Pregnancy and Postpartum · Anxiety

Postpartum Anxiety and Feelings of Overwhelm

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.

Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.

Pregnancy and Postpartum

Struggling with body image during pregnancy

struggling with body image. weight scale. prenatal appointments and weighing in

The worst part of prenatal visits? Going to your healthcare provider’s office and stepping on that scale at Every. Single. Appointment. As if you need any reminder that your weight is increasing at an alarming rate. You know this. You feel huge. No other pregnant mom looks as big as you do. You shouldn’t have eaten that extra serving. Why won’t these pants fit anymore? … Do any of these thoughts sound familiar? Struggling with body image is a huge frustration during and after pregnancy.

Being pregnant can be incredibly challenging if you’re struggling with body image or disordered eating. Yes, rationally you’re aware that this peanut growing inside of you is taking up a lot of real estate. You’ve read all of the instagram posts about body positivity, and know you “shouldn’t” be feeling this way. But, all of that aside, you still feel lousy when you see your reflection or step on the scale. So what can you do? If you’re struggling with body image, here are some thoughts to consider:

Re-assess “normal weight gain” in pregnancy

When you’re pregnant, your body is truly being taken over. Your metabolism shifts, your energy wanes, stretch marks suddenly appear. It’s natural, and it’s hard. When you’ve spent a long time meticulously taking care of your weight and appearance, these drastic changes to your body feel jarring. Check in with yourself about how you are seeing these changes. Is there shame and personalization involved? Are you feeling at fault for gaining “too much”?

body mass index (BMI) and impact on body image. Addressing BMI during pregnancy. healthy weight gain guidlines

Unfortunately, we have been given guidelines that it’s “normal and healthy” to gain 15-30 pounds during pregnancy. But this number is based on BMI, which research continues to point out is a flawed system for assessing health. Your recommended weight gain varies on so many factors. This number shifts based on whether your BMI was over or under prior to pregnancy. Your weight gain will vary if you are having twins. The number on the scale will look different if you’re struggling with hyperemesis gravidarum or if you’re managing your nausea by eating differently. In reality, only a third of pregnancies stay with the recommended weight gain, while about 50% gain beyond this number.

Speaking for my own body, with my first son I gained 45 pounds during my pregnancy, whereas I gained 20 with my second. I didn’t do anything differently. Bodies changes and babies are different. It isn’t personal. You’re not doing it wrong. That number on the scale doesn’t say anything about you or how well you are doing this pregnancy.

It will not be forever

This is not your forever shape or size. I do not have a crystal ball to confirm you will go back to your pre-baby weight, and I won’t deny that perhaps you’ve gained weight. However, the size you are while pregnant does not stay on forever. Whether it’s 6 weeks postpartum or 6 months postpartum, your body will change after delivery. Remind yourself as many times as needed that it took you 9 months to help your baby develop. Give your body at least 9 months to settle back to what it considers is the “new normal”.

Find safe others

Talking to safe person about body image. Struggling with body image during pregnancy.

It’s easy to feel isolated with our crummy feelings. Body positivity is an amazing trend that our culture is trying to lean into; however, it doesn’t leave much space to acknowledge when we are struggling. When we feel ashamed or alone in our thoughts, it can be debilitating. We become worried that others will judge us, shame us or minimize our feelings. If you have judgmental folks like this in your life, they are not the ones to turn to right now.

Find those who truly appreciate how hard this is for you. They know that you want to be healthy AND they respect that body image is something you’re struggling with today. This person doesn’t need to know how to fix the situation. Instead, they just need to let you know that you’re heard, you’re loved, and you will always be safe with them irrespective of how your body looks.

Use movement

using movement to help address prenatal weight anxiety. walking to help with pregnancy and body image

During pregnancy, find ways to move whenever possible. Let go of the standards that you used to meet whether it was a certain distance, speed, repetitions, or weight level. Focus instead on what movements means to you. For me, movement provides me opportunities to let go of stress, it helps my body feel strong, and it helps me feel energized. Once I stopped trying to meet my old standards, it felt easier to accept that this is what exercise could do for me today.

Our Society and Thin Privilege

I won’t deny that being thin and beautiful doesn’t have privileges (read more about thin privilege). Thin privilege allows for your weight to not define you and how you move through your environment and world. There is an awful amount of discrimination with fat phobia. People living in a larger body have been overlooked, groaned at, or mocked because of their weight. In these situations, being thin means they will finally receive respect and courtesy from other people. Being thin means the ability to walk into a store and actually be able to buy clothes. If you’ve been subjected to others’ fat phobia, you may have coped by maintaining a certain weight. Pregnancy has thrown this weight plan out the window.

