details.
The neurons in your brain need this rest time to recover or else they become overloaded. This is a significant reason why your cognitive capacity feels diminished after a poor night sleep. With enough rest, you’re better able to stay attentive, learn new information, and create long-lasting memories.You can make better decisions, and have a better hold of your emotional capacity.
“Mommy Brain” Is Real
You may have heard of folks referring to the term “mommy brain” for new parents who present as forgetful or scattered. Often, this term is said with some laughter and derision. But, there’s a biological reason that “mommy brain” exists. Not only is your system going through numerous hormonal changes, but your sleep deprivation exacerbates the situation. Sleep impacts your ability to reason, problem-solve and pay attention to details. If you find that you are making lots of mistakes, forgetting details, or have limited capacity to handle stressors, sleep is a big part of this problem. Both your body and mind are craving the rest they desperately need in order to reset.
Sleep is also the time when your body recovers. During this rest period, your muscles strengthen and heal from the work it has done during the day. While your resting, your brain is producing the hormones needed to manage your well-being. These hormones regulate your immune system, your metabolism, your blood pressure, your insulin production, and even your hunger cues. When your body is working on limited sleep, recovery takes longer, and you’re more susceptible to colds and ailments.
The confusion with cortisol
Unfortunately, when we are sleep deprived, our body starts to produce more stress hormones. With limited sleep, your cortisol production increases, and this helps you stay alert. You go about your day, irritable and not up to par, but awake. When you take a nap, or get an extra hour of sleep, this production level decreases. Ironically, now that you’re less stressed, you become less alert and you’re more aware of how exhausted your body has become. People often walk away thinking that the naps have not helped, when in fact, it has gotten rid of that false alert experience caused by extra cortisol.
The cyclical effects of sleep and mental health struggles
When you are anxious or depressed, it’s hard to get quality sleep. Your mind is racing, your moods are low, and it’s hard to convince yourself to fall asleep when all of this internal turmoil is taking place. On the other hand, when you cannot get good sleep, you start to feel tired, overwhelmed, and irritable. While sleep is not the sole cause for mental health struggles, these two elements influence one another in this never-ending cyclical mayhem.
Tips to help get better sleep
So what do we do? When we’re so aware that sleep is good and needed, how do we get enough rest with a young baby? The following tips will give you some support in managing those first few months.
Find ways to soothe your newborn
When your baby can be quickly soothed and placed back down to rest, you’re able to get longer chunks of rest. This article explains the 5S technique that helps to settle newborns.
Establish a bedtime routine for your baby
Identify the ideal bedtime for your child. For newborns, this is typically around 6-7 PM. Create a consistent plan for nighttime routines that will take 10-20 minutes. While your newborn will not pick up on this pattern right away, your future self will thank you for beginning this practice so early on. Your baby will adjust to this routine so long as you’re consistent. Eventually, there will be an association of this routine with the final shift into nighttime. This bedtime routine can include: baths, getting on pyjamas, infant massages, reading stories, signing songs, final bottle/nursing, and placing into the crib.
Use “the pause” to retrain the anxious mind
Our anxieties often want us to intervene as quickly as possible when our newborns are making noise at night. While this makes you a very loving and caring parent, it comes at a cost. Your anxiety starts to build an automatic behavioural pattern with this practice: the baby grunts, and you bolt to check that the baby is okay.
The pause is a technique described in French parenting that involves observing our babies for a few minutes before intervening (this is different from the systematic cry it out method). You’ll learn a lot from these 2-3 minute pauses. You’ll notice your baby can sometimes be asleep and making noise (Newborns have two hour sleep windows where they move, make noise and even cry out despite being asleep). You’ll also become aware of times when your baby can settle and fall back asleep independently. Your anxiety will also learn that a few minutes is manageable and reduce its pattern of “I must fix the crying”-panic.
Pausing for two minutes can feel like a lifetime, especially for parents who are cautious of creating insecure attachments. However, I know that these parents are working all day, everyday to provide their babies a safe and loving home. Giving yourself two minutes to retrain your anxiety will only further support you to show up from a secure place versus an anxious one. If you show up as grounded, calm and loving when you check in on your baby, they will settle faster knowing that you’ve got them and you are not worried about this situation.
Address your sleep hygiene.
It’s not just your newborn that needs a bedtime routine. Your system needs it as well. Establishing good sleep hygiene habits may not get you to sleep on the first night, but it will help your body shift away from activation into rest more quickly. The following post offers some suggestions about improving sleep hygiene.
Wait a minute. You’re sleep deprived and you’re supposed to step on the treadmill? I know, it’s the worst advice. But there’s a reason that exercise helps our bodies settle. Getting some cardio into the day helps your body produce more endorphins, which helps you stay awake and alert. When you cool down following a work out, these endorphins leave the system, and helps your body settle back down into a calmer, rested state. This makes it easier when you get to bed shortly after.
Get some help
There may be some very strong, independent and capable parts of you that hate getting help. If this is the case, remember that it’s incredibly hard to raise a human all by yourself. If you have the support, and it’s safe to ask for help, please do so. Create a plan with your friends or family members to sleep chunk so that you can have at least 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep. This gives you the chance to get through at least a few sleep cycles. Ask for helping in managing household chores so that you don’t have to spend your awake time stressing out about these details.
Rest when you can
Rest is different than sleep. If you’re unable to fall asleep, focus on tasks that are relaxing and comforting to your body and mind. Stretch, read a book, watch a show, listen to music. Give your active, thinking, and organizing brain the opportunity to slow down. Sometimes we get hyper-focused on the baby and the endless amount of chores that need to get done. Ironically, your attention cannot be sustained for the amount of time needed to complete these tasks. Giving yourself the time to rest is like recharging your batteries. The earlier tasks will feel less overwhelming when you consistently take breaks and get the chance to rest.
Use of medication and therapy
Anxiety, depression, and mental health struggles are complicated. It’s not based on will power. If you had the tools and resources to overcome it, know that you would have by now. Seeking help allows you the opportunity to heal from emotional wounds. When the root causes of your mental health struggles have been resolved, your day to day capacity (including your ability to sleep) will get better.
Remember that so much of your mental, physical and emotional capacity is influenced by your sleep. It’s not you that’s doing it “wrong”. It’s not your fault that life feels hard and challenging. By prioritizing your sleep, you can support your mental health and better cope with the demands of parenthood.
If you’d like to chat about any of the above pieces, or if you’re looking for support with your mental health during this postpartum phase, reach out.
You had high hopes when you signed up for therapy. You imagined the end result where problems were manageable, relationships were healed, and your mental health was top notch. With these goals in mind, you began the journey of connecting with a therapist, saying: “Help me change. Make this stop hurting.”
But, now you’re starting to realize that therapy can take its sweet time in order to work. Perhaps you’ve already invested several sessions (or several months of sessions) into this healing experience. You may be feeling a tad frustrated. When are you finally going to start seeing some progress? When will you be “healed”? Why does therapy take so long?
If you’re in this stage, I know it’s really hard to be patient. Clearly, you’re motivated to get better. Despite all of your good intentions, you’re not seeing the change you want to see. It can be incredibly frustrating when you’re giving it your best efforts, and it still feels like you’re stuck.
Unfortunately, the answer for why therapy takes so long is complicated. The progression you experience in therapy can be influenced by a variety of different factors, such as: the complexity of your needs, your comfort with your therapist, fears of change, external pressures, and your expectations (just to name a few!).
