By: Dr. Tanya Cotler, Clinical Psychologist
Don’t tell but I had that awful daydream again: New moms and scary thoughts.“ Every time I would descend a stairwell with baby Nila* I imagined falling with her. The day nightmare changes – sometimes I fall on her, or she cracks her head. Sometimes I just shake my head to make the ugly thought go away. ”Molly* sat in front of me curled in a ball , half hiding her face as she slowly shared with me the “day nightmares” she’d been referencing for several weeks in therapy but had been frightened to share. As I sat and listened, Molly’s body slowly unfolded out of its contorted shape and relaxed a bit more into the seat. She shared that she expected my face to be horrified, and opened up about her fear that if she let anyone know the scary thoughts she was having then they would be horrified or maybe worse actually take her baby away. I helped Molly label these thoughts- they are intrusive thoughts- they are uninvited and come on their own without invitation and indeed can be quite disturbing, but, they are actually quite normal.
As new mothers the idea of being solely responsible for the well being and protection of a precious new little life can be quite overwhelming and indeed anxiety provoking and therefore intrusive thoughts are quite normal and common. These thoughts are a common way for the human mind to test out scenarios especially when it’s an issue of importance or the person is in a state of increased anxiety. Well, here we are new mom (common increased anxiety) and something she cares about (clearly it’s her baby) and so intrusive thoughts show up.
Donald Winnicott, a prominent English pediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined the term “maternal preoccupation” to describe the early mental process when a mothers mind is constantly focused on her baby. He depicted the optimal “holding” environment for a new baby to thrive as one in which the mother is psychically and physically present for the infant’s needs. That is, just as a new mother is constantly physically occupied with her newborn baby’s needs (diaper, feed, nap repeat!), so too is her mind constantly occupied by nap times, feed times, and concerns over baby‘s physical and emotional safety and health. Winnicott explained that the mother’s mental preoccupation, and sensitive responding to baby, facilitates the building of a secure attachment bond which is grounded in mom and babe tuning in to one another’s feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Moreover, there is now scientific evidence to support the normalcy of maternal preoccupation. There are brain changes such as changes in grey matter, that occur in most women post partum. These changes help the mother to be increasingly empathic toward her baby’s experience, while devoting less “brain space” to other trivial stuff like memories of what was for dinner the day before (Insert “mommy brain experience” here).
Despite worrying being part of a normal maternal mental process, at times this experience of preoccupation can also cause a mother undue distress. A mother may feel her mind is unrelenting with thoughts of baby’s well being or she may constantly obsess over bad things happening. When the anxiety feels inescapable, even the most basic decision making becomes difficult. For many this is exacerbated by the information overload and constant opinions from well meaning friends, family (and strangers in grocery lines!). When the scary thoughts feel all consuming and interfere with daily functioning or when a mother starts to develop behaviors to attempt to ward off the “bad” from happening, then it’s possible the mom is struggling with postpartum anxiety or post partum OCD. Indeed, If a new mother finds herself wondering whether her worries and scary thoughts are too much, or she struggles to know what is real or not real, then it is very important to seek professional opinion and support. A mother should not feel alone and plagued by these thoughts.
Indeed, it is common to avoid seeking advice or support because the constant worry and anxiety feels embarrassing or shameful. The problem is that shame over scary thoughts, perceiving them as dangerous and unacceptable, or as evidence of being a bad mother, can make these thoughts even more pervasive. That is, the secrecy and shame increases feelings of sadness, loneliness and guilt which perpetuates the scary thoughts themselves. Alternatively, sharing these thoughts with a trusted friend, family member or professional may help with tolerating and accepting the dichotomy of emotional experience in motherhood- the love and hate, happiness and sadness, anxiety and calm. The goal when experiencing these scary thoughts is to be able to notice these thoughts, acknowledge them, and then let them go.
A word on trauma: if a new mother has experienced an overwhelming, incomprehensible and devastating psychological experience (be it in childhood, throughout her lifespan, in pregnancy or previous pregnancies, or in labor or birth), scary thoughts can emerge as a fear of the experience reoccurring or as a fear of something else uncontrollable happening. Like a lighthouse, the mind starts to scan the environment for the next ship- the next bad thing- as if catching it before it happens will keep her safe. This form of “hypervigilance” gives power to the scary thought: it’s the belief that the mother is protecting herself or her baby by obsessing/not taking her mind off of the bad that may happen. If you are worried about how a difficult experience has affected you – and wonder if you are reacting to it or if your scary thoughts are connected to it, talking to a professional is really important and you deserve the support.
The important take home? If you would like to consult a professional about your experience of worries and scary thoughts post partum, you should always feel you can. It may be normal to worry as a new mom, but you should never be suffering in your worries. If you do not know where to turn, you can always look at PSI (post partum support international) for a list of professionals trained in perinatal mental health in your area. You are not – and should not- feel alone.
For further information or to contact the author
Dr. Tanya Cotler
Thrive is so grateful to be a part of your health goals and wants to help you feel your absolute best! Our practitioners are here to help you optimize your health and well-being all year long.
