Weeks ago, R.G. left a comment asking for help with pregnancy-related anxiety, which I helpfully have failed to address until now. Probably her baby is ready to go to college and she is all, dude, I've got this but thanks anyway. Nevertheless, just in case I can still be remotely helpful, I am now going to write about anxiety -- both pregnancy-related and your garden-variety fret-tasticness -- since I know quite a lot (really, a lot-a lot) about worrying in all its guises.
I've amply established that I am, as a good friend put it recently (referring to herself, actually, but if the shoe fits...), a high-strung drama queen in many respects. Throughout elementary school, I was petrified of my teachers and lived in fear of getting in trouble for some completely imaginary infraction. I was also convinced, for entirely unknown reasons, that our house would burn down, my family would be murdered by an intruder, and/or a tornado would rip through our town and kill us all.
I used to lie (lay? dang it, I can never get those right) in bed at night, my heart racing as I listened to the pernicious quiet enveloping our house and straining to hear the sounds I thought would inevitably come -- a ladder clanking against my window as a (ladder-toting, non-door/window-using) burglar climbed up and came to get me; our porch door creaking open as a murderer made his way into the house; a crackle of kindling as the downstairs was engulfed in flames. I kept my arms around all 35 or so of my Cabbage Patch Kids at all times, with my blanket wrapped around us, so that if I ever had to flee the scene in the middle of the night, I wouldn't have to leave any of my most prized things behind.
The only thing I could think to do at those times was to pray. In classic budding-lawyer fashion, I had to cover every possible contingency in my prayers, or God would be all, "Whoops, you forgot to mention your second cousin once removed, so he's dead now! PS, it's all your fault." Somehow, I was convinced that bad things would flow from me if I did something wrong or failed to do something that I was expected to do.
As I've grown up, I have become a little bit less of a nutjob, but there's no question that anxiety is still a part of me, and probably always will be. I am not balled in a corner breathing into a bag every day, mind you; in fact, most people who know me think I am a laid-back, easygoing person. And it's not that I am pulling one over on them -- I am pretty mellow about a lot of things. But from time to time, I still become convinced that someone is going to blow down the door of our apartment and get me, or that I'm going to make some minor mistake that will snowball such that I end up living in a box on the steps of some church, reviled and alone.
There have been times in my life when my anxiety has been worse than others. After 9/11, I had pretty severe PTSD, which isn't quite the same as plain, unbuttered anxiety, but it's part of the same heart-pounding, tummy-churning ball of wax, I'd say. During that time, I learned lots of ways to cope even with minor flare-ups of anxiety. I've never been on medication, so I don't have experience with that, but I don't think there's a thing wrong with it, either.
The other time that I had Some Trouble Coping was pregnancy and newbornhood. More on that in a moment, but I will come right out and tell you that hormones are no joke and they can do a SERIOUS number on your brain and emotional state. We all know this, but sometimes when you're In It, it can be hard to realize -- or perhaps hard to admit to yourself -- that you are experiencing something that is as physically real as a severe headache, except it affects you emotionally and intellectually instead of with body aches and pains. Even during my Lady Cycle sometimes it takes a bludgeon over the head with flare-ups of anxiousness or weird, creeping dread to make me realize that oh, yeah, this is happening and I am not losing my mind. Please pass the bacon and let's wait it out.
With all that background in mind, here is my handy-dandy, quick-reference guide to dealing with anxiety (print it out and keep it in your pocket if you like!):
1. Unlock the powers of your mind. This sounded like total BS when I first heard it, but you can control your emotions with your thoughts. Stay with me now! I'm not going to go all neuropsych on you, but the concept of cognitive behavioral therapy is that your brain has all sorts of ways of distorting things, and those distortions in turn can make you sad or anxious or irrationally angry -- whatever your emotional flavor of the day might be. So one way of stuffing down anxiety is to think your way out of it by telling your brain to see things as they are and not through those distortions.