The Real Reasons Why Therapy Takes Time
1. Working with ambivalence
Therapeutic change means we have to process some of the most challenging moments of your life. We have to face the emotional burdens and beliefs that you’ve carried from a tender age. While this may sound fair and reasonable, it is easier said than done. It takes a lot of courage and willingness to speak to a therapist about our shame, our insecurities, and our painful stuck points. There may be parts of you hesitant to discuss these facets of your history, while other parts of you are eager to get on with it. This tug of war is normal.
Rather than forcing yourself to talk, let your therapist know you’re struggling with this internal battle. Your therapist can help you work with this ambivalence first. Doing this extra step helps to reduce overwhelm and resistance, and allows you to safely address these challenging topics.
2. Building Trust
Your trust may have been tested (and burned) in other relationships. Your experiences in the past have led you to be cautious about opening up. Once bitten, twice shy, so to speak. Rather than put yourself through this again, it feels safer to stay on the surface level, and focus on “easy” topics during therapy. While there are some benefits to this decision (e.g. you’re in your comfort zone), there are also costs. You don’t get to deal with the issues that are actually bothering you.
In these situations, be honest with your therapist. Name this block, and allow it to be there in the therapy space. Your mind won’t question why therapy is taking so long when you’re acknowledging that the trust isn’t quite there. It’s okay to stay with the surface level topics until trust is built. Your therapist can gently guide you into working with these blocks in a safe and effective way. This process will take time, and that is okay.
But can I trust my therapist?
It takes a lot of courage to open up to a virtual stranger. Here you are showing up with your most vulnerable wounds, and you’re supposed to blindly trust that this person can handle it? Of course you’d feel cautious!
You don’t know me outside of these blogs and the therapy space. It’s absolutely fair that you take all the time you need to judge and assess if I can be trusted.
With any therapeutic relationship, you have to consider: Is your therapist consistent? Will your therapist judge you? Can your therapist handle what you’re about to share?
I recommend providing a few tidbits about yourself to see how your therapist reacts. Therapy can take time because it’s a relationship. As with any relationship, you need time to build trust.
3. What’s happening in your world?
When you’re in the safe confines of a therapy room, you can show up. You can let your guards down. You can be expressive and messy. You can stop being so responsible. There’s nothing to do or accomplish during the hour other than talk to someone who really wants to hear you and help you feel understood. So, if you do all of this, why doesn’t it feel better?
These hours in therapy may be rich and nourishing for your system. However, what is your world like outside of these hours? Who do you have to face when you go home? What hardships, threats and vulnerabilities are waiting for you as soon as you walk out that door?
Therapy can do a significant amount of healing in your internal world. But, it can be hard to appreciate this change when you’re returning back to the same daily hardships. In these situations, healing means making changes in your internal and your external world in order for your mental health to improve. Again, this takes time. It takes time to decide if you want to leave an abusive relationship, find a new job, or move to a safer neighbourhood. It takes time to carry out these changes.
4. Can I give therapy the time and effort it needs?
If you’re attending therapy regularly, you’re taking the time out of your busy day to arrive and do the work. Beyond the hour of therapy, you may be encouraged to do some homework such as journalling or meditation. Therapy requires your patience and persistence.
Doing this type of work regularly can come at a cost. There are many obstacles to address, like finding the time, energy, finances, and childcare to make this all work. That’s no small feat. You are doing the best you can, and this should be celebrated not judged.
Therapy takes time when you’re not able to attend regularly. When this is the case, I encourage you to focus on the progress you’ve made (both big and small), rather than the amount of work that is yet to be done. This will help to keep you motivated and on track towards achieving recovery.
5. Is this the right therapist or the right type of therapy?
Not every therapist is going to be a good fit. Your therapist might not have the right set of skills to meet your needs. Perhaps your schedules don’t align. Maybe you’re just not a fan of the way this therapist communicates. These are all barriers to moving forward.
Similarly, not every therapy style is going to be right for you. You may prefer a cognitive approach instead of using mindfulness. You might want a therapy style that is directive and tells you to try x, y, and z steps for homework. Maybe you just want to chat with someone and explore your unconscious thoughts and feelings. Get to know your preferences and what feels effective for you.
There are dozens of therapeutic approaches to use. There are many therapists available. It’s okay to shop around and find out what best suits you.
How You Can Make the Most of Therapy
Despite the length of time it takes, there are a number of ways you can make the most of the therapy process.
- Remember why you are doing therapy in the first place and to stay focused on this goal. What are you hoping to achieve?
- Keep track of what’s different in your emotions and behaviours. Do you get triggered in the same way? Do you respond to situations differently? Do you feel calmer inside? Are you able to notice your emotions without feeling overwhelmed?
- Let your therapist know what would help build trust in this relationship. While you should always be courteous and kind, it’s not an attack to tell your therapist that you’re feeling cautious about opening up. This lets your therapist learn more about your comfort in trusting new people.
- Therapy will often require difficult conversations and working through uncomfortable feelings and memories. Be clear with yourself and your therapist about what you’re ready to process, and what feels inaccessible. Respect your boundaries, and trust your therapist to guide you in the next steps.
- Take care of yourself and foster healthy relationships. Therapy takes time. In the interim, get enough sleep, spend time with loved ones, and follow self-care practices to keep you going.
Trust yourself and your ability to be patient and persistent in this process. Therapy is a journey. There are opportunities to meander, get lost, or go back a few steps before heading back on track. The work can be slow, but you can get there.
Is pushing others away a common pattern in your relationships? There may be times when you are baffled by your own actions. Why are you actively distancing yourself from someone you like? Everyone else seems to respect and like this person, so what’s making you so eager to get away? It’s a jumble of emotions and thoughts inside, and it’s hard to make sense of it all.
When we are triggered by others, it’s natural that we become avoidant. However, if we can take a moment to get curious, we can gain some clarity about what’s happening inside of our own system.
This post is for those who are wondering why they push others away. I hope these points offer some insight about why your system is caught in this pattern.
#1 It’s too exhausting
If you’re struggling with mental health, everything feels exhausting. While you may be aware that being social is a “good thing”, talking to others depletes all of your limited energy. It takes effort to keep a conversation going and maintain concentration. You don’t have the patience or tolerance for inane chitchat.
You don’t feel confident that others are genuinely interested in getting to know you. Can they really accept you and all of your anxieties and sadness?
Social pressures feels insurmountable when you’re already managing anxiety, depression, trauma, and other mental health concerns. Pushing others away feels not only like self-preservation, but also an act of compassionate for our loved ones.
#2 Is there a genuine concern for safety?
If we are triggered by others, we want to stop and consider: Is my safety or well-being feeling threatened by this person? Sometimes the answer doesn’t have to be complicated. Your alarm bells are fired up because there is a real concern for your health and safety. When this happens, listen to these fears.
There may be parts of you that question whether your worries are legitimate. Perhaps you’ve seen this person be gentle with others. Perhaps this individual has been kind to you during many occasions. You might question whether it was a fluke or a one-time incident of feeling unsafe. You may be struggling with the decision to leave.
It’s hard to find clarity when there is a tug of war happening in our minds. A part of you is eager to call quits to this relationship, and another part of you says you’re being too impulsive. For many of us, it will feel impossible to reach a consensus.
