Understand Postpartum Anxiety: Why Thoughts of Escape are Normal and How the ACT Approach Can Help New Mothers Cope
Becoming a new parent is a life-changing experience that brings joy, love, and excitement. What we see about being a new parent on social media shows only a fraction of the story. #babybliss
The newborn baby period comes with many less talked-about emotions. New mothers may feel overwhelmed, anxious, and sad and often describe feeling trapped in the new role. An array of distressing thoughts often accompanies these emotions. Here are some common examples:
Common Thoughts for New Parents:
- I just want to disappear
- I want to run away
- It would be so nice just to sleep forever
- I wish I could go back in time before I had a baby
- Can I just put the baby back inside me for a few weeks so I can be by myself again?
Unfortunately, most people do not share these thoughts with others, leading new mothers and fathers to believe that they are the only ones having these thoughts and that something must be deeply wrong with them.
Let me be clear: having these thoughts does not mean something is wrong with you or your parenting ability. It can mean that you need more support and strategies to manage your overwhelm.
Postpartum Depression & Anxiety: A Brief Overview
Postpartum depression is a type of depression experienced by new mothers after giving birth. It is a common mental health condition affecting approximately 1 in 7 mothers.
While many people are familiar with postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety often goes undiscussed, even though it’s just as prevalent. Symptoms of postpartum anxiety can include excessive worrying, racing thoughts, feeling overwhelmed, irritability, and difficulty sleeping. These symptoms, especially the immense sense of overwhelm, can make it challenging for new mothers to enjoy their time with their newborns and may lead to thoughts of escape or regret.
It is not uncommon for new parents with postpartum depression or anxiety to have thoughts of escape, suicide, or even momentarily wishing they never had a baby. While these thoughts might seem alarming, it’s essential to know that they are more common than you think and a perfectly logical way for your brain to cope with a highly challenging situation.
Why Am I Having These “Bad” Thoughts? Am I a “Bad” Parent?
One way to understand why thoughts of escape or regret may occur during the postpartum period is to think of the brain as a “problem-solving machine.” Russ Harris, the internationally acclaimed ACT trainer, uses the metaphor of our minds as “problem-solving machines.” This problem-solving ability evolved as it has been vital for survival, helping us identify and resolve issues to protect ourselves and our families. When faced with a challenge or problem, our brains naturally search for solutions to eliminate or avoid the problem, an evolutionarily adaptive trait. Some of these solutions are helpful, and some are not.
New mothers face various physical, emotional, and psychological changes postpartum. New fathers can also struggle with the sudden and intense changes of having a new baby. These changes can create a perfect storm for anxiety, kicking the brain’s problem-solving mechanism into overdrive and leading to thoughts of escape or wishing that the baby wasn’t there.
It is essential to understand that having these thoughts does not make you a bad parent. Instead, they are a natural response to the intense emotions and challenges of being a new mother. Thoughts of escape or regret are a normal part of the postpartum experience, not a reflection of your parenting abilities.
Why Your Brain Wants to Escape
Here is an example of how the problem-solving mind can be useful. Imagine you are walking through a forest, and you suddenly come across a large, aggressive-looking bear. Your problem-solving brain quickly assesses the situation and evaluates potential courses of action, such as climbing a tree, using a deterrent like bear spray, or slowly backing away to avoid provoking the animal. In this scenario, your brain’s ability to rapidly identify and execute a solution is crucial for your survival and well-being.
However, this problem-solving process can sometimes backfire, particularly during the postpartum period. Consider this situation: you’re a new parent experiencing postpartum anxiety. You’re overwhelmed by the responsibilities of caring for a newborn and dealing with sleep deprivation.
In this case, your problem-solving brain might start generating thoughts of escape or regret, such as wishing you could return to your life before the baby or fantasizing about leaving your family. While these thoughts might be a natural stress response, they don’t provide a helpful solution.