And with January already coming to a close, it’s a great time to create your S.M.A.R.T. Goals to set you up for success in 2019.
S is for SPECIFIC - Describe your goal as much as possible, with a clear vision and description of what you would like to achieve.
By Dr. Kristin Heins
M is for MEASURABLE - It’s important to be able to measure your goal, so be sure to include a metric system with a target that you are wanting to reach.
A is for ATTAINABLE - Your goal should be challenging, but ensure it is also realistic.
R is for RELEVANT - Is your goal consistent with other goals you have achieved or set for yourself? Does it align with your current and long-term plans?
T is for TIMELY - Set a start and end date for when you’d like to have your goal achieved by. This will help you with time management and give yourself a little bit of urgency.
From the entire team at Thrive, we wish you a happy and healthy year ahead!
I came across an article on the Mayo Clinic website (www.mayoclinic.org) on stress management around the holidays and really liked it. It may be especially helpful during the hectic and emotion-filled holiday season; but, is also a useful life approach to stress management. Most of us know that stress and feeling overwhelmed does not limit itself to holidays!! When stress is at it’s peak, it’s hard to stop and regroup. The feeling is often one of overwhelm vs. support. Below are ten ways to try and shift the balance back to a more supportive experience:
1. Acknowledge your feelings: If historical or present day loss and sadness exist, accept that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings.
2. Reach out: If you feel lonely or isolated – seek out community, faith-based or other social events as they can offer support and companionship. Volunteering may also lift your spirits and broaden friendships.
3. Be realistic: The holidays may not (likely won’t) be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if adult-children can’t come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails, videos, skyping.
4. Set aside differences: Set aside familial grievances during gatherings until a more appropriate time for discussion. Try and find understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry – chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress just like you may be.
5. Stick to a budget: Before you shop, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Ways to manage budgets:
- Donate to a charity in someone’s name.
- Give homemade gifts.
- Start a family gift exchange
6. Plan ahead: Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That’ll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. Ask for support for party prep and cleanup.
7. Setting Limits: Saying yes when you want to say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. If you can’t participate in a project or activity, try and be clear about which ones you can say no to and take that time for other activities like rest and self -care.
8. Keep healthy habits:
- Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don’t go overboard on sweets or drinks.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Incorporate regular physical activity into each day as it helps with both physical and emotional wellbeing.
9. Take a breather: Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slows your breathing and restores inner calm.
10. Seek professional help if you need it: Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, seek help from a professional.
I hope that this helps make the holidays more enjoyable for you and yours. Happy Holidays!
- Social engagement
Accept there are things that you can’t change or control. Focus on the positives, consider forgiveness.
Self-care: Don’t postpone exercise, pleasurable activities, good sleep, or healthy eating because “you are too busy”; you are only giving away your anti-stress “free medication”.
Be social: time to follow the plan and not the mood! Stressful times are the right time to say “yes” to that coffee, that drink, that dinner with friends/family etc..
Be assertive: say what you need and want respectfully, don’t hold back. Also learn to say “no” to unnecessary commitments.
Take pauses, get into mindfulness practice! Meditation is the “new thing” for a reason. Download a meditation app to your smartphone. 5 minutes a day can make a big difference.
By Dr. Kristin Heins, ND
Dr. Maria Chaparro, Registered Psychologist in Supervised
Working as a Naturopathic Doctor, I view mental health as a natural and necessary part of holistic health care. With this philosophy I began, almost ten years ago, seeking to obtain a skill set to speak with patients about their emotions and mental health.
Now, many years later and in my fourth year of the full five year programme, I am able to see clients as part of the supervised practice portion of my training as a psychotherapist. Here is a little taste of the Gestalt approach to give a clearer understanding of what it is and how it may be helpful for you.
- What is The Gestalt Approach to Psychotherapy?
Gestalt focuses on meeting clients where they are at in the moment and providing support to their experience. At our core, humans are dynamic and adaptive beings always attempting survival. Gestalt refers to this as “creative adaptation”. Sometimes, however, the way we adapt isn’t helpful in all circumstances. We may experience feeling “stuck” or at an impasse. The therapy session is intended as a safe place to both identify these patterns of adjustment and explore alternate ways of adapting. This is an experiential form of psychotherapy, which may include using exercises to help foster new awareness, understanding and techniques for self support.
Please contact the clinic if you would like to learn more or determine if working together is the right fit for you.
by Maya Hammer, M.A., Counselling Psychology
In Canada it is typical for women to take a year-long maternity leave, with some variation amongst those who are self-employed or sharing the leave with a partner. While parental leave is a great opportunity to take a break from your professional life to raise your child, the day-to-day experience of mat leave can be lonely, boring, and exhausting. Being a mother is hard work as you are in high demand and have limited control over your schedule. Feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, irritability, and exhaustion are common, especially for high achieving Type A individuals who adhere to a rigid schedule and time management structure. Spending 10 or more hours on your own, five days a week, is quite removed from traditional ways of raising children in community, extended family households, or tribes.
