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Do you ever find yourself in a season of high stress? The kids have sports and after-school programs. You and your spouse have increased work demands. The extended family wants time with you, and friends want to hang out. You are overwhelmed with busyness. 

Increased stress levels, when not managed, can lead to burnout. 

Burnout happens when you are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted from prolonged stress. 

There are three dimensions to burnout: exhaustion, feelings of cynicism, and detachment. We’re all in danger of suffering from burnout if we don’t take steps to manage stress.

A typical response when suffering from burnout is to practice self-care. Self-care is anything you do regularly to maintain physical, mental, and emotional well-being. 

But while self-care is essential, is it the solution?

Psychologist Justin D. Henderson, Ph.D., suggests that self-care is not the solution to burnout. “Self-care should certainly be an individual’s priority but not to solely address burnout,” says Henderson. 

Self-care is valuable for enhancing mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional health. We should partake in self-care proactively, not solely as a reaction to high stress. Self-care should move us toward our goals. When we utilize self-care to relieve stress, it’s only being used defensively.

Self-care should be more than a solution when stressed out. Practicing self-care regularly helps us build a solid foundation for our life and well-being. 

So, if self-care isn’t the solution to burnout, what is?

Here are a few steps you can take to help resolve burnout.

1. Get to the source.

Let’s start with a self-evaluation. What is causing the stress in your life? 

These are a few options to begin with:

  • Issues at work
  • An overloaded schedule
  • Caretaking (for a child or someone who’s ill)
  • Relationship problems

2. Identify changes you can make immediately.

What can you do now to lighten the load? A small step is still a step in the right direction.

Looking at the examples above, here are some small steps.

  • Have a conversation with your employer about your workload or schedule. 
  • Hold a family meeting to discuss what everyone has going on. Awareness is the first step in reigning in overloaded schedules.
  • Ask a loved one or friend to watch your child for a little bit so you can step away.
  • Ask yourself if you’ve set and communicated clear expectations.

3. Confide in someone.

Feeling burned out is a significant burden to carry alone. Choose someone you trust and take them out for coffee. Ask them if you can share what’s going on.

4. Set boundaries.

Your time is your most valuable resource. Protect it. Set limits on how much of your time you give away. This means you must say no to some things in your life.

5. Be compassionate with yourself.

Burnout can bring on feelings of failure. Treat yourself the way you would treat a loved one experiencing burnout. Show love, compassion, and support. Allow yourself to feel the emotions that come, but don’t dwell on them. You are capable of choosing a different reaction. And if you don’t feel like you can, see number seven below.

6. Take care of yourself.

This is where self-care does come in. But it needs to be done as a foundation for a healthier you. 

7. Talk to a professional.

Sometimes you need to speak to a counselor or a coach to help you work through issues. That’s ok. Get the help you need to restore your hope and health.

We’re all susceptible to burnout because stress is an aspect of daily life. Unfortunately, it’s not going anywhere. But we can take these steps to help us manage it and thrive.

Sources:

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World psychiatry: Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 103–111.

Understanding the Stress Response

Self-Care is Not the Solution to Burnout

Why Self-Care Is Not Enough to Beat Burnout

Burnout Recovery: 11 Strategies to Help You Reset

Other blogs by First Things First:

Can Self-Care Become Selfish?

Signs of Parental Burnout

How to Forgive Yourself

Learning from your mistakes allows you to move forward.

Forgiveness is often defined as letting go of feelings of resentment, anger, or bitterness toward someone who has wronged you. Forgiving others can be tough. But we all can forgive. While you may be able to forgive others, how are you at forgiving yourself for mistakes you’ve made or wrongs you’ve committed?

Forgiving yourself requires empathy, compassion, kindness, and understanding. We all make mistakes. However, there is power in acknowledging, learning from, and moving beyond our mistakes. 

Why should I forgive myself?

Forgiving yourself is a big deal for your own personal growth. When you forgive yourself, you improve your self-image. Studies have shown that those who practice self-forgiveness experience lower levels of depression and anxiety, too. 

Forgiving also impacts your physical health. Research shows that forgiveness can reduce blood pressure and improve heart health.

How do I forgive myself?

Dr. Marilyn Cornish proposed a four-step approach to self-forgiveness, suggesting key actions that can be helpful:

  • Responsibility
  • Remorse
  • Restoration
  • Renewal

Kendra Cherry, MS, offers further insight on Cornish’s approach to forgiving yourself. Here’s a summary of her work.

Accept Responsibility

Some say you just have to forgive and forget, but Cherry says it’s about more than forgetting the past and moving on. The keys are to accept what happened and show compassion to yourself. It may be the hardest step in self-forgiveness, but acknowledging and accepting what you’ve done is a huge step forward. It’s rarely easy for anyone to look in the mirror and see their own mistakes.

