When I had my first son, 21 years ago, I thought I was prepared for most outcomes. What I hadn't anticipated was that very soon after his birth (which was long and traumatic) I would begin to be haunted by the nagging, recurring thought that he would die soon. I was absolutely in love with him, and so this thought devastated me. And it wouldn't go away. If someone said something nice about him I would immediately think 'oh good, I can remember that after he's gone'. It was an immediate, knee-jerk reaction, based on a recurring idea that I couldn't shake: my beloved baby was about to die. The quiet, lonely horror of it was with me day in and day out, and nobody else understood.
The internet was in its infancy, and so I didn't have any readily available resources for understanding what was happening, or sharing my experience with others. I was just locked in my own private misery...anticipating my worst fear being realised every single day. It took me months, maybe even over a year, to move beyond the fear and find ways to cope with it, to understand the things that helped me feel better and the things that made it worse. (In case you're worrying, as I would be reading this, that son defied all my mental odds and is now a strapping 21 year old.)
By the time my third son was born, almost 13 years later, I was well prepared to handle the intrusive thoughts and fears if they arose and had a whole emotional/physical toolkit ready and waiting. Luckily by this point I knew what I was doing and the whole thing was much smoother sailing.
Recurring intrusive thinking that begins sometime after giving birth is one of the most distressing and debilitating experiences that new mums can have, and it is unfortunately a fairly common experience. Very few women are aware that it is a potential that lies in wait for them, even if they know about postpartum depression. Recurring intrusive thoughts don’t feel like depression! They can certainly lead there, but many new mums dismiss the idea that they’re depressed when they’re having these thoughts and unfortunately wait a long time to seek help because of that.
So, what are intrusive thoughts?
- Frightening “what if” thoughts that come into your head out of nowhere, even though you don’t want to have them. They may involve the fear of harming someone you love, including your baby, or the certainty that something bad is going to happen, like you or your baby is going to die.
- They can feel very real and like you’re having a premonition. They mimic your intuition so you believe them, especially if you’re a fairly intuitive person to begin with.
- They are a symptom of Postpartum OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)
- They are NOT a sign that you’re a danger to your child or have postpartum psychosis.
Because postpartum intrusive thoughts are not usually openly talked about, few women know anyone else going through the same thing and so their distress is compounded by feeling alone. They're alone, they're thinking about really scary things, and they feel completely powerless to stop the ruminating fears. On top of all that they may also be struggling physically after giving birth, not to mention having a baby to take care of. It’s a bit of a perfect storm. Some women find relief by seeing their doctors and taking medication, and some women find that the thought of that makes them even more anxious and they’d rather try anything else first. Not seeking treatment, however, whether by conventional or alternative means, is asking for a world of suffering. Postpartum anxiety can go on for a long time, years in fact, and the emotional toll it takes is huge.
Fortunately there ARE natural solutions that can work wonderfully in helping to restore our mental, physical and emotional well-being, whether we choose to take conventional medication or not.
Get clear about what's happening
If you’re reading this then you’ve overcome the first big barrier, which is realising there’s something unusual going on. It took me waaaay too long to realise that something was seriously weird about my thoughts the first time I plunged headfirst into postpartum OCD.
In addition, get crystal clear on the fact that what you’re experiencing is not because you are weak, not trying hard enough, or crazy. It’s a physiological disorder that you can get help for. It’s not because you did anything wrong, or are doing anything wrong. Your body is just not equipped for what it’s going through and your thoughts and emotions are off-kilter as a result.
Hopefully you are also realising that you are not the only person who has ever experienced this, and that awareness itself should offer the first little breather of relief. There are thousands of women all over the world who are reduced to misery by the thoughts that keep flooding into their brains about their babies. They can’t work out why - there is nothing obviously wrong - but the thoughts just keep on coming. So picture yourself in a room with all of those other women and feel yourself surrounded by people who understand, who empathise, who know exactly what you’re going through. The world is full of happy images of serene new mothers, and you don’t match that very well. But you DO much us, and we get it and we’re sorry and we care. There, virtual hug from me to all of you...pass it along please.
If you just stop for a moment and take in the fact that you are experiencing something that many others do, you can start to dismantle the belief that the fear instils in you - for me it was the absolute certainty that my baby was going to die. What is it for you? Write it down right now and look at it - the worst fear your brain keeps throwing at you...whatever it is….