It is important to find ways to support yourself during this time. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself as you grow into your new role. Take time to identify what you need in order to feel good on a day–to-day basis, specifically addressing times that feel most difficult, such as first thing in the morning or the final hours in the afternoon before your partner comes home from work. Stay connected to your partner, family, and friends while seeking out new mom friends so that you do not feel isolated. Connect with people by phone or online when it is too difficult to leave the house. Use your support network to help with childcare or hire a babysitter for 3-4 hours so you can nap, exercise, do something fun, or catch up on errands and other responsibilities. Involve your partner/spouse as much as possible with care for the baby.
Learning to be flexible, creative, and let go will serve you well on maternity leave. This requires a paradigm shift from being productive, organized, and ambitious- qualities that may have been integral to your life pre-baby. Making the switch from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ is not always easy. In the book Momma Zen, Zen Buddhist priest and mother Karen Maezen Miller describes her relentless path towards letting go of expectations, welcoming mistakes, and reconnecting with her innermost self. Maezen Miller reminds us that being a parent is an excellent opportunity for growth and transformation if you accept what is happening, without judgment, on a moment to moment basis.
Maya Hammer is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in women’s mental health, prenatal and postpartum mental health, infertility support, pregnancy loss and infant death, and couples counselling.
www.mayahammer.ca | email@example.com | 416.597.0015
by Maya Hammer, M.A., Counselling Psychology | www.mayahammer.ca
We all know about the “baby blues”, a common experience of emotional ups and downs in the first week or two postpartum. Many of us, however, have never heard of the “baby pinks,” or The Highs, a feeling of intense happiness or euphoria following birth.
Symptoms of postpartum hypomania include:
-being very active
-decreased ability to concentrate
-impulsivity, e.g., shopping
-decreased need for sleep
These symptoms can be triggered by childbirth and usually subside after 6-8 weeks postpartum. In some cases, however, postpartum hypomania is an early indicator for bipolar disorder, depression, or psychosis. Therefore, it is very important to seek treatment if you or a loved one you know is experiencing.
Pregnancy and childbirth can trigger mental imbalance because of physiological changes such as stress, dysregulated cortisol, increased inflammation, decreased serotonin, and hormonal fluctuations. In addition, psychosocial factors can impact mental well-being including disrupted sleep, the demands of caring for a baby, lack of support, life stress, marital difficulty, or trauma. Genetics plays a part too: a personal or family history of mental illness, in particular bipolar disorder, predisposes a woman to prenatal and postpartum mental illness.
It is important to seek treatment immediately if you notice unusual behaviour in your partner or loved one. Treatment can involve:
1) mood stabilizer medication
2) therapy to stabilize mood and regulate daily schedule
3) support and education for partners and families
For further reading, check out these resources:
A blog post on postpartum hypomania and mania
A mom’s experience of hypomania induced by anti-depressant medication
A study on the prevalence of postpartum hypomania
And another study demonstrating that hypomanic symptoms can be used to correctly diagnose postpartum bipolar disorder.
As well, check out an article in Today’s Parent, and Maya’s appearance on CTV Canada AM talking about the baby pinks.
This post is brought to you by Maya Hammer. Maya Hammer is a psychotherapist in private practice at Thrive Natural Family Health and the Health Psychology Clinic. Don’t miss Maya’s recent interview about postpartum hypomania, or “the baby pinks,” on CTV Canada AM
Dads Get the Blues Too
by Maya Hammer
It is common for women to suffer from depression and anxiety following the birth of a baby. About 10 to 20% of women are diagnosed with postpartum depression. What is less common, however, is our understanding of postpartum depression in men. Recent research has found that 10 to 25 % of new fathers may suffer from depression. Dads or secondary caregivers experience stress related to feeling rejected after the arrival of the child, relationship or marital dysfunction, burden of financial responsibility, grieving pre-baby freedom and lifestyle, or feeling overwhelmed by partner’s postpartum depression.
Paternal postnatal depression (PPND) is often overlooked because, generally speaking, men don’t express suffering the same way women do. For example, men may not acknowledge feeling sad, guilty, and hopeless. Here are some symptoms to look for in men:
- Increased anger and conflict, violent behaviour
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Frustration or irritability
- Lower threshold for stress
- Risk-taking and impulsivity
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, pain, digestive problems
- Loss of interest in work and hobbies
If these symptoms are familiar to you or a loved one you can get help through therapy and naturopathic or psychiatric medication. For more information, check out postpartummen, a website for men suffering from PPND and in the book Postpartum Depression for Dummies, by Dr. Shoshan Bennett that has a section on depression in fathers.
If you are a dad and your partner/wife is experiencing postpartum depression, you can find helpful information at postpartumdads and The Postpartum Husband by Karen Kleiman.
Another great resource is Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell. This book helps to examine how past issues, including trauma or how you were raised as a child, impact your ability to parent.