Take, for example, my fear that I might make a mistake at my job that will lead to personal and financial ruin and humiliation. When that fear takes hold, I might first remind myself that a great many people practice law (many of whom are frankly incompetent), but few lawyers end up being publicly shamed for doing something wrong, even if it's a massive screwup. Then I would say to myself, Self, you are very conscientious and you try hard not to make mistakes, and if you did make a mistake it would probably be something correctable. Then I would remind myself that we have a decent financial cushion, so even if by some bizarre twist I did not have work for a while, we would be ok. Next I might think about how I have a family and friends who love me unconditionally, and would help me through a crisis of any kind. You get the idea.
To get a better sense of this approach and to learn what messed-up things your brain might be doing that's causing you agita, I highly recommend the book Feeling Good. I know, it's kind of a dumb title and you have to venture into the self-help section to find it (AND the cover is BRIGHT YELLOW, so you might want to only read it at home and keep it in your nightstand drawer), but it's a really good introduction to this way of coping, and I found it wildly helpful when I most needed it. There is also a workbook if you want to give yourself homework (because I am just the type who loves workbooks, and I suppose by now that comes as no surprise to anyone).
2. Burn off your worrywart energy. Running (or any vigorous exercise that does not require me to go to a gym) is one of the easiest and most effective ways I know to ease anxiety. Often when I feel my brain seizing up on me and threatening to panic, I realize that I haven't exercised enough, so I need to get out there and put feet to the pavement to loosen up. I really think that, for me, I have a certain amount of excess energy all the time (in part, perhaps, because I spend my days sitting at a desk and because I love sugar), and one of the ways that manifests itself is in constant fretting/worrying.
When I run a decent amount (like 3-4 times a week, a few miles at a time -- it doesn't have to be marathon-running, for heaven's sake (although admittedly, I was DAMN calm when I was training for the marathon, because I did not have the energy to get all worked up about anything at all)), I am so much more calm. Sometimes I will be anxious until a mile into the run (when Felicity was a baby, I would almost have a panic attack every time I left the house without her, because WHAT IF something happened -- it would be MY FAULT for not being there because I selfishly went for a run! -- but as I ran, I unclenched and the fog of hormones dissipated enough that I could see how irrational I was being), but by the end, I always feel so much better.
By the way, I am not going to tell anyone to take on some wacky new diet, because for me food restrictions are both exhausting and anxiety-inducing, but I WILL say that caffeine REALLY affects my mood, and so does excessive sugar consumption. I still consume them, from time to time and usually in moderation, but I do so knowing that they may result in a surge of worrying or a huge mood drop a few hours later. Know thy triggers, y'all.
3. Give your brain something else to do. Awake at 4am, in a sweat about something (that's really nothing)? Yep. Me too. Four in the morning is when I do my best worrying, because there is nothing else to do and nothing I can do about the thing my brain has fixated on. I might be obsessing about something awkward I said in a conversation ten years ago (seriously) or about the logistics of an upcoming trip or just about the fact that the world is a terribly dangerous, evil place and now I have a child in it and pretty much I should never let her leave the house because nothing is safe and we're all going to die.
Your choice is to lie there and worry until you're hyperventilating, or give your brain something else to do. You can mentally make a shopping list, plan your next vacation, start the Great American Novel, or meditate on Christian Bale's upper body. Thinking of something productive can make you feel more in control, while fantasizing about someone hot or about the dream home you will one day own is just distracting.
Or if you're into this sort of thing, you can talk to God/whatever higher power does it for you. I don't mean that you hand God a laundry list of things to do or people to keep safe, because as I learned from those childhood nights of panic-praying, you'll only dig yourself in deeper. I mean more of an Anne Lamott-esque chat with the Universe or your personal deity. Like, "God, you can see that I'm bathed in my own perspiration here because I'm worrying about all these random things over which I have no control. I would rather be asleep, to be honest with You. I know that You love me and that I'm in Your good hands, but maybe You could help me relax a bit, without having to get up and take a shot of vodka at 4am? Thanks!"