When it comes to safety, we don’t want to take a chance. If you’re worried whether this person is a genuine threat, talk to someone. This could be a friend, a confidante or a therapist. I encourage you to connect with someone who is impartial. If this impartial person agrees that you’re unsafe, trust that answer. When you are safe, take the time and explore what’s happening inside of you. Get to know the parts of you that have normalized how this harmful person treats you.
#3 What parts of myself have I pushed away?
We tend to push away and exile the parts of ourselves that get us in trouble. We push down the parts of our personality that were shamed or met with negative responses from others.
For example, you may have been spontaneous, loud, and playful as a kid. But, whenever you showed up in this way, your parents would become upset. They would tell you to stop it, be quiet, or find something else to do. Your system adapted. You learned it was better to not be loud, spontaneous or playful. Instead, you stifled these aspects of your personality.
What does this have to do with pushing others away? When we notice others presenting as loud, spontaneous or playful, our system reacts. It’s not a conscious decision, but it is an immediate one. We feel annoyed with them. There may be an urge to react in the ways that our parents presented: we want to tell this person to stop it or be quiet. In order to stop feeling triggered, it feels safer to just avoid this person. By pushing this person away, we can continue to avoid reminders of our own exiled parts.
#4 Childhood trauma and the fear of responsibility
Childhood trauma teaches our system that we cannot be trusted to protect ourselves. No matter what you said, did, intended, or hoped, you couldn’t stop bad things from happening.
As traumatic events continue to occur, your system starts to lose faith in your ability to make things better. It ends up blaming you for being weak, incompetent, or making the wrong choices. It runs through numerous “what if’s” and “if only’s” scenarios because it genuinely believes you could have altered the outcome.
I’m not saying this line of reasoning is logical or valid. You were a child when this happened, and as a child, you had very little control or power in the world. But, this doesn’t stop your mind from wanting to have influence over these circumstances.
When we meet folks who remind us of these vulnerable states, it can trigger many fears inside of us. We become avoidant because we are overwhelmed at the idea of feeling responsible for a vulnerable person.
Your system doesn’t trust you to be capable of protecting yourself, so how could it trust you to take care of a young person? Rather than embrace this relationship, our minds protect by pushing the relationship away.
#5 Fear of trusting others
You’ve lived and survived all this time, and somewhere along the way you’ve gotten hurt. You may have discovered your partner was having an affair. Perhaps you heard your parents complain about you when they thought you were asleep. Maybe friends have turned cruel and violent. Whatever the scenario, your system started to feel cautious about trust. In order to not get hurt again, you learned the best way to stay safe is to avoid closeness.
Pushing others away allows you to stay safe. You feel leery about needing someone else for help or support. Self-reliance means you never have to be vulnerable again.
The above argument may feel very justifiable for some of you, and I do not question its ability to keep you safe. However, keeping yourself this closed off comes with some consequences.
Being human means we need social connection. From an evolutionary perspective, we could not survive in isolation. Loneliness creates further stressors to our physical and mental health.
# 6 You’re being pushed into something you’re not ready to face
Whether intentionally or unintentionally, our loved ones push us. They push us to face our fears, address our flaws, accept our limits, confront a hardship, or take a chance.
Your spouse knows you avoided applying for that promotion. Your colleague heard you swearing at a client. Your friend tells you to stop wasting all your money at the casino. Your sibling keeps pestering you to attend AA meetings. Seeing your mother reminds you of how much abuse you experienced as a child.
Some of us are able to address our emotional scars. This takes time, patience, safety, support and a variety of emotional tools (e.g. validation, trauma processing). Eventually, by understanding and working through our emotions, our internal discomfort disappears. The other person is no longer seen as an enemy.
However, not everyone is ready to face these challenges. Sometimes, the other person does not have to say anything. Their presence alone reminds you of the parts of yourself that you are not ready to address. These reminders are incredibly painful. The safest option is to push others away rather than turn inwards.
If you’re interested in learning more about these protective mechanisms in your own system, reach out!
Feel free to share this post! You never know who might need it.
The term “childhood trauma” may stir up different emotions in you. You might feel cautious in referring to your experiences with this label. Yes, childhood was not a happy time, but does it count as “traumatic?” On the other hand, you might feel clear about this label. You are aware that childhood sucked. There were plenty of horrible moments, and without a doubt, you were left feeling scarred.
So, what exactly is childhood trauma? Why do people raised in similar circumstances grow up with very different perspectives of an event? How come you’re not as overwhelmed as your siblings when you went through the exact same situation? How can you tell if your past is affecting you today?
I hope this post will provide some clarity to these questions.
What is trauma?
Trauma is the negative beliefs, emotions and physical distress we become burdened with after surviving an awful experience. Trauma is the meaning we make of these painful events. These burdens shift how we see ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us. How “awful” an experience seems varies for each person. The following questions demonstrate some factors that can change an experience from manageable to traumatic:
Ask yourself the following:
- How old were you when these traumatic events happened?
- How often did you experience emotionally painful events while growing up?
- Were you scared for your safety or the safety of your loved one?
- How did you make sense of things? Were questions left unanswered?
- Who was around to help you? What level of community and supports were available?
- How long did it take before the world felt “normal” again?
- What other inequities did you have to manage during this time (e.g. health, low income)?
The same situation that is considered traumatic to one person may feel manageable to another. Trauma is subjective in this way. Age, support systems, community resources, number of traumatic events, and physical safety are just a few factors that can impact one’s experience of childhood trauma.
Is it traumatic “enough”?
In trauma-informed therapy, we often use the terms “Big T” and “little t” trauma. Big T trauma refers to big ticket events that no one would question as damaging and painful. It’s the events you see on the news and social media that are objectively awful. We’re talking about events like war, natural disasters, murders, and sexual abuse.
Little t traumas, on the other hand, refer to the smaller scale events that leave a mark on our system. We hurt and react when we think back to these moments, but not everyone would label these experiences as distressing. Little t traumas can include: witnessing fights in your neighbourhood, experiencing endless sarcasm from your parents, or loneliness in high school. These little t moments are subjectively awful. But, because they are not quite as obvious as Big T events, they tend to get minimized. While little t traumas create emotional scars, they are often dismissed or pushed away. Individuals with numerous little t traumas may feel anxious and insecure without recognizing the influence trauma plays in their current emotional well-being.
At the end of the day, when trauma happens as a child, we don’t question whether it’s Big T or little t events. We just know it’s horrible and we feel awful about it. As kids, our minds are set up to be egocentric. It’s not personal; it’s a developmental fact. We look at the world from our eyes and only see our influence in a situation. Irrespective of Big T or little t events, kids personalize. They question who they are, what they did, and their level of responsibility in having “caused” this awful event. They don’t recognize the flaws of adults. Instead, they make up stories about how they pushed the adult to act in a horrible way. For kids, it doesn’t matter whether it is traumatic “enough”. If it hurts, a child walks away carrying that emotional burden.
Is it PTSD?
Childhood trauma takes place during the early years of our lives. If addressed (e.g. through nurturing and support, healing in the home, processing through therapy), it can get better. If ignored, these adverse childhood experiences can exacerbate to mental health struggles like PTSD. There are several persistent symptoms that need to be present with a diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. However, any one of these features can influence your sense of safety and well-being.