If being pregnant or weight gain puts you into a space of losing your self-respect or self-worth, that’s not okay. It’s not okay for society to put you in this position or for you to suffer simply because of the way your body naturally flows. So how do we learn to externalize this? How do we shift from assuming there is something wrong with us to there is something biased and unfair about the culture we live in?

Tips for boosting body image:

tips for improving body image. shifting the way we think about our bodies. diet culture. comparing.
  • Diversify what you see: Follow influencers of all shapes and sizes. Follow those who look like you and don’t look like you.
  • Stop the comparison game: Envy is a tough emotion to contend with, and it leaves us feeling lacking. Start by checking the facts: do you know for sure that this person truly has more than you? Do these factors make them better or happier than you?
  • Highlight your own positive attributes: Notice what is awesome about you, and spend time acknowledging these positive traits. e.g. expressing pride in your career or grades, appreciating the health of your relationships
  • Become critical of toxic diet culture: We all know it’s out there. Start by challenging these constantly shifting body ideals. Unfollow or speak up about the companies and individuals that make you feel bad about your body.
  • Focus on what your body is doing for you: What are your thighs, arms, and belly meant to do? What are their functions? Focusing on their role as a function vs.

What are you avoiding by focusing on body image and food?

Sometimes body image acts as a (horrible, awful, exasperating) scapegoat for our actual struggles. By focusing on that number on the scale, you may find that you can avoid addressing other things. You spend hours staring at the fridge, planning meals, going to the gym, organizing your closet with “comfy” clothes, that you don’t have time to deal with the real stuff.

We all cope in different ways. Previously, you may have turned to a glass of wine, a cigarette, or going out dancing to get rid of all your stress. Now that you’re pregnant, these coping mechanisms aren’t as available. Food, on the other hand, is always there and doesn’t take as much effort. It soothes our stressors and pains. But, using food as a coping mechanism offers a temporary solution. It doesn’t allow us to address the actual cause of stress and turmoil in your life.

So ask yourself, if you didn’t spend all this time on body image and food, what would you be left with? Would you suddenly have to address your loneliness? Are you more aware of your anxieties about work, the state of your finances, or your struggling relationships? If we looked at negative body image as a coping mechanism (again, not vouching that it’s a nice or effective one), we realize it’s trying to prevent you from dealing with a deeper vulnerability.

Addressing the original trauma: When did this struggle with body image start?

body image and teenager. Struggling with body image in pregnancy. trauma from childhood

Body image rarely shows up in pregnancy without some form of history. Consider when else in your life have you struggled with this issue. Have you been painfully aware of your appearance since adolescence? Have you managed to shove aside any struggles with your appearance by exercising and maintaining a “healthy” diet? When did you make the connection between your appearance and your self-worth? How was this message taught to you?

When it comes to body image struggles, pregnancy makes things worse. However, it’s not the culprit. After your little one is born, things may feel manageable with dieting and exercise, but it’s a fragile set up. Anytime that weight starts to increase, that same panic may come back.

If this has been your experience, then it’s important to recognize that there is some earlier trauma to be addressed. Your body image struggles could have slowly formed while participating in gym class, listening to your mom comment about her (or your) weight, looking at skinny actresses and models, or a myriad of events. These moments stayed with you. That vulnerable part of you still worries about your appearance, fitting in, or whether you will be considered “worthy.” This is where therapy can be helpful in processing these earlier emotional burdens.

Reach out

If you or a loved one is struggling with body image during pregnancy, reach out. Therapy is a safe space to voice your concerns and work through these difficulties. Schedule a free consult call to see if we would be a good fit.

Take care,

Kasi

Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.

Mental Health

How to overcome shame

Your system holds a lot of shame. There is shame about who you are as a person. You feel that you do not belong and are unloveable. You have been rejected by others. There’s no way you’ll put yourself out there again. You carry shame about earlier decisions. Because you acted this way, you feel raw and exposed. There is a constant sense of dread that reminds you, “Never again will I make that mistake.” You hold a lot of shame about failures. You’ve messed up, said the wrong thing, wrote the wrong answer. Your stomach goes in knots just thinking about it. You feel ashamed about inaction. It repeats incessantly that you should have done something, acted differently, or reacted faster. You feel ashamed about who you are as a parent. You keep thinking your kids would do better with someone else. When all of this is hurtling towards you, how do you overcome shame?