Show Remorse

Even after you accept responsibility, you may be overcome with negative feelings like guilt and shame. Believe it or not, it’s normal and healthy to feel guilty when you’ve wronged someone. Cherry says that feeling guilty lets you know you’re a good person who has made a mistake or wronged someone, so it can lead to positive change.

On the other hand, shame makes you feel like your whole self is wrong. Left unchecked, shame and feelings of worthlessness can lead to addiction, depression, or aggression.

Mistakes are just those: mistakes. Remember that your mistakes don’t define you or make you a bad person.

Apologize and Restore Trust

Apologizing and repairing damage is vital to forgiveness. Cherry says this is just as important when you are forgiving yourself. Apologizing shows that you recognize the mistake and feel bad for what you’ve done. Offering an apology to someone you’ve wronged allows you to start rebuilding trust with them. It also enables you to work through the guilt and restore confidence in yourself.

Focus on Renewal

Cherry acknowledges that we all make mistakes and have some regrets, but she notes that it isn’t helpful to focus on those things. In fact, an unhealthy focus can damage your self-esteem and self-worth. Self-forgiveness allows you to move beyond your mistakes and grow.

One of my favorite movie lines is from Batman Begins. Alfred looks at Bruce Wayne and, quoting Bruce’s father, says, “Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Making mistakes is a normal part of life. We’re all guilty of it, but what matters is that we learn from our mistakes and move forward.

A little side note on self-forgiveness…

Self-forgiveness is important when reflecting on your mistakes and ways you’ve wronged others. However, people who have suffered abuse, trauma, or loss may also feel shame and guilt even though they could not control what happened to them. Hear me say this: You are not responsible for forgiving yourself for what someone else did to you. If you need help, a counselor can help you walk through processing the guilt, shame, and pain you’ve experienced.

Other blogs:

Questions Couples Can Ask To Improve Communication – First Things First

Is Conflict in Marriage Inevitable? – First Things First

7 Ways to Increase Trust in Marriage – First Things First

To learn more about self-forgiveness, check out these resources:

How to Forgive Yourself

What Is Self-Forgiveness and Why Is It Important To Your Mental Health?

Sources:

Taking the Steps to Forgive Yourself

Sarah J. Peterson, Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Stephanie D. Womack, Joshua N. Hook, Don E. Davis & Brandon J. Griffin (2017) The benefits of self-forgiveness on mental health: Evidence from correlational and experimental research, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12:2, 159-168.

Marillyn A. Cornish, Nathaniel G. Wade (2015) A Therapeutic Model of Self-Forgiveness With Intervention Strategies for Counselors, Journal of Counseling and Development, 93:1, 96-104.

Kyler R. Rasmussen, Madelynn Stackhouse, Susan D. Boon, Karly Comstock & Rachel Ross (2019) Meta-analytic connections between forgiveness and health: the moderating effects of forgiveness-related distinctions, Psychology & Health, 34:5, 515-534.

What to Do When You Feel Compassion Fatigue

Here are some ways to take the proper steps to care for yourself as you care for others.

Have you ever felt like you’ve cared so much you just can’t anymore? Like you’re exhausted from taking care of others? Even if you’ve never heard of compassion fatigue, you may be familiar with what it is. Maybe more familiar than you’d like.

What is compassion fatigue?

Psychologist Charles Figley says it’s “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.”

In essence, it’s feeling like you have no more empathy to give.

Compassion fatigue is most often associated with health care workers, first responders, law enforcement, therapists and at-home caregivers. But we’re all at risk of feeling this way.

Let’s face it: Life can be downright draining. 

Caring for sick or aging loved ones may be wearing you out. Perhaps you’re tired of giving grace to your spouse. Maybe you don’t feel like you have anything left to give your kids. The non-stop flow of information about the suffering around the world can overwhelm you. All these things (and more) can contribute to a feeling of emotional exhaustion.

The root of compassion fatigue is in caring for others.

It would be easy to confuse compassion fatigue with burnout, but they’re a bit different. According to the American Institute of Stress, burnout is marked by emotional exhaustion and withdrawal associated with cumulative stress at work. [Read https://firstthings.org/7-ways-to-prevent-burnout/.]

Compassion fatigue occurs because of the emotional strain of supporting those who are suffering from something traumatic. It is rooted in caring for others. It’s not just a workplace thing, but it can co-exist with burnout, especially for those in service professions.

Look for these symptoms.

