Chicago Family Doulas is a wonderful organization that cares about the physical and emotional wellbeing of moms and moms to be. We were recently asked by their team to contribute a blog article on dealing with anxiety during pregnancy, as the doulas noticed that their pregnant clients frequently report feelings of worry, irritability and stress (common complaints among all pregnant women!). We hope the article helps women understand their anxiety and gives useful ideas about how to cope: http://www.chicagofamilydoulas.com/anxiety-during-pregnancy/
Dear New Mom,
Not long ago, you gave birth to another human being: a precious, but demanding bundle of needs that has turned your world upside down, and in the process, unsettled every idea you had about yourself, your purpose, and your path. You likely feel raw and maybe a little bit lost. Maybe there are days you spend in a cocoon of sweet love that is different from anything you have known before. Every mom would like to remain there. Please try to remember that it is okay to have days when that love lurks in some inaccessible corner of your heart because you are just too tired to feel anything but desperate need for rest and normalcy. Be kind to yourself when you feel like this.
We are so good at being nurturing towards others but not ourselves. When you are in pain, try to tread gently and carefully, just like you do when walking into your sleeping baby’s nursery. Ask: what do I need now? How do I care for myself in this hard, hard moment? You are not weak because you are struggling. You are human. You are also undergoing one of the deepest, hardest transformations of your life: becoming a mother. It will change you forever, and you will fight and struggle with that; you will grieve and yearn for your old life. You will also find the ground again. There will be joy, delight, and connection, and a kaleidoscope of emotions, ever shifting in response to events, thoughts, people, milestones.
Whatever you feel, do not judge yourself. Motherhood is hard enough. Anyone who says it is not is untruthful. I hope you will seek and find your community – an emotional space where you can be real, where it is okay to be imperfect. You deserve support. We simply cannot mother alone.
If deep sadness has taken up residence in your heart and will not leave, causing you more and more pain, or if anxiety has left you feeling adrift and unable to rest, please do not wait to seek professional help. You will get better. You deserve to thrive.
New Mom, be kind to yourself. Start there. It won’t make everything easier or better, but it will be like a cool drink on a sweltering day. That’s a good start, isn’t it?
“Mindfulness” is not only a buzzword in the media, I realize it’s one in my office as well. I reference it constantly and try to incorporate it into my work and personal life consistently. Of course the emphasis there is on the word “try”. It doesn’t necessarily come naturally, and it certainly doesn’t come every day. So I decided to create an opportunity to be mindful, and figured I would share my experience.
As a parent (of a two year-old and a one year-old), I often find myself caught in a whirlwind of attempted ‘clean-up’. In my mind, it only makes sense for every new mess - crumbs, toys, books, clothes - to be cleared before the next one is made.
If you’re a parent yourself, or have even momentarily been in the presence of a child, you are undoubtedly laughing. I don’t blame you.
I am a parent, and I am a psychotherapist. I recognize that my illogical and unproductive response to this situation is the product of anxiety; a grasping for the reins in a rodeo - child-rearing - in which I often feel a lack of control. I get that. But sometimes, when spaghetti strands are flying, tears are falling, mile-high block towers are being knocked down, and my husband and I find ourselves locked in a shared, silent daze, I forget. I stop being present and get transfixed in a quest for neatness and order - a visual indication that the inmates aren’t running the asylum, but that my husband and I do indeed have some authority. I desperately want to clean up.
And yet of course I also want my children to have good - no, great - lives. I want them to have fun, to experiment, to learn, and to explore. I want them to have a childhood.
I want them to play with Play-Doh.
So they do. And I play with it too, talking to them about what I used to make with it when I was their ages. They love Play-Doh. Who doesn’t?
I can’t believe I never noticed how much of a mess it makes. It stains clothing, it inevitably dissipates into minuscule, brightly colored sticky crumbs, and even if you designate a space (the kitchen table, the one with the plastic placemats on top of an oil rag tablecloth, just in case!) where it should be kept, you will find it everywhere. It is my undoing.