Dealing with Shame

Overcoming shame. Why it is so hard to deal with shame.

It’s hard to acknowledge our shame. We worry that others will judge and reject us for our deepest insecurities, so we don’t speak up. Because shame is so uncomfortable, we tend to push it away. We avoid addressing it, only to have it repeatedly show up. We feel awful, alone, and hopeless in this pattern.

Thanks to Brené Brown, most of us have are familiar with the benefits of addressing shame and vulnerability. In theory, we know one of the best ways out of shame is to be nice to ourselves and accept that we are imperfect human beings. Dealing with shame involves validation, self-compassion and seeking connection with others. That’s the simpler answer. The more complicated answer involves addressing all of the parts of us that block this work. To overcome shame, we have to deal with many other internal layers (e.g. our inner critics, our avoidant parts, our self-hatred, our panic, and other struggling emotions).

Getting to know our parts:

Internal Family Systems therapy recognizes that our mind is compartmentalized into protective categories or “parts”. There are three different parts inside of us: Managers, Firefighters and Exiles. In order to overcome shame, we need to understand how these parts play a unique role in improving and delaying our healing.

Exiles

Overcoming shame. How our early experiences create exiled parts. Internal Family Systems therapy. IFS and shame

During traumatic and painful events, our minds suffer. We struggle to get through these horrible events. As time goes on, we start to carry negative beliefs about ourselves based on what we experienced. We suddenly feel we are insignificant, weak, unattractive, incompetent and don’t belong. These wounded parts of our personality are what IFS refers to as “exiles.” Exiles absorb the impact of traumatic and difficult events. Exiled parts carry our vulnerable emotions and beliefs. They learn to feel ashamed of themselves, that there is something fundamentally bad and flawed about them. Shame is not an innate feeling. We are not born feeling ashamed of ourselves. It is something we’ve learned based on our environment and experiences.

Sitting with our shameful exiles can feel unbearable, so we form some protection. We do whatever we can to prevent these parts from becoming triggered. We do whatever we can to shut them down quickly if they are triggered.

Managers

Manager parts. IFS and how to overcome shame. Internal family systems therapy. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling support in Kitchener, ON

“Managers” are the first layer of protection. These parts help us stay safe by doing whatever is possible to stop our exiled parts from getting triggered. For example, if your exiles believe that you are unattractive, your manager parts may pester you to work out daily or wear makeup. If your exiles cannot trust your own judgement, then you may have manager parts that constantly seek reassurance from others. Worried about being stupid? Your manager parts prevent you from every trying or moving up the career path so your intelligence will never be assessed.

Manager parts focus on preventing us from feeling hurt, wounded, ashamed, or any other exiled emotion. They do this by pushing us, criticizing us, reminding us to keep going, doing more and never becoming vulnerable again.

Firefighters

firefighter parts.IFS and overcoming shame. protective layers to deal with shame

The second layer of protection is referred to as “firefighters.” When our exiled parts are freaking out inside, our firefighters know it’s important to contain that flame. So they react. They work on quick fixes to settle the fire down. They use distractions and various forms of self-soothing when our system gets triggered. For example: someone calls you unattractive, your firefighters seek comfort in a nice bottle or three of wine. You realize you made a mistake at work, your firefighter parts draw attention away by yelling at other colleagues. Your exiled part is triggered for overeating, your firefighters compensate by purging and over-exercise. Firefighter parts are aware that the pain has come up, and they focus on getting rid of that pain as quickly as possible through any means possible.

Shame Starts Young

When we are young, we long to be loved and accepted. We want to belong and feel significant. When our parents meet these needs, we’ve struck gold. Our system can relax when we make mistakes. We don’t personalize it, and we move on fairly quickly.

For those of us who have not “struck gold”, our system gets hijacked following a mistake. We fear reproach, criticism, disappointment, anger, or any form of negative feedback from our caregivers. As kids, we don’t have a whole lot of resources, so we internalize these messages. We start to believe that there is something wrong with us: We are a screw up, we are incompetent, we do not deserve good things. This moment creates our exiled parts.

How our parts become intertwined in the shame pattern

exiled parts. Internal Family systems therapy and overcoming shame. IFS

Despite knowing that we will continue to be hurt and rejected, we can’t help but reach out to our caregivers. What other choice do we have at a young age? Our exiled parts are always looking for a better ending. They want redemption. They want our parents to somehow stop their patterns of anger and criticism, and instead, turn to us with love and warmth.

