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Perinatal anxiety - what is it and how do I soothe it?

Updated: Feb 27

What is perinatal anxiety?

Perinatal anxiety refers to anxiety that occurs during the perinatal period, which encompasses the time around pregnancy, including before and after childbirth. Anxiety, in general, is an emotion that has both physical and cognitive components, and, like all emotions, it can be helpful to visualise it as a wave, which builds, peaks and then reduces. The physical symptoms of anxiety can include shallow or fast breathing, a fast or irregular heartbeat, dry mouth, churning stomach, sweating, restlessness, and pins and needles.

Sometimes you can experience the physical symptoms of anxiety disconnected from conscious worry. Or, they can be felt in addition to anxious thoughts. Anxious thoughts can play over and over in the mind, escalate, and tend to be concerned with things that ‘might’ happen in the future.

How can I soothe it?

Fundamental to being able to self-regulate is making sure that you have eaten, slept, moved and seen someone recently. I appreciate some of these things are a challenge, particularly in early motherhood, but try, as much as you can, to make these your non-negotiables. Remember the analogy of fitting your own oxygen mark first!

It is also helpful to remember that your brain just wants to keep you safe, help you learn from your mistakes and prevent you from making them again in the future. It also wants to help you get your needs met, avoid pain and alert you to things that require your attention. In doing so however, it can often bring up thoughts that are unhelpful, which can result in attempts to avoid, escape, or suppress them, or, give in to them all together.

Coupled with this, it is important to recognise that during the perinatal period, anxiety can be heightened due to the natural protective instincts associated with caring for a newborn, making this even more powerful.

Here are my 5 top tips for soothing perinatal anxiety:

  1. Notice, Name & Thank:

  • NoticePay attention to your anxious thoughts and internal physical state. Holding the wave analogy of emotion in mind, anxious thoughts can act like the wind, whipping up the waves. If we don’t notice our anxiety rising, we have less chance of being able to dissipate it, or respond to it productively whilst the wave is building.

  • Name: Label your anxious thoughts, creating distance between yourself and the thoughts. You can use the following ways to name your anxious thoughts, either inside your head, or out-loud: “I’m having the thought that/ my mind is telling me that/ I'm telling myself the story that…” Literally putting the extra words around the thought, allows us to ‘step back’ and distance ourselves from it, enabling us to see it as something temporary that will pass and thus reducing their ability to overtake us and influence our behaviour.

  • Thank: Remember, your anxiety is there to protect you. Think of it as an overprotective parent. It can be helpful to thank it and let it know that you’re actually safe: “Thanks mind, I know you’re trying to keep safe but me and the baby are fine, we’re safe”. 2. The Physiological Sigh:

  • If you’ve found yourself in a situation that has caused your anxiety to go from 0-100 very quickly, your best tool to get you down from the peak of the wave will be to use your breath.

  • The physiological sigh involves inhaling twice through the nose quickly, followed by a slow exhale through the mouth. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a calming effect by expelling excess carbon dioxide. 3. Dial Up Your Soothing System:

  • Activate your soothing system by engaging in activities that make you feel good. Because our brains have evolved to respond to nurture this is something we can strengthen with active engagement. Here are some of my favourite ways of activating my soothing system: deliberate cold exposure, spending time outdoors, or connecting with something or someone that brings joy. 4. Stop Scrolling:

  • Reduce the amount of info you consume through scrolling. It can feel like we’re mindlessly scrolling in order to switch off but our already overloaded brains still have to process it all. 5. Physically Slow Down:

  • Avoid rushing around, as it can activate the fight or flight system. Slowing down physically can take us out of our threat system and into our soothing system.

It is important to remember that anxiety is an understandable response to a profound life change and its accompanying responsibility (Oakeley, 2023). That said, don’t hesitate to talk to a professional, if your feelings are interfering with your ability to function, or feel any forms of pleasure. Even if you are worried you don’t meet the criteria for a definition, seek support.

Want to come to the next Offload the Motherload? We're taking a break right now because of the cold weather but we'll be back in April 2024. If there are any topics you want covered let me know in the comments!

Want to get support on a 1-1 level? If you’re thinking that you need that extra level of support I am always here - book in your free intro call today.

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