4. Know when to ask for help. Sometimes anxiety is too much of a cross to bear alone. A therapist can do wonders to help you. So can some good friends and a night out or a really great cheeseburger with your spouse. Doing things is therapeutic. Talking to people is also a big help, whoever those people may be. I have certain people in my life who I can always count on to talk me off a ledge if I am in Crazytown about something. I can brain-dump in an email to them, laying out all of my most irrational thoughts and feelings, and they will treat me like a completely sane person while carefully deconstructing all of my wildest thoughts and fears. Find these people and use them. Often, just the act of putting my thoughts into words in an email or articulating them over a glass of wine helps me sort it out and rejoin the land of the easygoing.
5. If you're going through hell, keep going. Perhaps naively, I didn't realize that pregnancy and nursing would envelop me in a haze of hormones for such a long time and in such a way that I felt like a fundamentally different person.
I am not sure I can adequately convey how anxious I was in the first trimester of pregnancy. With every little twinge and cramp, I was all OMG OMG MISCARRIAGE ALERT WHOOP WHOOP. I was terrified of losing the baby, of something being wrong with the baby, of everything under the sun that could go wrong in general. Pregnancy is a delicate time, to be sure, but I think my anxiety was (a) much more hormone-related than I realized at the time, and in that sense was perfectly normal, yet, paradoxically (b) a bit more severe, perhaps, than it needed to be, so probably something I should have addressed with my doctor. I think that my body turns estrogen right into DEFCON 1 Anxiety, so it was...well, it was a very special time, let's just say, and it sucked right out loud.
Nursing was the same way. I was kind of a mess (my hair especially, but also my emotional state) for the first five months of Felicity's life, but mostly the first three or so, when she was so tiny and I was just SO not myself. I loved her and I loved being a new mother, but DUDE. I was PANIC-stricken so much of the time, and I had SO MANY unbelievably weird and borderline insane fears about things happening to her, and SHEW. Wow. Yes, it was rational in the sense that caring for a wee eight-pound person is a big honking deal, and that's not to be minimized, but I have to tell you, I felt like a cavewoman. Maybe not even a cavewoman. Like an animal. Like I would have bare-handedly torn to pieces anyone who breathed wrong in the vicinity of my baby. Like she was my baby and NO ONE ELSE'S and everybody stand back, because I WILL NOT let anything happen to her, and that includes the way you're holding her, which is wrong and possibly will kill all of us.
Here's what helped then: reading, re-reading, and obsessing over the comments of Swistle's Postpartum post. Best thing on the Internet. Ever. Really. She NAILS the newborn experience and the hormonal fog of postpartum-ness, and DUDE. EVEN TODAY, when I read it, I fall to pieces in tears, because when I read that, I knew I wasn't completely insane. I wasn't alone. This is how our bodies and minds are wired, being the ones who give birth and take care of babies. It's an enormous thing, and our brains can hardly process it, and all of that is OK. It also passes.
Except! You will go through it again when you wean (if you choose to breastfeed, and of course it is TOTALLY COOL NOT TO). And again, Swistle saves the day. This was another one that I read and was all, THANK GOD, because when I weaned Felicity I thought I had slap gone out of my mind. I had the craziest anxiety about the craziest things, and I kind of lost my ability to cope with day-to-day infant issues (like trying to get the baby to nap, OMG THE WORST) without having to go in the bathroom and cry for a while. Shew. Twas not pretty. But once I read that piece and could remind myself what was happening (again with the self-talk!), it was easier. It passed.
So those are my Top Five anxiety tips. Please, y'all, weigh in if you have coping skillz to share, too. Now I'm going to go worry about whether this was a good, helpful post or just a pile of self-indulgent dung.