Symptoms of PTSD:
|Types of Symptoms||Examples of Experiences:|
|Persistent re-experiencing of the trauma||nightmares, unwanted memories, emotional distress, flashbacks, unwanted thoughts, unwanted reminders, physical reactions|
|Persistent avoidance of the trauma||avoidance of reminders and thoughts related to the trauma|
|Persistent negative thoughts and feelings||difficulty remembering key details about the trauma, negative thoughts about oneself, negative thoughts about the world, blame of self/others for causing the trauma, mood changes, less interest in pleasurable activities, feeling alone/isolated|
|Persistent high reactivity and alertness||irritability, aggression, risky behaviours, hypervigilance, increased startle reactions, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbance|
How do we survive childhood trauma?
Irrespective of how awful we feel after trauma, we still keep living. When we walk away from traumatic events, we learn to protect ourselves through whatever means possible.
Internal Family Systems therapy recognizes that our subconscious gets divided into different parts during a traumatic experience. This is a normal and adaptive process. Our mind starts to compartmentalize and split in order to cope.
During a traumatic event, there are parts of us that become burdened with negative beliefs and emotions. For example, these parts feel overwhelmed with shame, vulnerability, self-hatred or guilt. These parts may hold negative beliefs, such as: “I cannot protect myself, I am a disappointment, or I cannot trust anyone.”
Because these are painful emotions and beliefs, we try and push them away. Other parts of our subconscious help to avoid thinking about these painful parts so that we can function in our daily life. They protect by preventing us from getting triggered or soothing us once we have been triggered.
Our system finds unique and creative ways to protect. For example, if you learned that other people are not safe, your system may protect by avoiding social connections, turning down dates or never asking for help. Unfortunately, when these burdens get triggered (e.g. your classmate makes an insensitive comment), your mind finds ways to self-soothe. This could be done through hours of playing video games, becoming explosive or angry, or numbing out through substances. While our protective parts attempt to help, they often create new consequences.
We don’t stop protecting ourselves in this way once the traumatic event is over. We are often triggered. Any moment that shame, vulnerability or some semblance of our traumatic experience shows up, our protective parts react. The only way to stop these patterns from taking over is to address the childhood trauma.
How do we treat childhood trauma?
Treating trauma goes well beyond a small paragraph in a blog post. Healing can come in various forms, and should include both personal and systemic changes. Some ways to treating childhood trauma include:
- Improving parent-child relationships: e.g. repair past injuries, apologizing for harm done, receive parenting support.
- Increasing access to positive role models: e.g. through peer mentorship programs
- Creating healthier communities through systemic changes (e.g. addressing racist, homophobic or ableist policies)
- Improving neighbourhood safety
- Improving access to social services (e.g. education, transportation, medical)
- Better access to trauma-informed care (e.g. ease of entering rehabilitation and addictions services, availability for mental health support).
- Teaching and practicing social and emotional skills (e.g. repairing conflicts, learning how to calm down)
- Participating in health-promoting activities (e.g. access to nutritious meals, encouragement for physical activities)
- Participating in therapy
- Practicing self-compassion
If you are curious about the above information or would like support processing your own traumatic experiences, reach out.
Many of us fall into the trap of personalization. This is a type of thinking pattern where we take responsibility and blame ourselves for something, irrespective of whether we had any control over the outcome.
Consider the last time your partner was upset, your child had a meltdown, or your boss didn’t give you a promotion. What was the story in your head? For those of us who personalize, our thoughts are something along the lines of:
- I didn’t work hard enough
- If only I had tried harder.
- What could I have done differently?
- I’m not good at this. I’m a screw up
- They’re going to hate me.
When we personalize, we assume that we’ve done something wrong. We make meaning of the situation: it’s our fault and our actions have caused this screw up. Personalization does not take into consideration others’ influence. It does not take into account any external factors that could have affected the situation. Instead, we are to blame.
How we tend to deal with personalization:
No one actually enjoys personalizing. It’s lousy to hear, “it’s all on me.” So our system tries to compensate when we are overwhelmed with guilt, shame, or low self-worth. Whether consciously or unconsciously, our minds find ways to prevent personalization from happening. We avoid people and situations who make us feel like screw ups. We work even harder to prevent mistakes from taking place. We stay quiet so that we don’t accidentally say something offensive or incorrect. We learn to accommodate and focus on pleasing others so that they won’t become upset with us. Sound familiar?
On the other hand, we’re human and we get triggered. Because there’s a tendency to take on all that blame, at some point in time, we fall into the trap of personalizing once again. When this happens, our systems try and extinguish that blame. We find ways to self-soothe, distract, and get rid of this internal discomfort. If you’re like me, you may go down the rabbit hole of researching “how to handle emotions”. Perhaps you go for a run or an intense workout trying to shake off these uncomfortable feelings. Or, you may become fraught with disgust and anger towards yourself. Ironically, when your system is filled with this self-hatred, it’s attempting to punish the guilt. It’s hoping that all that anger will somehow compensate for that uncomfortable feeling.
The Opposite of Personalizing: Blaming
Our minds are constantly attempting to find equilibrium. So when we personalize, there are also parts of us that try and compensate by blaming. We blame friends, colleagues, babies, family members for putting us in this position. We start to feel upset with them about who they are, their behaviours and their decisions. We may have thoughts like, “if only they weren’t this way… they are being so difficult… they are causing their own problems”. In hopes of trying to reduce the internal blame, we bring our attention outwards to other people.
The caveat here is that you still feel lousy. Now you’re balancing that line between being upset with yourself AND being upset with another person. There’s limited self-compassion in this space, and there is limited kindness towards the other person.
What can I do?
#1 Recognize that it is a part of you, not all of you.
Internal Family Systems therapy introduces the concept that our mind can be divided into various parts. There is a part of you that takes things personally. It is one part of your mind, your consciousness, your emotional state, your personality. When this feeling takes over, it gets incredibly big. However, it is one part. It is not all of you.
You have thousands of moments during the day when you shift out of personalizing to a different state of mind. You are filled with self-loathing, then become angry, then you try to distract yourself, and so forth. These are all parts and they step in and step away at any point in time. Our internal struggle worsens when we say, “I’m horrible. I’m a terrible person. I should have done something.” Instead, we can shift our perspective by recognizing that, “in this moment, there is a part of me that feels it’s horrible, believes it’s a terrible person, and wishes it had done things differently.”
# 2 Notice how this part shows up
There’s a huge shift in intensity when we start to identify and label our emotions. When we are in the emotion, our amygdala (the feeling centre in our brain) is highly activated. Naming the feeling activates our prefrontal cortex (considered the planning, decision-making and moderating behaviours part of our brain).
When you personalize, start with acknowledging this part. Slow it down and notice how you’re aware of this part taking over. Does it show up as a thought? What happens to your body when you personalize? What starts to feel heavy, tense, or jittery? Where in your body do you feel this sensation? Are there images that come to mind as you slow it down and focus on the personalization? Sometimes memories come up. Sometimes a visual comes to mind. See if it’s possible to stay curious and keep noticing.
These steps of naming and noticing help you shift out of being IN the emotion into becoming more aware and observant of your emotion.
#3 Take note of what you influenced and what you could not control
When we are no longer in an emotion, there is more space to see the bigger picture. When this happens, we can better appreciate the aspects of a situation that were and weren’t in our control. When we are no longer overwhelmed by shame, guilt, or blame, we know that we cannot control others, read their minds, or know what is going on in their worlds.
