How I Got the Best of Maternal Anxiety (Before It Got the Best of Me)

When excessive worrying started to rob me of sleep, I transformed my lifestyle.

Asian Mother Holding Baby Bright Room Windows
Photo: paulaphoto/Shutterstock

I've always been a worrier. As a child, my nightly prayers included a ritualized list of fates I hoped to avoid—car accident, home invasion, asteroid strike. Mostly I feared for the safety of my loved ones, suffering from a condition I once read described as pre-traumatic stress disorder. It's no less than the human condition, of course. We all know the clock is ticking; some people just can't turn off the sound.

Having a baby intensified my anxiety as a new kind of list danced through my head: SIDS, choking, meningitis masquerading as routine fever. My maternal fears ranged from the rational (global warming) to the patently ridiculous (dry drowning—which is a thing, but please don't Google it—caused by overzealous bathtub splashing).

Enter insomnia: I'd succumb to sleep the moment my head touched the pillow, as any exhausted new mother might. Minutes later, on the edge of deep slumber, I'd rocket back to consciousness, heart pounding, struggling to breathe. The feeling of being smothered was so terrifying that I often shook my husband awake. Then the moment would pass, he'd settle back to sleep, and I'd lie there as alert as if someone had doused me with ice water. When was the last time I checked the pressure gauges on the fire extinguishers? I've been getting sloppy about tightening the car seat harness. Why haven't I spent more time with my lips pressed against my child's head?

All moms worry. The Latin meaning of "mamma," in fact, is "giant ball of jangled nerves." (Okay, it means "breast.") Dads worry, too, but research has shown that having a baby alters a woman's brain, amplifying regions that control anxiety and protectiveness. Hormones plunge and surge and with them, our emotions. The milk-stimulating hormone prolactin, for example, has a complex relationship with dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure. Our old friend estrogen goes into her usual buzz-killing retreat. "Times of relatively low or rapidly decreasing levels of estrogen tend to coincide with mood changes," says Patricia De Marco Centeno, M.D., a California-based psychiatrist specializing in maternal mental health. "These times include the second half of the menstrual cycle, the postpartum period, and menopause. Ring a bell?"

Up to 20 percent of mothers experience postpartum anxiety; women with a genetic predisposition are most at risk. It was a sleep specialist who tipped me off, gently suggesting I was experiencing not sleep apnea, but adult night terrors—a vivid fight-or-flight sensation that causes, for example, some war veterans to lash out in their sleep. The explanation resonated. A few times, I admitted to the doctor, I'd bolted out of bed and sprinted down the hallway, alarmed husband in pursuit.

Anxiety takes many forms, and how to treat it is a personal decision. Before considering medication or therapy, I decided to make some lifestyle changes. First up was sleep hygiene. As a writer, I often worked in the evenings after the kids went to bed (my son is now four, my daughter almost two). Now I draw the line at 9 p.m., after which point emails go unanswered, text messages get cursory glances, room lights get dimmed. I have learned to feel the rising wave of sleepiness and—as much as real life allows—ride it straight to bed.

I resolved to do yoga every day. A wealth of studies have demonstrated the anxiety-quelling benefits of yoga and mindfulness meditation, which emphasize structured breathing and focusing on the present. Boston University researchers, for example, found that yoga raised levels of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter. In 2018, deep into the wellness revolution, yoga-as-medicine is hardly groundbreaking. But for this busy mom, carving out the time has been a small miracle. (Shout-out to kindhearted YouTube guru Adriene Mishler.)

One of the biggest changes I made was somewhat accidental. Another family member's health issues prompted me to reinvent our household diet. We now focus on whole foods and tripled our veggie intake (and my time in the kitchen). The truth is, I'm still not sure how or what part of the diet made me feel better, or whether it's beneficial for everyone. But almost instantly, I felt calmer.

While it's wise to be wary of cure-all diets, the gut-brain connection is undeniable. The digestive tract is so full of neurons that some scientists call it the "second brain." About 95 percent of the body's serotonin, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, is found in the gut. The gut also signals when something's wrong, hence the expression "butterflies in your stomach."

Because I implemented so many new habits at once, it's impossible to say which had the most impact. But a year after revamping my lifestyle, I'm sleeping better. The sudden wake-ups still occur, but they're gentler and less frequent; no more midnight sprints down the hall. When I do lie awake (I see you, PMS), I'm simply awake, not ruminating over stranger danger or whether I've secured the baby Tylenol (do they have to make it taste so good?).

The truth is, my anxiety will never leave me. I can't diet or downward-dog it away. I certainly can't make the world safe for my children. And, man, I love them. But that's exactly why I'm sticking with my regimen. The anxiety beast keeps nipping at my heels, ready to gorge when my kids start driving. For now, I'm a step ahead, with these pieces of wisdom in mind.

You Don't Have to Go It Alone

Your baby has plenty of reasons to wake you up at night, from hunger to sore gums to diaper leaks—at least those can be quelled with the right diapers. (Huggies Little Movers contour to her body to keep her dry. Plus, they offer a SizeUp Indicator that shows you when your baby needs to move up a diaper size). If anxiety-led worries are adding to your sleep woes, don't think twice about seeking professional help.

You Can Talk It Out

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be a valuable tool for anxiety sufferers. According to Amanda Petrik, a Kansas-based licensed clinical professional counselor, mothers frequently engage in two types of cognitive distortions: fortune telling and catastrophizing. With fortune telling, you assume a negative outcome—borrowing trouble, as the saying goes. For example, "What if my baby stops breathing in her sleep?" Catastrophizing blows a situation out of proportion ("He is sick, so he will die"). A mental health professional can help you identify these irrational thoughts and replace them with more realistic ones.

Medication Might Be an Option

There's a reason holistic practices such as yoga fall under the umbrella of "complementary medicine." Countless women cope with anxiety with the help of medication, and some antidepressant drugs are well-studied with respect to breastfeeding. Be sure to talk to your doctor. Ultimately, "there are no shoulds" in anxiety treatment, says Eva Selhub, M.D., an adjunct scientist at Tufts University's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. "Life is hard."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles