Five things parents can do to help reduce their anxiety

Becoming a new parent can often be fraught with worry and angst. Here are five tips to help.

Parenthood. It’s a game changer. There’s no handbook, at times it’s fraught with unknowns, and the responsibility of a new life weighs upon us. Often sleep deprived, shower less and running off random bites of cold toast, many new parents are filled with worry.

Worry isn’t altogether bad. It can help keep us on our toes and wanting to do well. Too much worry however and we can become incapacitated and potentially drop into depression. And postnatal anxiety and depression are very common and very real issues for new parents. 

Unsure of how to shake off the anxiety? Here are 5 tips that might help:

1. Practice your breathing

Often anxiety is kicked off by a series of physical signs and symptoms, which then sends a message to our brain and we tend to interpret these signs as a threat. “Quick! Something bad is happening!”. That can send us into a spin, and our actions tend to be panicked, which then heightens any physical signs we were having, and thus the cycle continues. So we need to try to put a circuit breaker in. 

Enter calm breathing. 

It’s not going to erase the issue, but it is going to help slow things down, help distract you from your worries and help get a bit of space between your thoughts and your body. Just breathe in slowly through your nose for three seconds, and breathe out through your mouth slowly for three seconds. Feel your diaphragm expanding when you breathe in, and feel it shrink when you breathe out. 

2. Check your negative self talk

Once you’ve tended to those physical signs, it’s time to check your self-talk. It can be such an empowering thing to know that you’re in the driver’s seat. Often you can turn your feelings around by understanding what we’re saying to ourselves and how that’s impacting on our mood.

Those early days of parenting are often filled with all sorts of self-talk; “is this right?”, “how can one baby poop so much??” or “will this baby ever sleep?”. 

At times that self-talk can take a more negative tone; “why won’t they stop?!”, “I can’t do this anymore”. When we think in this negative way, naturally we’re going to feel worried. 

If we just stop, take a deep breath and ask ourselves “OK, what am I saying to myself that’s making me feel so stressed?” and then look at whether there’s another way to think about things. 

Having some ready-to-go coping statements, like “I’m doing the best I can” or “we’re both learning the ropes here” can often help until you’re feeling like there’s more in the tank to tackle those worrisome thoughts. 

3. Get those worries out

One of the biggest things about anxiety is that it’s an ‘internalising’ issue.

We commonly bury things deep down inside, or keep worries to ourselves. As a new parent, sometimes we fear opening up about our struggles. Sometimes by simply talking about it, we get the worry out of our head and into the open and it can give us some perspective. If there is no one you feel you can get your worries out with, write them down. Get it all out on paper, to help you get some distance from them. 

4. Eat, sleep and exercise

OK, so let’s not bother with the statement “sleep when the baby sleeps” as that can sometimes be impossible, and at times places even more pressure on parents. But it is important to be gentle with yourself. Even if you lie down (not necessarily sleep) for 10 minutes, that can be of great benefit. 

Eating is also important for helping to regulate your mood. Aside from giving us energy, food helps to stabilise our blood sugars, and thus stablise our mood. If you’re not eating at all, or eating too many sugary foods, then this can lead to highs and lows in blood sugar levels, and this can make you feel even worse. 
Trying to eat where you can – why not carry and apple or have a bag of unsalted nuts in your bag, or munch on a carrot when you feel peckish.

Exercise can help combat anxiety too. You don’t have to go sign up to ultra-marathons, even if you can take a gentle walk with bub in the pram, or do a yoga class at home. Anything to get the body gently moving. This can help with energy levels, and balancing out mood. Research has shown that regular exercise can act as part of an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression and anxiety. 

5. Get that village together

It’s true, no (wo)man is an island. One of the best protective factors against anxiety and depression is social support. In this digital age, we sometimes need to get creative with how we access our support. So accessing support may be in the form of online mother’s groups, or a text to a good friend. It could be Facetime with your parents if they don’t live nearby, or accepting the offer of help from a neighbour. 

If you feel that the anxiety is getting too much for you to cope with, or you’ve tried all the tips in the book and still can’t shake the worries, then it’s important to speak to your GP or maternal child health nurse. They will be able to point you in the right direction for getting support. 

In the meantime, we’re still on the hunt for that “How to be a perfect parent” handbook!
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