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Pre and Post Natal Anxiety

Pre and Post Natal Anxiety

The term 'post natal depression' is well recognized these days along with another term 'baby blues'. In clinical psychology we recognize Post Natal Depression to be a clinical condition requiring treatment, and baby blues a less concerning term to describe the 'downs' that come with the 'ups' of having a brand new 'bundle of joy'.

In psychology we don't have a specific term for the anxiety associated with pregnancy, childbirth and the early days of parenting - but there's often loads of it - anxiety that is.

Anxiety is very much produced by the way we think and because the whole experience of having a child (pregnancy, childbirth and new parenting) is such a big, life changing event, there's lots and lots to think about.

Any new event or experience can produce a whole host of 'new worries'. They're often in the form of "what if?" "What if this, or what if that?" Because the future is unknown in any situation (new or old) it can be particularly worrisome if it's new, big, long term and life changing like having a baby. The 'what ifs' can feel like they're expanding like the expanding belly.. "What if I can't cope?", "What if I parent like my own parent?", "What if I can't possibly deal with the labour pain?", What if we don't get to hospital on time?", "What if my water breaks at work?", "What if I have one of those babies that scream all night and day?" or "What if something goes wrong in the delivery????????"

Worrisome thoughts like these are one of the main causes of anxiety. Thus the more you worry the more anxiety, until it can really start to overwhelm you and your life feels out of control.

After the birth, worrisome thoughts tend to focus more on care of the baby and keeping it all in control. "What if she isn't drinking enough? . Or sleeping appropriately such as too much, too little or at the wrong times?" Mixed with your own sleep deprivation - an inevitable result of sleep wakes - the anxiety can feel overwhelming.

The good news is that part of what produces the anxiety can be changed. These are the anxiety producing thoughts. They're powerful and thus very beneficial when they are working for you rather than against you. This involves changing thoughts and developing more helpful, productive ways of thinking. These ways of thinking tend to be more realistic, optimistic, and self supportive rather than self-sabotaging or abusive, and are based on evidence about what is really going on rather than what is not actually happening such as a real disaster or catastrophe.

To illustrate this approach I'll use the example of, "What if I can't cope as a mother?". An alternative view would be, "It's likely being a new mother is going to be challenging at times, even damn hard work, but I've coped with challenges and hard work in the past, so I know I am capable, and if I feel over challenged I can seek support from a variety of sources (partner, family, friend, therapist, parenting agencies) to assist me in coping".

"What if" scenarios are the worst case scenarios, which of course produce anxiety. Fortunately however, our lives aren't about continual 'worst case scenarios'. Instead, it is more likely to be some good times and some not so good times.

So if you're in the pregnancy, childbirth or new mother situation, consider your thoughts. Perhaps jot down your thoughts for a few days when you are feeling anxious to see if you can identify 'what ifs' or other anxiety-producing thinking styles.

If you identify anxiety-producing thoughts, have a go at modifying them in the way I suggested. If you think you require extra help or support I strongly encourage you to seek counselling. There are lots of public and private options for counselling - remember ,part of coping is seeking support!

The approach I have described in this article is part of a much broader approach called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which has been shown to be highly effective in the management of anxiety. However, it is good to be aware of other factors at play in the experience of anxiety, such as pregnancy, lactation hormones, and significant body changes.

Unresolved issues from your family of origin, that is the family you grew up in, can also surface - for men and women - during this experience. If this is the case I would encourage counselling and support to help sort out any unresolved issues so they aren't producing unnecessary anxiety.

Sharryn Muir
Clinical Psychologist- June 2003

Sharryn Muir is a clinical psychologist in private practice in the northern suburbs of Melbourne (The Centre for Psychological & Relationship Counselling). She works with three other psychologists who are all clinically trained. Their names are Jane Gierlicz, Natasha Pellicano and Cherie Dalton. If you would like to talk with Sharryn she can be contacted on 9416 9888.

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