So...I am opening up a can right now. I am going to play with Play-Doh mindfully. I figure it can’t be too big a leap to parenting more mindfully - being present when I parent - so here goes. Let the non-judgement begin!
Sigh. Okay, it’s cold. It’s really cold. And it smells so familiar - salty and undeniably of childhood. It is a little bit sticky, and certainly malleable. A thought of how it will end up in those minuscule crumbs crosses my mind...I let it pass and resume observation. A streak of pink amidst the blue - this batch has clearly gotten a tiny crumb of another batch in it. As I pull the Play-Doh into a long strand, the pink crumb stretches out against the blue. It looks like a shooting star across the night sky.
I check my breath. It’s quiet and easy, no trace of the deep inhale and exhale I exerted when I first opened the jar.
I turn to my ears. “This is probably the first and only time Play-Doh has ever heard silence”, I think to myself. In my imagination and memory, Play-Doh has always been accompanied by sound - lots of it. Squealing, talking, pounding, laughing, smashing.
I stop myself from crafting pronouncements about how I’m going to translate this moment of peace into reform of my cleanliness-craving ways. I did this exercise to have an experience, not to achieve an end result. And it worked.
And I enjoyed it.
And I will do it again.
Inhale, two, three, four. Exhale, two, three, four. Today you’re encouraged to focus on the breath as a grounding point. At least once today, take five to ten deep, slow breaths, inhaling and exhaling through the nose.
Mindfulness is a practice and the breath is an ever-present tool that can be used to help facilitate that practice. Often it can be difficult to just follow the breath, in and out, even just to the count of five breaths. These calming breathing gifs provide helpful visuals to stay focused on the breath. If you’re not able to access an electronic visual, tapping toes in count with the breath, lifting one toe on the inhale and lowering it on the exhale, can be useful. Another option is to place a hand on your belly, noticing the rise and fall of the navel on each breath.
Again, mindfulness is a practice; there’s no good or bad. There may be days when your mind wanders, flitting from thought to thought; notice that without judgement. Other days your mind may meander more slowly from thought to thought; notice that without judgement. The aim is to just practice. Inhale, two, three, four. Exhale, two, three, four.
To learn more about the power of the breath, click here
Now, perhaps more than ever, we are faced with messages of hate, rejection, fear and exclusion. I experience visceral reactions when hearing said messages spoken by our leaders, the media, people in our communities and beyond and notice the impact on both my physical and emotional wellbeing. Changing these messages must begin at an individual level and must start with self-love and acceptance.
Loving-kindness has been described as an unconditional, inclusive love; one that is independent of whether or not one is worthy of love. Once we have the ability to practice self-acceptance, we are then able to extend it to others.
Loving-kindness, or metta, has many variations with the same principle of extending love and peace. Today’s practice will be an abridged and personal practice meant to introduce the concepts of loving-kindness meditation.
Begin by choosing three hopes for your life and formulate those wishes into three to four simple phrases.
May I be safe and protected.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.
May I be happy.
May I be free from suffering.
May I be accepting of myself just as I am.
May I be peaceful with whatever is happening around me.
Gently close your eyes and bring your attention to your chest or “heart center.” Your heart center is the anchor of this practice and will be the place to return to if you notice your mind wandering. Breathing in and out, direct your phrases to yourself several times:
May I be healthy and strong.
May I be happy.
May I be free from suffering.
Notice any self-judgment or self-hatred and simply return to the breath and your phrases.
Next, direct your wishes to someone else that you love or feel thankful for. This may be a parent, friend, child, mentor, or partner. Continue noticing any thoughts that may arise and return your attention back to the loving-kindness phrases.
Next, move to someone you feel neutral about; someone for whom you feel neither strong like nor dislike. As you repeat the phrases, allow yourself to feel loving care for their welfare. This may be difficult as we tend to quickly categorize others as either positive or negative.
Moving on, visualize someone you have anger towards, difficulty with or with whom you hold resentments. Repeat your phrases for this person. If you are struggling with this, you may add, “To the best of my ability, I wish that you be….” Allow the wishes to expand through your body, mind and heart.