When we personalize, we come up with moral meanings about a situation. When we are not in this emotional state of personalizing, we can step back and look at the scenario more objectively. We can recognize that there are many other reasons that could impact these circumstances. Consider the following scenarios:
|Situation||Moral Meaning that Personalization takes on:||Other Explainations|
|Baby will not stop crying||I am bad at parenting.||The baby is learning a new skill, going through a growth spurt, is adjusting to sleeping independently. or feeling uncomfortable.|
|My spouse looks unhappy||I am not making my spouse happy. I am not worthy of being in a relationship.||My spouse had a tough day, slept poorly, heard some difficult news, needs some self-care time.|
|I did not get the promotion||I am incompetent||There were others who had the required skills, have been at the company longer, have more experience, had more flexibility in their schedule and tasks.|
|They did not invite me to join them.||I am unloveable.||They did not invite me because they did not think I’d enjoy the activity, wanted to spend some time alone, intend to invite me for other activities in the future.|
|I made a social faux-pas||I am a horrible human being.||It is human to make mistakes. I can apologize and take accountability for my impact. I can trust myself to take the time for repair work in these relationships.|
#4 There’s always a history
We don’t automatically start to personalize from the moment we are born. This is a learned behaviour. As you get curious, notice if you can become open to understanding this history. How did your system learn to personalize? At what point did personalizing feel like the safest option? Perhaps you got blamed as a child. Maybe your caregivers continued to shame and tell you that you didn’t try hard enough. Maybe conflicts felt really scary during your lifetime. In these circumstances, it may have felt easier to become upset with yourself, rather than acknowledge the other person’s influence.
These initial onsets are what triggered this pattern of personalizing. When these initial wounds are addressed, your emotional state softens and no longer personalizes. A large piece of therapy is getting to these core wounds. Whether it’s that moment when your caregivers shamed, or that time when you got blamed as a kid, these moments stick with you. With therapy, we work at a slow and trusting pace to process these memories and unload all of the meaning, distress and vulnerabilities we’ve taken on from these moments in time.
Let me know your thoughts about personalization. What do you notice about your system? What strategies do you use to reduce this internal distress?
Your way of coping with the world is to intellectualize. You use your logic to talk yourself out of feeling a certain way. You’re able to stay away from the vulnerabilities inside by managing the situation with reason, problem solving, logic, and planning. Sounds pretty good, right? What could go wrong?
Intellectualizing feelings often means you’re telling your anxieties that they don’t make sense. Rather than creating space for that worry, you’re able to come up with reasonable explanations. That rude comment your friend made? No biggie, he’s having a bad day.
When you attend therapy, you can remain logical. You can list details about the traumatic event. It all feels matter of fact. No need to cry big tears about these things; it’s all in the past. In fact, it’s quite annoying that the therapist keeps asking about your feelings. You just want some tips and tools so you can move on.
Your logical brain is brilliant. It quickly steps into problem solving and reasoning. It figures out how to get rid of crummy situations and feelings. It’s a beautiful defence mechanism. The problem, however, is that the tough emotions and vulnerabilities don’t go away. No amount of logic actually fixes this problem.
The positive intentions behind intellectualizing feelings
Before we dive in, let’s take a look at what this logical brain of ours is trying to do. Internal Family Systems therapy recognizes that this pattern of intellectualizing as a part. Meaning, it is a part of our personality with its own agenda, fears, and perspectives. Sometimes, intellectualizing is a manager part that is trying to prevent a vulnerability from getting triggered. For example, you need to have that awful conversation today to ask your partner to help out more around the home. This stresses you out because you know it may lead to conflict. Rather than dealing with your fears of conflict, your intellectualizing part starts planning instead. It comes up with a schedule for what needs to get done, who will do what, the acceptable quality of completed chores, and so forth.
Sometimes, this intellectualizing part plays a firefighter role. It jumps in to extinguish those extreme emotions and vulnerabilities when they are triggered. For example, your baby is up for hours howling and refusing to go to bed. Your mind starts spinning about how you’re a terrible parent and how you’re not cut out for this whole newborn phase. Your intellectual part steps in to put out the fire and settle your insecurities. It goes down the Google rabbit hole of researching sleep training ideas.
This pattern of intellectualizing is a protective attempt to reduce the vulnerability underneath. We don’t have to sit with our our fears of conflict or deal with our insecurity of being a lousy parent. This logical part is aware that addressing these vulnerabilities feels too challenging. So, it comes up with a way to rationalize out of the situation. Having a plan feels more comforting than sitting with distress. So, how could this possibly go wrong?
What happens when you suppress feelings
Our vulnerabilities don’t go away just because we’ve intellectualized our feelings. While coming up with a plan may feel like we’re addressing the issue, we’re not actually getting to the root of the matter. Sure, your logical part may have a bunch of wonderful ideas, encouraging you to take a deep breath, see things differently, or research further. Doing these steps, while helpful, does not stop your heart from pounding, your mind from racing, or that sense of dread from taking over.
Unfortunately, your head cannot win over your heart forever. Despite using logic to push away or minimize emotions, that vulnerability keeps coming back up. If we’ve been suppressing these insecurities for a long time, they tend to erupt out of us in the most inconvenient ways. Despite sleep training research, you feel overwhelmed with helplessness whenever you’re around the baby. Irrespective of the chores list, you become fraught with guilt and start to doing everything yourself. That resentment towards your spouse continues to fester and grow.
This is the hardest consequence of using logic to address our emotions. While coming up with a coping plan works in the short-term, that vulnerable feeling is still left unaddressed. Those feelings keep showing up, reminding us over and over again that we still feel awful. We are simply pushing aside our fears for one more day, without actually dealing with those feelings.
When intellectual parts try to lead therapy
Sometimes our intellectual parts know therapy. They’ve been in enough sessions that they have a strong understanding of how they ought to be thinking or behaving. These parts will pipe in with comments like: “I know I should be more compassionate towards myself,” or, “If only this anxious part stopped showing up, I know things would get better.”
Our logical parts are really helpful and aware. They have good insight, and it’s important we listen to them. However, when they lead therapy, little transformative work gets done. Knowing something is different from feeling it. I can say, “I should be more self-compassionate”, but it doesn’t mean I have an iota of self-compassion when I’m anxious, or overwhelmed, or scared. Often times, these intellectual parts share feedback of what is the logical next step. But, rather than create change, these comments lead to more frustration that change is not happening. We rarely see improvement or healing despite knowing what to do.
Working with your intellectualizing parts
Get to know their fears:
Take some time for self-reflection. What is it that this logical part fears will happen if you get to the messiness underneath? Is it worried that you will become overwhelmed? Does this part feel like it’s pointless to review the past? Is it worried that others will judge you if you become emotional? When we understand why this intellectual part is stepping in, we can better support its fears and concerns.
Work with the fears in a safe way:
Once you understand the fears that trigger these intellectualizing parts, you are more aware of what is needed to build safety. This step will look differently for each person. For example, if your intellectualizing part is worried you’ll be judged if you were to open up, this part may remain cautious until the other person has gained your trust. One possibility is to open up about safer topics and see how the other person reacts. This helps your intellectualizing part continue to monitor for judgment. When it receives enough evidence that it’s okay to open up to this person, it will step back.
Addressing the core wound:
Until the underlying vulnerabilities are resolved, our protective system will want to keep protecting. This means actually working with the parts that feel like a lousy parent and the parts that fear conflict. The way to support these wounds will vary depending on the therapist you meet. The modalities I use to address these wounds include EMDR and IFS. These are just two therapy styles and there are many other options that different clinicians will take to work through these difficult, stuck points.