Ok - look at it and know that your mind is lying to you every single time it tells you about this. Whatever you just wrote is a lie. How do I know that? Because that’s what this disorder does...it makes you believe that the thing you fear the most is likely to happen. And because you care about your baby and its well-being so very much, you find this absolutely awful to consider, and you fret endlessly about it. The fact that you’re fretting and you’re here means that you have postpartum OCD and NOT some other terrible thing that your lying brain is lying about. Got it? The story is a lie, and your distress about it is the sign that you are actually very sane.
(Quick aside: I remember getting a very vivid understanding of this when I was in the throes of the worst anxiety and I happened to come across The Creature From the Black Lagoon on TV one night. Have you ever seen that movie? It’s really old, all black and white, and the creature himself is hilarious. A guy in a dripping seaweed suit who terrorises all the people on board a boat and causes them to scream like they’re...well, like they’re heroines in an old black and white movie. ANYWAY, I realised that my fear story was a lot like that creature - in the olden days he was quite convincing. I’m sure movie-goers pooped their pants when they saw him lurching around the screen, just as I fell for my mind’s scare tactics at first. But with some time and practice and sophisticated new camera angles I could see through it. I could see that my fear was just like some guy dressed up in a costume doing scary things and then it lost a lot of the drama and impact.
(Don’t even talk to me about Silence of the Lambs on the other hand...I still very much believe that guy.)
I know it can seem overwhelming to think about preparing healthy food when you have a newborn, but it's worth taking a quick look at your diet to see if you can make some small improvements. Unfortunately, if you're like most of us eating a modern western diet, there is a very high likelihood that you are deficient in some trace minerals, vitamins and other building blocks of health. Very few of us have the time and energy to eat exactly what we need to for perfect health (if we even know what that would be), and no matter how religiously you took/take your prenatal vitamins, this is is still likely an issue. Why? Many reasons, but in large part it’s because our soils are depleted, our modern diet is deficient in many of the things our bodies need, and we are dealing with a heavy load of toxins and stress. We can take supplements, but unless the vitamins and minerals are sourced from whole foods they are synthetic - manufactured in a laboratory to mimic real vitamins from real food. Our bodies are pretty smart, and most of the synthetic stuff just doesn’t make the grade...it gets excreted and we’re no better off. Only supplements created from the actual food itself are bioavailable and able to be fully utilised by the body. In addition, even if we’re taking the best quality supplements out there your body is unique and likely to be requiring further support while you recover from having a baby, or are breastfeeding. Or are a woman, honestly.
Consider adding more of these things to your diet:
- Fresh vegetables (organic if possible), grass-fed meat and raw dairy
- A high quality mineral supplement, sourced from whole foods
- B vitamins
- Omega 3’s
- An amino acid complex
TRY TO AVOID
- Added sugar
- Processed food
- Folic acid (most mediocre multi-vitamins contain this...it is synthetic and not optimal, no matter what doctors recommend. Look for supplements that contain folate instead, which is the natural form your body can actually use).
A non-inflammatory diet is what you’re looking for...soothing your body has an amazing effect on soothing your emotional state. Makes sense, no? Don’t beat yourself up, but when you can choose, make the choice that’s slightly better for you rather than the one that’s slightly worse. Slight increments towards health are a lot better than feeling overwhelmed and so not making any improvement at all.
Who is your support team? Who are the people who make you feel good and happy and connected? Unfortunately we live in an age of mobility and opportunity, and so many of us live far away from our tribes, the support systems we grew up in and instinctively know we should have around us. We are pack animals! Having a baby is one of the most tribe-dependent things we can do and most of us face it almost alone. In fact, feeling a lack of support is one of the most common indicators for postpartum depression and anxiety.
Take an inventory now of who you have around you who makes you feel good. Do you feel comfortable talking to them about how you’re feeling, asking for help? Do you have at least one good friend who you can visit without formal invitation? Do you have another mum-friend with a baby who you could be at-ease with, not have to clean the house before she visits?
Make a list of the people you can turn to when you’re feeling particularly anxious or worried, and keep it somewhere you can easily access it. If you’re finding it hard to think of anyone it might be a good idea to start branching out into your community a bit to see who is out there. Nowadays there are wonderful things like Meetups (I started 3 of my own when I couldn’t find good matches for what I was looking for) and local mum groups. I think my first bout of postpartum anxiety only started dissipating when I met the women in my local mums group and finally felt like I had some allies. I didn’t even tell them about how bad I was feeling, I just spent time with them and that alone made a huge difference. Gather your tribe!
