I’ve posted several intense posts previously about the anxiety symptoms I have experienced (insomnia, intrusive thoughts, derealisation to name a few) so I decided now might be a good time to list in one place the techniques that I find helpful to manage these, and all, anxiety symptoms.
Before we start, I should confess I’m not free of anxiety. I’m still a work-in-progress. But I have learnt an awful lot and come a long way so I hope that sharing how I handle these feelings can help others who aren’t as far along in their journey yet.
1. Look after your physical health
I know this is tough. When you’re feeling low or anxious the last thing you feel like doing is worrying about what you eat. Generally, I love my food, as evidenced by my ample dress size, which is why it was such a shock when anxiety robbed me of my appetite. When I stopped wanting to stuff my face I think my husband really knew there was something wrong! Thankfully, it was one of the first things to come back which was very reassuring.
Try to eat small, regular meals and limit sugar and caffeine (you have enough adrenalin pumping around without making yourself more alert). Alcohol isn’t the best plan, as it’s a depressant, plus it can interfere with medication during the first few weeks you are taking it. No way am I going to pretend I didn’t eat sugar or have a few glasses of wine though, but it doesn’t always help in the long-term.
Excess anxiety made me want to exercise (again, not the norm for me!). I didn’t like to be indoors either so went for very long walks every day with the pram. I also joined an Active Mums aerobics class run at my local children’s centre where you can bring your babies along. This helped to burn off some of the adrenalin and raise endorphins, and I always felt a slight relief from the anxiety and depression after a class.
2. Medication & supplements
Antidepressants and other medications are a very personal choice and some feel they aren’t right for them. For me, they help a great deal. On the advice of the PEWS team, I also began taking several supplements – Vitamin B Complex and Omega 3, and I also took Evening Primrose for PMS (which can cause anxiety to spike for me). I can’t really say how much these supplements helped me as I was trying so many other things alongside them, but I figure everything is worth a shot. Please consult a doctor first as some supplements should not be taken alongside certain medications.
I use the methods I learned from CBT all the time. It’s incredibly useful for changing negative thought patterns. It takes a lot of practice and time but it’s worth it as it can not only aid recovery but also provide you with good tools for dealing with life’s challenges in general. There are lots of books and online resources about CBT but really the best way to learn is from a qualified therapist if at all possible.
4. Mindfulness/being present
Mindfulness is a real buzzword at the moment but I do find it very useful. Taking notice of the small things around you and keeping yourself in the present moment, if only for a short while, can really help to reduce panic. You can find out more about mindfulness here.
5. Get comfortable being uncomfortable
I simply cannot promote this one enough. Talking about Paul David’s book feels like a broken record by now but his simple approach to facing anxiety, to sitting with it and giving up the fight against it, has helped me more than anything else. Your natural instinct is to rally against anxious thoughts, feelings and symptoms but all that does is feed the anxiety and give it more power. My mantra when anxiety comes is “Don’t run. Don’t fight. Let it be there, then watch it go.”
6. Don’t be limited by your fear – do it anyway.
This is a little related to the above. Try to face up to the things that most worry you if you can. For some it’s leaving the house but for me it was staying in the house, alone with my son. This has always been the biggest trigger for me. When I felt my recovery was going quite well I made a point of spending more time alone at home. It was horrible, and is sometimes still a challenge, but for each day I did it and survived I felt that much stronger. Nothing is ever as bad as your anxious mind will convince you it is and the sense of achievement you feel after facing a fear is a great boost to your mood.
7. Recognise triggers
Learn what your triggers are. Don’t necessarily avoid them, as this could be a short-term coping mechanism that isn’t helpful in the long-term, but recognise them and allow yourself the space to be affected by them. Forgive yourself.
New babies are bloody hard work. Being diagnosed with PND is very distressing. Don’t expect to recover overnight but know that every day following that diagnosis, every day after you’ve reached out for help, is one step closer to feeling well again.
Try to take a small moment each day entirely for yourself to do something you love to do. Even if you’re struggling to find joy in the things you used to love find a small space of time to do them anyway. For me it’s when my husband comes home, I hand Caterpillar over and he does his bath while I read, watch my favourite programme, play Candy Crush, colour or make loom bracelets (silly I know, but I find the repetitive nature of it really calms me). Or even just lie quietly on the bed. Whatever it takes to get some peaceful alone time.
Family, friends, online peers, local support groups, medical professionals – wherever you can find support please take it. Accepting help can be really difficult but let go of that guilt or discomfort and focus on getting better. My family is extremely supportive and I figure if I take their support when I need it I can, in turn, offer them support when I’m stronger and they are going through a difficult time, and that eases the guilt I feel.
11. Be as positive as you can
Being negative is my default setting and always has been, I’m a pessimist by nature. But if experiencing depression and anxiety has taught me anything it’s that negative thinking gets you nowhere and, in fact, only makes you spiral deeper into despair or fear. I try to counteract every negative thought I have with a positive – sometimes this is fairly simple and other times it feels like I’m climbing a mountain but I keep going as it usually helps me feel better in the short-term, as well as a great long-term tool. Sometimes it feels like all you have is blind faith, but that’s okay, blind faith is better than dwelling on the darkness.
At the same time, don’t hide from your feelings or bury your negativity either. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotion you need to and forgive yourself but just try not to dwell on self-pity, guilt or fear too long before finding something positive to counter it.
Striking this delicate balance is still a big challenge for me but seeing the positive results inspires me.
Practically, planning small treats or trips to look forward to can help you to stay upbeat too. I’m not talking about anything big or costly, I like to plan a few enjoyable things into my week; meeting a friend for coffee, taking Caterpillar to a toddler class, meeting my parents for a picnic etc. It helps to have small things to look forward to.
12. “Three things”
I have done this for two years now, maybe not every day but often. Each morning write down three things you are grateful for, even if PND doesn’t let you feel that grateful right now. And each night write down three good moments from that day. This can seem like an impossible task when you’re in despair but there is almost always something that brings a brief moment of relief or happiness. For example, during my worst days one thing I wrote was “enjoying the taste of salmon at dinner time.” This seems odd I’m sure but I had been too anxious to have any appetite for days so enjoying the taste of something again felt like a breakthrough. Another was “my Godson asking me to play with him.” I likely didn’t have the energy or inclination to do it at the time but the mere fact that he wanted me to was my highlight that day. As I felt better, the joyful moments on my list became bigger. I found this technique gives me so much hope.
This isn’t a definitive list by any means. As I learn more and get stronger I’m sure I’ll find other methods too. Having tools in your pocket for dealing with anxiety and depression can empower you and give you confidence, which I personally believe is half the battle. Please feel free to share in the comments any other techniques that help you.