If you have any questions about the above details, reach out for a free consult. Your intellectualizing parts are working over-time. Therapy can offer a safe way to work with your intellectual parts and the vulnerabilities they are trying to protect.
Your world feels chaotic and there’s no escape. There are endless hours between naps, feedings and the constant fatigue. There is no one around to talk to and you feel overwhelmed and frustrated all the time. Having one more drink feels awful, but it gives you that escape you’ve been craving. Sound familiar?
Whether you want to call it an addiction or not, you’re noticing that you’re drinking more than usual. What was initially meant as a treat at the end of the day is starting to become a coping strategy (and, unfortunately, this one comes with some consequences).
If this sounds like your life right now, I get that you’re really struggling. This post is not about judging you or telling what is right or wrong. Addictions is hard. Postpartum depression is hard. For those who are in these circumstances, I hope the following post provides you some clarity and empowerment.
What is drinking doing for you?
Attempts to Self-Soothe:
Life feels chaotic and things feel too difficult to manage. There needs to be an end. It’s not possible to stay hyper-alert forever. You can’t always be watching the baby sleep. It’s overwhelming to be so stressed out at every feed. Drinking helps to balance your window of tolerance. When you’ve become a ball of stress, your body craves a way to settle down. So, a part of you turns toward drinking to help you calm down and relax.
Alcohol is an effective depressant. It forces your body to slow down giving that reprieve you desperately crave. In this way, drinking is an attempt to self-soothe. It’s a coping mechanism for helping slow down, numb out, or block off whatever it is you don’t want to address. You can’t necessarily leave the baby. You don’t want to call it quits as a parent. Drinking provides that mental escape when physical escape is just not possible.
Lack of Internal Trust
If you’ve experienced enough trauma, neglect, shame or hardships in your life, you are likely aware that your internal system feels messy. You’re aware that many days you feel overwhelmed by worries, humiliation, guilt, anger, or self-hate. These parts of you are harsh and relentless. However, in their own unique way, they are trying to protect you. For example, you may have a critical part that shames you in order to encourage change. There may be a perfectionist part that nags incessantly so that you do not make mistakes.
When our system is full of these protective parts, it’s an indicator that there is limited trust inside. Rather than believing you are capable of handling difficult situations, your protective parts take over. For example, when you feel tired of parenting, there may be a harsh part that steps in. It yells at you to be grateful and reminds you of how hard it was to conceive. Your system doesn’t trust you to sit with the distress of parenting. It would rather help you avoid those thoughts by filling you with shame and guilt instead. This is not necessarily a helpful or effective manner of handling things, but it’s been like this for years.
Working with these protective parts are challenging. No amount of reasoning or negotiating in our minds creates that desperately sought after sense of calm. Our guilt, anxieties, shame and internal critics are forever yelling in our minds. So, a part of us starts to drink. It helps to quiet down all of those loud protective layers inside.
Why is it so hard to give up?
You already know that drinking excessively has consequences. But, why is it so hard to give up? If you’ve ever moved towards sobriety or harm reduction, you know this is no small feat. So, let’s take a look at what gets in the way of recovery.
So much of the addiction process is physiological. When we drink, the reward centres of our brain become affected. Suddenly, our brain produces an abundance of dopamine (a chemical that makes us feel good and influences our sense of pleasure). Once we get introduced to this experience of high-level dopamine, we start to crave it. By using, our brain is providing us enough dopamine that things feel so much better, calmer, and happier.
When substances are taken away, we feel depleted and depressed. Our brain is not producing the amount of dopamine that we crave. The normal level of dopamine production no longer feels like enough. For many folks, they can work through the triggers and traumas of their addiction, but their brain struggles to find pleasure in normal activities. It’s hard to read a book, talk to a friend, or go for a walk when you continuously feel so flat and apathetic.
Working through Pain Points:
When we use substances to cope with our reality, we have to consider what’s happening in our lives that makes us so desperate to escape? Drinking excessively to cope is not anyone’s first solution to fix a problem. Having a baby should not make us so overwhelmed that we’re needing a bottle of whisky every night. So what’s really going on?
When you are no longer drinking, you are left with pain points. Perhaps it is underlying trauma from childhood that keeps coming up. Being around a baby makes you remember all of your toxic and negative experiences as a child. Your pain points may come from unprocessed grief and anxiety. You feel like you ought to be happy with your newborn, but it’s been years of IVF struggles and multiple miscarriages. There’s no way you can let your guard down because what if one more bad thing happens? The part of you that drinks minimizes all of these pain points. Once the substances go, you suddenly have to face your traumas.
Working through pain points means looking at and processing the original trauma. If you continue to be triggered today by situations from the past, that urge to drink will keep coming up in order to protect you.
Habit formation can leads us to automatically reach for a glass of wine once the baby goes down for a nap. At the end of the day, we crave those several beers to help feel calm. We don’t even think or question our urge to grab a cigarette or a joint when we start our day. When it comes to these automatic routines, there are ways to change these habits.
4 Tips to Help with Drinking and Postpartum Depression:
1) Address the pain points.
Drinking is not the problem. It’s a means to make the pain stop. Until your postpartum depression, trauma, grief, and other pain points are addressed, that drinking part will want to self-soothe through substances. Healing from these pain points can involve a variety of interventions, including: individual therapy, support from friends and family, psycho-education, group therapy (for those in Kitchener, Stork Secrets provide wonderful care for postpartum depression), or medication.
2) Explore options for self-soothing
For many, accessing the interventions listed above is not possible. If this is your circumstance, you need to find alternative ways to work through difficult emotions. This is where effective coping skills can help. You need quick and reliable ways to slow things down. My favourite recommendation is the DBT temperature change exercise.
3) Find connection
Our shame drives so much of our need to drink. We worry that others will judge us. We assume they’ll reject us or mock us if they knew how much we are struggling. If there are people like this in your life, I’m sorry. These are not the supports you need right now. Find a safe community to talk to about your struggles, such as neighbours, friends, family, partner, colleagues, or a community-based mental health group. Having others who accept you and love you, just as you are, plays a significant role in healing.
4) Get to know your cues and rewards
One of the best tips for changing our habits is understanding our cues and rewards. Pay attention to what triggers you. Are you most likely to use when the baby refuses to go down for a nap? Are you prone to having a bottle of wine starting at supper time? Pay attention to the time, the place, the people and circumstances. Next, notice the rewards that you get when you drink. Are you able to pass out? Can you suddenly tune out the crying and shrieking? Are you able to manage boredom or frustration? Does your anxiety reduce?
When it comes to changing habits, we want to make sure that we intervene with a different habit for these cues AND still receive a similar reward. For example, once the baby has done screeching for an hour and finally falls asleep, you may experience an urge to drink. It’s the only way to release all of that pent up anxiety and tension inside of you. In this situation, the cue is the baby shrieking before nap time. The reward is releasing anxiety. We want to bring in an alternative habit that will lead to the same result. You may find that running on your treadmill for ten minutes releases some anxiety. Perhaps playing loud, angry music on your headphones provides you some relief. You could work with a foam roller and target those parts of your body that are carrying the most tension. Pairing these new activities shortly after the baby has gone down for a nap leads to shifting out of the original habit.