Some symptoms of compassion fatigue are:

  • Physical and psychological exhaustion
  • Feeling helpless, hopeless, or powerless
  • A decreased sense of personal and professional accomplishment
  • A change in your worldview or spirituality
  • Drastic shifts in mood
  • A dramatic withdrawal from social connections

Since compassion fatigue affects your mental and physical health, it also impacts the quality of your relationships with your partner, children, friends, and co-workers.

Remember, caring for yourself properly can help you care effectively for others. So, if (or when) you find that you’ve run out of empathy to give, understanding how to combat those feelings can help you move forward. 

Fighting Compassion Fatigue

Psychiatrist Yazhini Srivathsal, M.D., offers a few ways to combat compassion fatigue:

  • Follow general self-care guidelines – get plenty of sleep, eat well, exercise regularly, and nurture social relationships.
  • Practice gratitude and being engaged in the present moment.
  • Avoid information overload. If too much negative information stresses you out, take steps to decrease how much you consume.
  • Engage in activities that rejuvenate you.
  • Understand that pain and suffering are normal, and you have no control over them.
  • Focus on what you can control, like your thoughts and feelings. You may not be able to control what happens around you or to you, but you can control how you react.
  • If needed, seek professional help.

Helping others is an important component of healthy relationships. Your partner, your children, and your loved ones depend on you, and that can be overwhelming. When you feel compassion fatigue begins to set in, take the proper steps to care for yourself. If you see these signs in your loved ones, stepping in and offering to walk alongside them can alleviate some of their load.

Other helpful blogs:

What to Do When Everything Feels Hopeless – First Things First

How to Stay Motivated as a Parent – First Things First

How to Stay Motivated During Marriage Challenges – First Things First

5 Benefits of Being Thankful – First Things First

Sources:

Compassion Fatigue – The American Institute of Stress

Are You Suffering from Compassion Fatigue? | Psychology Today

Compassion Fatigue: Symptoms To Look For

Are you experiencing compassion fatigue?

Compassion Fatigue: Watch for These Warning Signs | Banner

5 Ways to Start the New Year Off Right

Reflection and intention can help you reach your goals.

One more year is almost in the rearview, and the countdown to the new year is on. Can you believe it? If you’re like me, you may already be thinking about new opportunities and goals to help you start the new year right.

If you’re rolling your eyes at the thought of “New Year’s Resolutions,” let me just state the obvious: There’s nothing significant about January 1 when it comes to goals. There is nothing magical about new year’s resolutions. In fact, research has found that only about 45% of people even make resolutions. (And 35% of those who do quit them before the end of January.)

So, are they even worth it? While resolutions may not be the most successful, there is a lot of benefit in setting goals for yourself. Goals can help you become who you want to be, provide stability and drive you. January 1 gives you a good starting point. The calendar flips to another year, and it’s often seen as a fresh start. 

But, how do we start the new year off right?

1. Reflect on the previous year. 

Healthy things grow. Healthy people are no different, but to grow, we have to see where we are. Start by looking back at the previous year and ask yourself:

What went well last year?

What did I accomplish?

How did my life improve?

What goals did I abandon? Why?

What hurdles did I overcome?

What do I wish I had spent more time doing?

2. Ask yourself, “What do I want to improve upon and why?”

You have the best opportunity to achieve the goals you set for yourself. Be careful not to set your goals based on what another person or our culture says. Your goals are about your health, finances, career, relationships, or whatever you choose. No matter how good a goal is, the success rate is diminished if it’s set for the wrong reasons. Side note: There is no magical number of goals either. Maybe you just need to start with one and focus on it until you achieve it.

3. Set SMART goals.

Ever heard of a SMART goal? SMART is an acronym coined in the Management Review Journal in 1981. It means specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. It’s a business model for setting goals, but it translates well to other types. Here’s a brief explanation of a SMART goal:

  • Specific: Your resolution should be absolutely clear. Instead of “I want to get in better shape,” say, “I want to run a 5k in 3 months.”
  • Measurable: You need a way to measure your progress. Depending on your goal, you may have to search, but look for a tool to measure your progress. Choose a method that you’ll stick with.
  • Achievable: If it’s not attainable, you’ll probably give up too soon. Don’t try to jump too big, too fast. If there’s a big, lofty goal you want to achieve in the future, that’s great. Break it down into smaller goals and take those on. It’s a lot less daunting to say you want to lose 5 pounds in 2 months than to say you want to lose 50 pounds.
  • Relevant: Does the goal matter to you? Is this something you want, not anyone else?
  • Time-bound: Every goal needs a timeframe. The timeline must be realistic. Set a target achievement date and set benchmarks along the way. 

4. Build a support system.

Achieving goals is a lot easier when you surround yourself with people cheering you on. Come alongside friends or family, and all agree to share your goals and support each other. Accountability will push you to keep at it. If you need to, find an online group with similar goals and journey together.

