Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’re having a relatively typical day. Nothing out of the ordinary. You don’t feel particularly anxious, though you don’t feel particularly anything. Your days are hectic and don’t leave much time for reflecting on, or even noticing, how you’re feeling most of the time.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, you are overrun by anxiety. Completely overwhelmed. Perhaps lashing out in anger. Or crying for what feels like no reason. Whatever the symptoms you’re experiencing, the main point is it just hits. Everything is fine and then in a matter of seconds it is not fine at all. No warning, no ramp up, just boom.
This is a very common scenario, particularly for moms. Why? Because we very easily become disconnected from our bodies, which means we’re disconnected from our built in anxiety warning system. We disconnect from our bodies for many reasons. How often are you able to eat, sleep, shower, or use the bathroom right at the point that feels right for your body? You know, like you used to be able to before kids? I’d guess not that frequently. Usually it’s sneaking in a bathroom break when you absolutely can’t manage another second. And meals (if that’s what we’re calling sandwich crusts, gnawed on apple slices, and squished cheese cubes these days) are eaten in 30 second increments throughout the day. This isn’t sustainable if you’re in touch with your body. The only way to do this is to disconnect from the signals your body is sending about your physical needs.
Unfortunately, our disconnection function isn’t particularly sensitive to which signals it’s cutting us off from. And in this process, we lose touch with the often subtle cues our bodies usually send that indicate our anxiety is rising, or a situation is making us uncomfortable, or we are getting overwhelmed. As a result, the anxiety, anger, or overwhelm stay outside of our awareness until they are just too huge to be ignored any longer. And bam…panic attack, rage-filled outburst, or hysterical tears.
This kind of out of nowhere reaction is problematic for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s just unpleasant to experience. It can lead us to respond to people and situations in ways that we feel badly about afterwards. At the height of my postpartum anxiety, I would often find myself yelling at my husband or my older kids over things that made absolutely no sense. Even now, my first clue that I haven’t been staying in touch with my body and my anxiety warning signals is when I lash out at one of my kids for some small, inconsequential misbehavior. When these things happen I feel tremendously guilty, and all of the old “I’m an awful mom” thoughts start to creep back in. So yeah, it’s definitely not a fun experience.
It’s also problematic because it can really disrupt our relationships. Our behavior is viewed as unpredictable — because it is! Others feel like they have to tiptoe around us because they never know what will set off the anger or the tears. And it makes total sense that they would feel this way because our big reaction is not at all proportionate to whatever just happened. It’s a reaction to something much bigger that has been building below the surface for some time. If our response feels out of left field to us, imagine how it feels to others. It can leave them weary of interacting with us, and when we sense that withdrawal it causes us to feel even more alone and unsupported, which keeps the anxiety cycle going.
The key to getting back in touch with your anxiety, so it can be managed before it explodes, is to get back in touch with your body. In the beginning, this needs to be a very intentional effort. I encourage moms I work with to do body scans each hour to start with. This is a brief moment where you pause, sit quietly, and take an inventory of how your body is feeling and if it is giving you any cues about growing upset, anxiety, or overwhelm. This can look like noticing your jaw is clenched, or your shoulders are raised, or you’re feeling If you notice anything brewing (and you likely will), you address it right then to bring it back down. This can be done through breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, using mantras, talking through your feelings with someone close to you, or other anxiety coping skills that work well for you.
A word of caution about body scans. If you have a trauma history, I suggest discussing this with your therapist before beginning. Paying such close attention to your body can be triggering, depending on how far along you are in your recovery.
Another thing you should be aware of before beginning body scans is that you are probably experiencing way more anxiety than you’re currently aware of, and things may feel worse before they feel better. Right now, all of the anxiety is being locked up in a drawer. You’re unknowingly shoving it in there all day long, keeping it outside of your awareness. By doing the body scans throughout the day, you’re committing to not putting any of the anxiety away anymore. You’re saying you’re going to keep the mail and papers and everything else that accumulates through the day out on the counter and actually sort through it. You’re saying no to the junk drawer. You’re saying you’re okay with the temporary increase in mess while you develop a system to manage things. If this is overwhelming to you, it might be helpful to do this with a therapist rather than on your own. I always refer to the amazing directory Postpartum Support International maintains of therapists who specialize in maternal mental health.
No matter what gets stirred up, know that this is one of those “better out than in” scenarios. As long as you stay disconnected, as long as you ignore what has been shoved in that drawer, as long as you stay as far away as possible from your anxiety, it will continue to come at you in unexpected and undesired ways. And it will grow larger over time. Once you begin to take it out and examine it bit by bit, it may be scary at first, but over time you will learn how address it as it comes up and it will lose its hold over you. You will proactively face your anxiety rather than allow it to continue to sneak up on you. You can do this.