Our manager parts are also paying attention to these attempts. Our managers learn what is and is not effective in keeping your exiled parts from getting in trouble and feeling ashamed. They are aware of what pisses off your parents, and triggers your exiles to feel ashamed once again. For example, if you know that being slim and attractive gets your mom’s approval, your managers will continue to berate you to go to the gym and start another diet. Ironically, these managers shame us for making the wrong choices in order to get us to learn. You don’t need your mom to continue to shame you, your manager parts will repeat her words for you.

endless cycle between manager and firefighter parts. IFS and handling shame.

Unfortunately, our exiled parts keep trying. Your mother may present as biting and cold, but this doesn’t stop your exiled part. You continue to invite her to outings, provide thoughtful mother’s day gifts and call every Sunday. When you are hurt and rejected by her lack of interest, your firefighters come in trying to extinguish the pain. They encourage you to drink, hook up with a random person, lash out at your partner, or any other means in hopes of releasing this shame. And, once again, our managers (e.g. that harsh inner critic) attack for making poor decisions.

Working with our protective parts to overcome shame

ogres, onions and protective layers. Dealing with shame metaphor

Forgive me for using a Shrek reference here. IFS reminds me of Shrek’s comments that ogres are like onions: we all have layers. There are layers and layers of protection we use to keep our exiled parts safe. We can’t deal with shame if we do not address the managers and firefighters that maintain our shame cycle. As Donkey wisely reminds Shrek: “”You’re so wrapped up in layers, onion boy, you’re afraid of your own feelings!” We get so caught in protecting ourselves, we get scared to actually help our exiled parts.

To overcome shame, we have to first work with our protective parts. It’s hard to show love and self-compassion if a harsh critical voice keeps dismissing your kindness. You may have difficulty forgiving yourself if a firefighter part continues to binge drink. Shame rarely works alone; it always come with protection. So to overcome shame, we have to work with your entire system. We have to gain trust and permission from these protective parts to give you some space so that you can work with your exiles.

Internal Family Systems Therapy and your shame

In therapy, I focus on creating a safe space for your entire system to show up. This includes all the parts of you that are eager to get started, as well as the parts of you that dread working on these issues. This is normal. When we have experienced shame or been shamed by others, our system launches into a protective stance. It’s braced for rejection and judgement, even in the context of a safe therapy setting. It’s important to take the time to build that therapeutic trust before launching in to your most vulnerable concerns.

Shame deserves self-compassion, belonging and validation. Healing comes from witnessing these painful moments, learning to see the safety in today, and trust in your own capacity to handle things differently. The resources you had back then are not what you have available today. Your exiles and protective layers aren’t always aware of that. They often see you still stuck in that place of trauma, and react accordingly.

Reach out

If you are struggling with shame, and would like to work with your internal system, reach out. Schedule a free consult to see if this is a good fit for you.

All the best,

Kasi


Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.

Mental Health · Trauma

Working with unwanted feelings

When I am feeling anxious, unhappy or generally lousy, I hate the idea of mindfully noticing these unwanted feelings. There is intense resistance to “sitting with” or accepting my emotions. During these low moments, I have zero understanding or time for my feelings. My only goal is to get rid of them. I imagine many others feel the same way. When it comes to our harsher feelings, they can be intense, and often cruel. These parts of our personality know exactly what to say to make us want to crumble.  

I struggled for the longest time with Internal Family Systems therapy in telling me that my emotions, my critical voice, or my less healthier coping behaviours are not bad. IFS encourages that every part of us is welcome (to learn more about IFS and parts work, read this post). I struggled to accept this viewpoint when I felt every part of me was, in fact, not welcome. Parts of me could be a jerk some days, and there was no way I was going to cater to that nonsense. For those with anxiety, depression, or other mental health struggles, I’m sure you can relate to how badly you want to get rid of these unwanted feelings.

My own turning point

regal pan pizza on box
Photo by Creative Vix on Pexels.com

For me, my willingness to change my perspective came from recognizing that pushing away my unwanted feelings wasn’t actually getting rid of the pain. When I wanted to deny my urge to eat another slice of pizza, that part got louder. When I pretended I wasn’t feeling angry with my family, that part made sure it vented in my head. Wishing parts away rarely works in getting rid of the pain, or having them stay quiet.

It’s too hard

I get that it’s really hard to do therapy. It’s hard to sit with our emotions. It’s hard to create space for these distressing parts of our personalities to talk and voice their feelings. Can you imagine allowing those parts of you that are suicidal or have urges to self-harm to actually be given the space to talk? Understandably, there is fear in letting these voices have space because, what if it creates more distress, more extreme behaviours, or more danger? 