Use natural remedies to support your body and mind
There are luckily many, many safe and natural options that are powerful and effective in helping us find balance. Here is a checklist of the ones I personally found useful, though I'd love to hear from you if there are others that have helped you:
- Essential oils - Of all the tools in my toolkit, these have proven to be the most consistently helpful. There are many that can have a positive effect on your mood, and when I begin to feel my anxiety rising, or any intrusive thoughts taking hold, I open a bottles, take a deep breath from it, and apply on my wrists and back of neck (brain stem). Within moments I feel so much better, and notice hours later that I’ve had no more intrusive thoughts since using it. If I want a more general effect I’ll put a few drops of them in my diffuser. (Make sure you're using a reputable brand with no fillers or synthetic oils, as these won't help at all and will just add to your toxic load.)
- Flower remedies - white chestnut is very good for calming fears, but there are many others that might work well for you too.
- High quality supplements As mentioned earlier, food-sourced vitamin and mineral blends are what you're looking for.
- Magnesium - epsom salts baths or topical application on skin.
- Omega Oils - a balance of these are very important for brain health and overall inflammation.
- Homeopathy - finding a homeopath you can work with is a great idea, as the remedies are very personal and work best if tailored to you.
Meditation, yoga, prayer, EFT (tapping)...whatever practice you are drawn to, find some time every day to slow down, breathe deeply and connect with yourself. Pay attention to your surroundings, remember that in THIS MOMENT, everything is actually OK. Your mind wants to keep telling you about the next moments that are coming and how terrible they will be, but right now, in this one, all is actually OK. Your mind is like a dog that has taken control of the leash and is dragging you all over the place, so at first it’s very hard to slow that dog down and get it to listen to you, let alone sit and stay. But the more you practice, the more you bring the dog back to your side and don’t let yourself get dragged all over without stopping for a moment, the easier it gets. It’s incremental, it’s a lot of work and focus, but the results do start appearing at some point. If you combine this step with all the others listed above so that your body is supported by what you’re eating and your heart is supported by your tribe (however small or weird it might be), then you’ll begin to find that the awful sense of impending doom is not always there. There are moments when it’s gone, and those moments grow. And one day you realise that hours have gone by and you have felt OK. Then days, then weeks.
My favourite yoga pose to release panic and anxiety.
I used to do this pose instinctively when I was feeling really panicked, and only later learned why it is so effective. Apparently there are receptors on our lower back that reduce anxiety, and they can only be reached and activated by deep breathing in this particular position. So...spend some time breathing deeply in this position and watch as your anxiety melts away.
Although this is last on my list, it's definitely not least. Because postpartum intrusive thoughts are not something you can control with your conscious mind (and believe me I tried), using hypnotherapy to get underneath your disordered thinking and help you regain a feeling of calm and trust is powerful. You can try a number of different sessions to see which ones work best for you, but all of them will have a beneficial effect. All will help you find some moments of deep relaxation and relief, all will help your brain to break the pattern of fear and stress that you have going on.
I know when you have a baby you're trying to take care of it can be hard to find a moment to take care of yourself, but think about how much more present you will be able to be when your mind is not constantly jumping to terrifying thoughts. You may be doing the most perfect job on the outside, but if your inside world is in turmoil you are missing out on so many wonderful moments and robbing your child of your full attention when you're together. Prioritise yourself and your mental and emotional health at least a few times a day, and I promise you, you will feel the difference.
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As painful as it is that you find yourself experiencing postpartum intrusive thoughts, you will gain incredible resilience and strength from paying attention and taking care of yourself in this way - you will learn to listen to your body and be careful and kind to it, you will learn what takes you up and what brings you down so you can always help yourself, and you will never take feeling just OK for granted!
Like me, you will find yourself down the road at some point - I still experience the thoughts showing up unexpectedly now and then, mostly when I’m tired, stressed or not taking care of myself, but my ability to neutralise them very quickly is now so strong that they never lasts for long. I smell my oils, I eat something good and grounding, I take my supplements and listen to a hypnotherapy session, and the heavy fog lifts again. You will be there one day too, and you will feel the same kind of strength I do, knowing you took the steps necessary and found your way through.