Finally, begin to extend your hopes and wishes universally to all living beings:
May all beings be healthy and strong.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be free from suffering.
As you conclude, notice, without judgment, any feelings of tenderness, joy, anger, grief, sadness or hope that may have arisen during your practice. Acknowledge all of these as signs of your heart opening and softening to what it holds.
Mountain Mindfulness Exercise
When feeling uneasy, restless or anxious, I gravitate towards mindfulness exercises that ground me and serve as a reminder that I am NOT my struggle. What a welcome insight in times of difficulty! Mindfulness practice does not have the power to stop whatever pain we are experiencing, but it can create opportunity to observe whatever is happening without judgment, with gentleness and also recognition that what we are in touch with is bound to pass. I take comfort in this awareness, especially when pummeled by fear or burdened by sadness.
Mountain mindfulness exercise is one of my favorite mindfulness exercises, partly due to my love of mountains, and partly due to the fact that when I am weary or doubtful of capacity to remain resilient in the face of stress, it powerfully re-ignites my faith.
Begin by finding a comfortable position and taking a few deeper breaths to center yourself. Be present to your breath for a while and when you are ready, begin to visualize a majestic mountain. Take some time to paint a vivid picture of the mountain in your mind. Now imagine that you are this mountain. Still. Solid. Unmoving. Visualize the mountain as seasons begin to change. See it in the spring, in the summer, then in the fall and winter. Notice all the changes. Notice changing weather on the mountain. Sometimes there are storms and heavy downpours, at other times the sun is shining and there is a gentle breeze. Lastly, notice how the mountain changes through the course of a day. Take time with this visualization.
Feel yourself unwavering and grounded as all these changes are occurring. You are simply observing, remembering that all will pass: your thoughts, emotions, sensations are transient, akin to fleeting weather patterns.
Letting Go of Self-Image
Our self-focused culture emphasizes the importance of self-image and constantly sends us messages of how we should look, should act, should be. This proves to be exhausting!
Today’s practice is inspired by a quote from Pema Chodron which beautifully explains what we are missing when we live our lives entrenched in self-centered thoughts.
Being preoccupied with our self-image is like being deaf and blind. It's like standing in the middle of a vast field of wildflowers with a black hood over our heads. It's like coming upon a tree of singing birds while wearing earplugs.
In this exercise, we will let go of preconceived notions of how we should present to the world and become more connected with the here and now. By accepting ourselves just as we are in this moment, we free ourselves from negative self-talk and gain increased awareness of our surroundings.
To begin, find a comfortable, preferably seated position, and gently close your eyes. With every inhale, silently state to yourself “I am enough.” With every exhale, gently release any tension you may feel in your body or any thoughts self-criticism that may arise. You may observe the urge to do this exercise “correctly.” If this thought arises, simply return to the statement “I am enough.” Repeat this process for 5 minutes, continuing to notice any judgments that may show up during the practice.
When we begin to move away from self-centeredness and the need to be a certain way, we open ourselves up to fully engaging in the world around us. I hope you are able to more fully notice your personal “field of wildflowers” today, whatever that may be!
In winter, a practice I use to bookend my days is mindful walking. I focus on the feeling of my feet striking and pushing off the pavement that lies between the train and my destination. Tasks and memories and judgments and desires surface and distract me. I notice the distractions, accept my distractibility, and return to focus on walking. I observe the mechanics of my footfall, starting with my heels and ending with my toes. Distractions continue and I notice how generous it feels to accept rather than judge them. I set interruptions on hold and return my focus to the walk, again and again. I notice that my feet keep moving and I arrive at my destination even though I don’t attend to my distractions, and even though my concentration is full of static. Just before I cross the threshold of my destination, I notice that I can fully accept my flawed focus. I feel grateful for arriving and end my little walk with a slow, deep breath. I start and end my day with firsthand proof that movement can be comprised of small steps and fragments of consciousness.