I had these fears as well. I didn’t want to hear any of my anxieties. They were annoying and they would make me feel lousy all day. Who would sign up for that willingly? However, IFS teaches us a way to work with these parts of our personality safely so that they do not take over. There is a way to do the work carefully and slowly, so that other parts of your system do not get overwhelmed. We can continue to hear these parts of our personality, understand their fears and intents, build a better relationship with them, and negotiate for space or a shift in coping strategies.

There’s no way I can get better

Working with unwanted feelings. Kasi Shan Therapy: Kitchener ON, Online counselling.
Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

Sometimes, we’ve lived with these unwanted emotions and behaviours for years. Some of the clients I’ve seen have gone to various therapists and tried different coping strategies to help with their healing. Understandably, if they feel stuck, they are pretty certain this is an unchangeable and fixed part of their living experience. They are confident that nothing will help, and there’s scepticism that healing can happen.

I felt this way as well. For the longest time, I’d focused on traditional talk therapy, using modalities like CBT and DBT. These are incredible counselling approaches that work for many folks. Coping skills, working through exposure treatment, and recognizing unhelpful thinking patterns are effective for treating many struggles. However, when we focus on treating just our thoughts, we are forgetting the rest of our body.  Our body, ironically, is what carries traumas.

Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.

-Bessel van der kolk, “The body keeps the score”

You experience feelings throughout your body. Sure, you can challenge your thoughts, you can try new behaviours, you can learn ways to cope. But for many of us, this isn’t enough. Knowing how to do a thought record isn’t enough. We want our emotions to catch up to what we know. In order to do that, our therapy styles cannot just focus on thoughts, but has to include experiential change. This means constantly returning our awareness back to the body and the system to see how it is affected by these interventions. Healing involves taking the time to notice our physical sensations, and understand what these subtle cues are trying to communicate.

This is the only way I can survive

Working with unwanted feelings. Kasi Shan Therapy: Kitchener ON, Online counselling.
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Sometimes it can feel scary to let go of our current coping mechanisms. If you know that the only way you can manage your challenging family is by having a few glasses of wine at the end of the day, it is going to feel incredibly hard to give that up. I have clients who are cautious of telling others about self-harming behaviours because they fear repercussion or worry they will be shamed into stopping. The thought of changing our patterns can prevent many of us from starting the work.

For anyone who has hesitated to reach out for help because of the need to stop a specific coping mechanism, please know that this does not have to be the case. My job is not to tell you to stop drinking. I understand that there is a part of you that feels drinking is the only way in which you can survive this current hardship. However, if we were able to explore the underlying fears related to your family, would you have to keep drinking? What are you actually protecting by drinking? If you were no longer feeling threatened by this fear, would you need to keep coping in this way? Drinking patterns, and other coping mechanisms, can slow down if underlying fears are addressed. Once your system no longer feels threatened, it no longer has to survive by turning to wine.

I don’t want to know

Working with unwanted feelings. Kasi Shan Therapy: Kitchener ON, Online counselling.
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A common reason that I see clients hesitating to do trauma work is that it will involve looking at the past. One of our strongest survival mechanisms is denial. Going back to a painful period in time can feel like we’re asking for trouble. It hurts to revisit difficult memories. We may feel cautious of how we will see our loved ones after exploring what those memories mean and how they have impacted us.

With EMDR, IFS, or any other trauma-based treatment, the goal is not to discover a big, bad secret from the past. However, with trauma-based treatments, we can become aware of details that we’ve kept hidden from our conscious awareness. When these details come to light, we have options. Clients can chose to share these details with me, or they can keep this awareness inside. Clients can decide whether this knowledge requires intervention. There are options to bring in new coping mechanisms or more self-compassion. We can work towards understanding the impact of these moments and unburdening our system of these wounds. Finally, clients can chose to keep doing what they’re doing and pretend this awareness does not exist. There is no set agenda for how we move forward. We know the pain is there, and we shift to addressing this pain, only when you are okay to go there.

Reach out

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Part of me was nervous about writing this article. I can talk nonchalantly about being a perfectionist, but acknowledging that I can also have messy feelings is hard. The fear of others’ judgements prevents us from reaching out (even though our system is desperate for help and relief). At the end of the day, hiding has not helped us feel better. Talking to a therapist who you feel is safe and effective is one way towards healing. If you have any experiences with the above battles and wish to talk, please don’t hesitate to reach out. 

Warm regards,

Kasi

Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.