Maternal Anxiety


When does a Mum’s Worry Turn into Anxiety?

We all go into motherhood with expectations on how it will be and we can have beliefs that are sometimes a bit unrealistic. Holding on to these can be disparaging to self and lead to a myriad of issues such as maternal anxiety. There is beauty in leaving room for discovery and growth, and it is better for your own and your child’s health to not try to be perfect but to rather focus on being a good enough mum.

Both anxiety and depression are more prevalent in females and one of the most anxiety-provoking things a woman can experience is being a mother.         

I am certain that just the idea of mothering and being responsible for another human being, is enough to send anyone into a ‘flat panic’, even if the child in question is very much planned and being born into a loving, stable home. Unfortunately, nothing happens as planned

“My friends and I always comment that ‘we spent our twenties trying not to fall pregnant then our thirties, trying to fall pregnant” 

Amongst other things, there is much anxiety around the lack of control that one has over the conception. We have been told, if you work hard, you can achieve anything, so this lack of control is something that modern day women still grapple with.

Even during pregnancy, we create unnecessary anxiety trying to control all the variables, which are largely out of our control. Anxiety during pregnancy can cause an elevation in cortisol levels in mum and fetus which can in turn cause growth restriction, miscarriages and pre-term labour. If mum is anxious in the post-partum period, baby can pick this up and may be restless, struggle to latch and feed, not sleep well and battle to attach to mum. High anxiety during this period is associated with post-partum depression.

In childhood, kids pick up on all our verbal and non-verbal cues. If mum is stressed or distressed, kids feel that their carer and environment is ‘out of control’ and they in turn can become anxious or act out in other ways.

When do everyday worries become anxiety?

Worry is a spectrum. Generally, worry becomes anxiety when:

  • The worry is out of proportion to the stressor. For example your child has a mild fever and is generally well but you are worried that it might be meningitis.
  • Severe irritability 
  • Circular worrying that is all consuming and enters into every train of thought
  • Physical symptoms such as a tight chest, shortness of breath, racing heart and/or sweating
  • Impact on daily functioning such as struggling to eat, sleep or work 

Coping strategies

Identify and accept the anxiety. Acknowledge that your worry might be irrational and something that needs managing. 

Actions to help maternal anxiety:

  • Visualization: If something is not within your control, imagine a hand physically grabbing this worry and throwing it away every time this worry comes into your head.

 “I nearly had a panic attack after watching 3 hours off CNN reports on the Coronavirus deaths in Spain and Italy in early April 2020. I then realized that this was something that was not within my control so mentally, put it away”

  • Doing things that are within your control In the case of Covid this could be wearing a mask, socially distancing and sanitizing.
  • Share your worry. Sometimes verbalizing your worry and talking it over with a partner or friend makes it seem less overwhelming.

“I was so worried that I was tipsy one night when I did not know that I was pregnant and I thought I may have damaged my baby. My friend told me it was once off and that babies can handle a lot more!”.

  • Deep breathing when physical symptoms are out of control makes you focus on the breathing (away from the worry), physically increases oxygenation and slows down the heart rate.
  • Reduce stimulants and alcohol.
  • Mindfulness and meditation: focusing on the present. The here and the now. Try listening to some of the meditations on the Insight Timer here
  • Exercise: starting with just a short walk a few times a week is a great start. 
  • Self-care: make time for yourself as a mum that is protected

“I joined ‘Inside Out’, a women only boot camp in Kirstenbosch Gardens”

If this is not enough, seek professional advice:

  • Talk to your antenatal nurse, doctor, psychologist
  • There are times when ‘talk therapy’ is not sufficient and your health care practitioner may refer you to your obstetrician,  pediatrician,  general practitioner or psychiatrist for assessment for medication to help reduce your anxiety

Do not worry, you are not alone and there is relief and help out there.

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