Addictions is not simple, and one blog post cannot address the complexities of this mental health struggle. If you are struggling with drinking and postpartum depression, please speak with a safe and trusted person or a therapist. This is not a matter of will power. You are worthy of effective support and help.
How are you feeling about going back to work? The past few months have been all about baby, and now you’re suddenly expected to balance work, childcare, and other needs. There’s no way this can go smoothly.
If you’re among the many, returning back to work after maternity leave (or paternity leave) can be a difficult transition. Here are seven tips that can help you along your emotional journey and set you and kiddo up for success.
#1: Change habits ahead of time
Unfortunately, your schedule will look different. You won’t have the same flexibility with your morning routine. Things you may have fobbed off (e.g. getting ready on time, wearing clothes that are not pyjama/sweats, putting baby in clothes) have to be reintroduced into your routine. Changing your habits can be challenging, and it’s best to give yourself some time with these transitions.
Take a look at your routine and consider what you can do to fine-tune your schedule before going back to work:
- What is getting in the way for you to have a successful day?
- Are you staying up late at night scrolling on your phone? Do you drink too much caffeine to fall asleep on time?
- Once these problem areas are identified, create ways to make them harder to repeat. For example, put the coffee machine away after 11 AM, turn off the wifi after 10 PM. It may sound silly, but any barriers that get in the way will make these problem areas less desirable
- e.g. If the cookie is right in front of you, you’re going to grab it. If you have to grab the kitchen stool and reach to the top shelf on your cabinet to get the same cookie, you may reconsider if it’s worth it.
- Consider the habits you’d like to introduce into your schedule: Do you need to wake up earlier? Are you intending to pack your lunch the night before? Do you have a regular night out with your friends? How will you get your child to eat breakfast on time? This step may involve some creative problem solving. You may also have to rely on the support of friends, family, or childcare providers to make it work.
- Work on introducing one new habit at a time. Rather than manage all of these changes from the get-go, give yourself plenty of time to get used to forming these habits.
- Have reminders to cue you about your new habits. e.g. Place your gym clothes near the foot of the bed so that you have it ready to go when you wake up in the morning.
- Use rewards to motivate. Behavioural psychology works! If you pair your new changes with a reward, you’re more likely to follow through. E.g. If your child finishes breakfast on time, you will set aside 10 minutes to play or read before heading out the door.
It takes time to get used to things. Going back to work is huge change from your daily routine of the past few months. If you’d like to learn more about creating changes, check out Atomic Habits or The Power of Habit.
#2 Remember that you will still have a strong attachment with your baby
A big fear of returning back to work is about losing the bond you have with your child. If this is you, remember that attachments and relationships are not so delicate that they will break with having a few hours apart.
If you’re in a secure relationship, you may notice this pattern more easily. In all likelihood, you go to work, hang out with others, pursue your own interests, and you come home to this person knowing that the relationship is still strong. The time apart has not shifted your feelings towards this person. It’s the same with your child. Your infant trusts that you will come back. Your infant will have strong relationships with other peers and adults. You will always be a solid person in his/her/their life.
Rather than focusing on the amount of time you have with your kids, focus instead on the quality of the time. Engage in play, conversations, snuggles. Make sure that your kids feel seen and heard by you. This doesn’t mean you have to provide 100% of your attention when you’re at home with them! Instead, try and create some time in the mornings, afternoons and evenings for hanging out. Some examples can include: sitting down together for meals, having chats in the car, splashing around during bath time, or having snuggles while reading a story at bedtime. Going back to work does not have to stop you from having these wonderful moments.
If all of this does not convince, you, there have been studies have shown that babies do not suffer when their caregivers return to work following parental leave. Instead, the results show that children learn they are being left in safe and nurturing spaces AND that their parents always come back to them.
#3 Talk to People
Every single new parent I’ve talked to has varying degrees of concern and worries about going back to work! It’s an adjustment and it’s perfectly normal to feel cautious towards change.
Managing childcare, work, relationships and your own interests is hard. Rather than sitting with these frustrations alone, please reach out to your community. Let your work know about needing time to pump. Talk to other parents at your workplace to see how they managed. Work with your family members to access emotional and practical support. There’s a reason that the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” exists. Gather your village!
#4 Get to know your childcare provider
Get familiar with your daycare. Ask for a tour. Have a list of questions. I promise you, you are not alone in being anxious. Your daycare provider has answered these questions many, many times.
If it’s financially feasible, arrange a few half-days for your child to participate in childcare ahead of time. By having this short time period away, you will both become familiar with the routine of doing drop offs and pick ups. This trial period also provides an opportunity for you to see how your child manages when spending time away. Your childcare provider will be able to provide you some feedback (did they cry for 5 minutes or 15 minutes? Were they able to settle? Did they make friends?). You both get used to this routine ahead of time, which is helpful for when you do officially go back to work.
#5 Create a balance between needs and wants
You may have had all the time, energy and resources to invest in twelve different interests and hobbies prior to having your child. But, it’s hard to keep up at that pace. What can you feel comfortable dropping? What are you willing to be a little less “good” at? Be honest with yourself in what you really want vs. what you really need.
Find a balance between work, family life AND you-time. It may feel hard to carve out that space for your own interests, but it’s so important to make time for self-care. Without this time for your own needs and interests, it’s easy to burn out, grow resentful or lose yourself in the process of parenthood.
#6 Acknowledge the feelings
No matter what happens, there are going to be feelings. Some good, and some not so pleasant. Rather than pushing these emotions down, allow yourself some time to reflect on what’s coming up as you go back to work. You may experience rage, guilt, anxiety or overwhelm. If this is the case for you, the solutions may vary. You may ned some time to adjust to the transition. It may be helpful to reach out for support. Or, you may require some specific problem solving to address these emotional needs.
Alternatively, you may experience a sense of calm and peace now that you have some time with other adults. You may feel proud that you and your child are handling the transition as well as can be. If this has been your experience, enjoy it! Everyone adjust to change differently, and this transition may be a smooth experience for you.
#7 Cut yourself some slack
Going back to work after so many weeks or months with your child is a huge transition for you and your baby! Give yourself permission to feel all the feels, make a bunch of mistakes AND learn from your experiences. Trust that you are capable of adjusting, and that it will take time before this becomes second nature. Set up manageable expectations for yourself. You are not always going to crush it every day. Sometimes you will half-heartedly parent. Sometimes you will rely on cartoons to occupy your kiddo while prepping a meal. You are human. You are loving. You are doing your best.
It may seem that being overwhelmed is just a given. You’re up to your eyeballs in dirty diapers and wet burp clothes. You can’t remember the last time you had more than a few hours of rest. What even is breakfast? You run on a steady stream of coffee and fistfuls of cheerios. When you put this all together, postpartum anxiety (PPA) and feeling overwhelmed seems to be par for the course.
If being overwhelmed or anxious has been your experience for the past few weeks (or months, or years), it is not fair and it’s not okay. It does not have to be like this. Postpartum is not meant to be a painful or miserable time. If you’re struggling with PPA (or similar symptoms), here are some tips to help.
Know the Signs of Postpartum Anxiety
Postpartum mental health gets overlooked because so many of its symptoms are normalised. Unfortunately, because having a new baby comes with lots of questions, PPA can get mistaken as “normal” adjustments to parenthood. Someone out there has claimed it is acceptable that you are this tired and irritable and anxious.