In our first example of the bear encounter, the problem-solving brain is adaptive because it helps you respond effectively to a real and immediate environmental threat. In the second example, it is not adaptive because it aims to solve the problem of being overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed is an internal, not external, problem. Yet, we are trying to apply the same problem-solving approach to “get rid of it.” Unfortunately, like trying to fight your way out of quicksand, trying to get rid of emotional distress usually backfires.
What can I do about these thoughts and feelings? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for Postpartum Mood & Anxiety Disorders
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a therapeutic approach that can improve coping with postpartum anxiety and distressing thoughts. ACT focuses on teaching skills to help individuals to respond more effectively to painful situations and emotions.
Here are some key concepts of ACT that can help postpartum parents navigate feeling overwhelmed:
Acknowledging and Allowing:
- Allowing your thoughts and feelings to be present without trying to change or avoid them.
- Allowing does not mean condoning or liking these thoughts or feelings, just acknowledging their existence!
- When experiencing thoughts of escape or regret, recognize that they are a natural response to your current situation and allow them to be there without judgment.
Unhooking from thoughts:
- Practicing techniques to help you create space between yourself and your thoughts so they don’t take over your experience or dictate your actions. It is about seeing the thoughts, not seeing FROM the thoughts.
- Practice observing your thoughts as temporary events rather than facts or reflections of reality. This skill can help you see that thoughts of escape or regret are just thoughts, not indicators of your worth as a parent or the quality of your life.
- For example, imagine you are sitting on a hilltop and observing your thoughts as passing cars on the road. You would not leave your hilltop to start investigating or becoming involved with each vehicle.
- Preface a thought with: “I am having the thought that….”
- Name the story – for example, the “I’ll never have a moment to myself again story.”
- Thank your brain for attempting to problem solve
- Focusing on the present moment means fully engaging with your current experience without getting caught up in thoughts about the past or the future.
- Try not to get lost in thoughts about getting through the rest of the week or even the rest of the night – come back to the exact moment you are in
- Notice when your mind wanders and repeatedly bring it back to the present moment.
- Engage in activities that help you stay grounded in the present, focus on the task at hand, and tune in to your physical senses, such as sight, touch, hearing, and smell.
- ACT encourages individuals to identify their higher-level values and use them as a guide for making decisions and taking action.
- Your values can be specific to motherhood, such as being present with your child, or they can be broader, such as being kind to yourself and others.
- By clarifying your deeper priorities, you can develop a sense of purpose and direction to motivate you to navigate new parenthood challenges.
- When the situation feels very overwhelming and uncomfortable – use your values to remind yourself why you are willing to tolerate the discomfort.
- Lastly, ACT emphasizes the importance of taking actions that align with your values, even when experiencing difficult emotions or thoughts.
- Committing to value-driven actions can build a meaningful and fulfilling life, even in the face of postpartum anxiety and depression.
- For example, suppose you value being present with your child. In that case, you might set a goal to spend a brief amount of uninterrupted time each day focused solely on your child.
- For example, if you value self-compassion, you might commit to daily self-care activities like practicing mindfulness or attending weekly therapy sessions. You could commit to speaking kindly and compassionately to yourself no matter what you’ve accomplished or not accomplished that day.
Feeling overwhelmed and experiencing thoughts of escape are common but often overlooked experiences for new mothers. The brain’s natural problem-solving tendencies can sometimes lead to distressing thoughts of escape or regret, and these thoughts are a normal response to the challenges of new parenthood.
By practicing acceptance, making space from thoughts, bringing your attention back to the present, and aligning actions with your values, you can learn to navigate the postpartum period with greater resilience.
This article is not a substitute for professional help. Please speak to a mental health professional if you are having thoughts of suicide or harming your baby, especially if you intend to follow through on these thoughts. You can find a qualified professional through organizations such as the Psychological Support International (PSI).
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Fairbrother, N., Janssen, P., Antony, M. M., Tucker, E., & Young, A. H. (2016). Perinatal anxiety disorder prevalence and incidence. Journal of Affective Disorders, 200, 148-155. DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2015.12.082