Yes, it’s normal to have questions and worries. This is part of being human, and certainly a part of being a new parent. However, it’s not normal to have these worries keep you up at night, cause conflict with your partner, or make you avoid time with the baby. Anxiety is only considered “normal” when it’s within your capacity to address it (a.k.a. your window of tolerance).
Postpartum anxiety is a genuine illness that requires attention and help. Here are the symptoms to look for:
- Inability to stop worrying
- Racing thoughts
- Difficulty with sleep or appetite
- Difficulty with focus and concentration
- Inability to rest or relax
- Feeling on edge
- Panic attacks
- Irritability or rage
- Physical cues: tightness, tension, dizziness, nausea, hot flashes
One quick way for you to check about the severity of your postpartum anxiety is through the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale. This is a screening tool that is used to identify postpartum mental health struggles (including PPA). Specifically, any score above 12 on this depression scale indicates a high probability of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.
Three quick grounding techniques
If you’re struggling with overwhelming anxiety, you likely want these feelings to calm down ASAP. Here are three quick grounding techniques that can help reduce the panic and overwhelm.
1. Butterfly Hug
The Butterfly Hug is a popular technique used in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to quickly settle your body and mind.
Why it’s helpful:
- Does not require much thinking: This approach does not need you to think through things calmly. You don’t have to “logic” your way out.
- Helps your brain process in a unique way: EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to activate both your left and right hemisphere while addressing extreme anxieties, traumatic memories, or distressing events
- Activates your parasympathetic nervous system (the parts of your brain needed for relaxing)
- Reduces your cortisol level (a.k.a. your stress hormones)
- You can use this strategy anywhere. It does not require any “equipment”.
The following video shows the steps of the Butterfly Hug:
2. Temperature Change
The temperature change exercise is a great strategy that comes from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. This approach triggers the mammalian dive reflex. This reflex occurs when we are submerged in ice cold water. In order to survive, our body is forced to slow down our heart rate and oxygen is only sent to key organs that are needed. Everything that is considered “non-essential” is overlooked.
Why it’s helpful:
- Tricks your brain: Your body cannot go into “survival mode” and panic at the same time. Your heart rate is forced to slow down. Your oxygen level drops, thereby making it hard to panic.
- Provides about 5-20 minutes of calmer thinking. This gives you some time to problem solve or find alternative coping strategies.
- You don’t have to “think through” it to feel calmer.
The following video shows the steps of the Temperature Change technique
3. Mindful conversation with another person
Using distractions is really helpful to get through a distressing moment. However, if you cannot find a distracting enough activity, your mind tends to wander back to its original anxious thoughts. Participating in mindful conversation with another person face to face is more effective in helping you stay out of the overwhelm. Rather than focusing on the anxious thoughts, you’re turning your attention to the other person, asking and answering questions, and staying present.
Why it’s helpful?
- When your postpartum anxiety is highly activated, your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system work overtime. Your body turns to survival strategies like fight, flight, freeze/shut down in order to cope. Social engagement, on the other hand, activates our ventral vagal pathway. This pathway tells our brain that we are in a safe and socially connected space.
- Focusing on topics outside of your postpartum anxiety helps your system recognize that there are still safe options in your world.
- Gives you the option to engage with someone else outside of your baby.
Working with your anxiety
So now that you’ve coped more effectively in reducing the anxiety, you may be wondering about your next steps. After all, these earlier coping strategies only resolve things for a short time. They’re not actually fixing the issue, and instead, providing brief respite. This is where the hard work of listening to our anxiety comes into effect. In order for you to gain more clarity, you will need to work with your postpartum anxiety.
Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) explains that there is always a positive intention to our worries (even though it rarely feels “positive”). It’s challenging to slow our body and mind down enough to hear what your postpartum anxiety has to say. But, we can break down the steps to better support our mental health.
Step One: Find where your anxiety is in your body.
Daniel Siegel coined the term “name it to tame it”. Basically, when you are able to find the feeling in your body and label it, you can get a bit of space from that feeling. Rather than “being” the emotion, you can observe it. So, call out what and where you are feeling things: “I am feeling scared… There is a ball of anxiety in my chest… my shoulders are feeling tense and stressed.”
Step Two: Stay curious
In this step, you will use a bit of mindfulness to approach your emotions. Now that you’ve noticed the emotion, keep your awareness on this feeling. Be aware of the thoughts, sensations, memories, and whatever else comes to mind as you focus on this feeling.
This step involves staying curious about your anxiety is telling you without judging it, trying to get rid of it, or needing it to change. Your anxiety will start to share more as you stay open to it.
As a word of caution, your anxiety may not share the nicest feedback. It may share beliefs such as: “Get me away from this baby! I can’t do this! What was I thinking? I need this to stop!” Stay aware of these thoughts so long as you are within your window of tolerance.
Step Three: Understand what your anxiety is trying to protect
IFS recognizes that our anxious parts are trying to help out in some way or form. Because they tend to communicate in harsh and overwhelming ways, it’s often difficult to understand what our anxieties are trying to achieve.
As you complete step one and two, you will start to identify what your anxiety is telling you. Then, ask yourself, what would happen if these anxious thoughts stopped? What is your anxiety trying to prevent? For example, if your anxiety is often saying, “Get me away from this baby”, what would happen if this warning was no longer present? You might presume that you’d be calmer. While that’s true, what else would happen? Would you suddenly be considered calm enough that others encourage you to parent independently? Would you spend more time with your newborn and make a mistake? What if your baby keeps screaming and you’re reminded that you’re not cut out for this whole parenting thing?
Sometimes your anxiety gets triggered, and it forces you to escape the circumstances. Your brain says, “This is too much, I can’t cope,” and you turn towards avoidance, drinking, zoning out in front of your phone or some other strategy. I’m not saying that these are effective ways to manage things. In all likelihood, this form of “self-soothing” will create new problems. But, as far as your anxiety is concerned, it is satisfied that it has reduced your distress and gotten you away from the “danger” (e.g. time alone with baby).
Step Four: Befriending
Have you seen “Beauty and the Beast”? The Beast is known for being a lousy character. He’s rude, ill-tempered, and scary. But, we see that meeting the Beast with compassion (mixed with assertive boundaries) helps him shift out into a kinder character. (For those who are cringing reading this example, humour me. It’s an analogy. I’m not trying to condone Stockholm syndrome).
In many ways, your anxiety is like the Beast. It’s loud, frightening and has awful manners. However, what happens when you approach your anxiety with compassion or confidence? Have you ever shown any desire to get to know this part of you? What happens when you acknowledge what your anxiety is actually trying to do? Imagine what it would be like to approach your anxiety by saying: “I get it… I get that you’re really scared of me making a mistake… I know this feels like the only way you can help me.” How would it respond to you?
Becoming kinder to yourself
IFS brings in a different level of self-compassion. We are not only meeting our inner system with kindness, but we’re also identifying what our anxious parts are attempting to achieve. When we treat ourselves in this manner, our anxieties will soften. These steps don’t cure postpartum anxiety. We have to address the actual issue, whether it’s the fear of making mistakes, feeling insecure about parenting, or addressing our own childhood traumas. But, meeting our anxiety in this way will reduce the overwhelm.
Curious to learn more?
Postpartum anxiety is treatable. If you found the above examples helpful in reducing your overwhelm, please let me know. If you have any questions about the above steps, or want to work with your own unique circumstances, reach out.