5. Write it down.

This seems simple, but there’s power in writing your goals, perhaps in your planner or on a sticky note in a prominent place. Make sure they are somewhere highly visible so you can read them over and over. And you can check off that goal once you achieve it. 

Go ahead and set those goals for the new year. But take the time to make a plan. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” 

Other resources:

Gratitude Challenge

How Failed New Year’s Resolutions Can Affect Marriages – First Things First

Relationship Resolutions – First Things First

10 Resolutions for a Healthy Marriage – First Things First

5 Benefits of Being Thankful

Gratitude can be a great thing.

Have you ever wondered how to make life better? How can you be happier, healthier, or more fulfilled? Having an attitude of gratitude could be one answer. You may have heard this little catchphrase before. It’s possible you just rolled your eyes, too.

But does being thankful work?

What is gratitude anyway? 

Gratitude is the state of being thankful. It’s showing appreciation for what you have or receive. 

Dr. Robert Emmons, the gratitude guru, takes the definition further. He describes it using two key components:

  1. Gratitude is “an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits we’ve received.”
  2. Gratitude is our recognition “that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves.”

So, how can being thankful benefit your life? I’m so glad you asked. 

Here are 5 benefits of gratitude:

1. Gratitude can help relieve stress.

We all deal with stress daily. Research has found that being grateful might keep our minds from getting so worked up worrying about things. When you’re in the middle of a stressful situation, refocusing on what you’re grateful for can calm the body and mind. This reduces the symptoms of stress.

When you choose gratitude over negativity, you also feel less emotionally charged. A sense of gratitude allows you to respond rather than react in the moment.

2. Gratitude can make you more positive.

According to psychologist Dr. Catherine Jackson, gratitude causes the brain to increase the production of dopamine and serotonin. 

Dopamine is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. It’s associated with pleasure and reward. It contributes to focus, motivation, and happiness. 

Serotonin is a chemical that is considered a natural mood stabilizer. It helps reduce depression, regulate anxiety, heal wounds, and maintain bone health.

So, a grateful mind allows you to feel more positive emotions.


THE GRATITUDE CHALLENGE

EASY ACTIVITIES FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY TO CULTIVATE A MINDSET OF THANKFULNESS

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF THIS SEASON?

It’s easy to find yourself smack dab in the middle of the holiday season feeling frantic and totally unprepared for the flurry of meals, school programs, family get-togethers, and gift exchanges. It’s really hard to feel grateful when you’re STRESSED to the max. (Shocker, right?)

And you better believe your kids are picking up what you’re putting down. So if you want them to have a little gratitude for all that they have, a good place to start is intentionally expressing gratitude yourself.

This guide will help you and your whole family do just that. Download these free activities for all ages and start cultivating some gratitude magic!


3. Gratitude strengthens your relationships.

Relationships, whether romantic, family, or friends, can be full of disappointments. As we grow closer to others, we see their flaws. It can be easy to dwell on these. But an attitude of gratitude allows us to focus more on the good qualities. The more we focus on the good, the more positive attributes we’ll find. 

A series of 2012 studies found that gratitude also increases empathy and reduces aggression. Gratitude motivates people to express sensitivity and concern for others. Aggression, however, is just the opposite and is reduced among grateful people.

4. Gratitude can make you healthier.

The more grateful you are, the healthier you feel. Research supports that, too. Those who practice gratitude tend to have better psychological health. Grateful people also involve themselves in healthy activities and are more willing to seek help for health concerns. Additionally, grateful people are more likely to take care of themselves.

5. Gratitude reduces your risk of depression.

Regularly expressing gratitude can lead to fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Being grateful reminds us that not everything is bad. There are positives that we can focus on. Gratitude can make you feel more motivated, which pushes you toward your goals and dreams. A sense of hope helps to protect against depression.

Approaching life with thankfulness can have positive effects across all aspects of life. It’s good for you, and it’s good for your relationships. Choosing to be thankful and expressing gratitude for what you have can be a wonderful thing. And in case you didn’t know, gratitude is contagious. Your attitude of gratitude can create a ripple effect throughout your friends and family.

Other resources:

5 Keys to Being Thankful in Marriage

DOWNLOAD: 30 Days of Gratitude and Love

Sources:

Why Gratitude Is Good | Greater Good

A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart: Cross-Sectional, Experience Sampling, Longitudinal, and Experimental Evidence – C. Nathan DeWall, Nathaniel M. Lambert, Richard S. Pond, Todd B. Kashdan, Frank D. Fincham, 2012

Examining the Pathways between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health across Adulthood

The impact of gratitude on depression and anxiety: the mediating role of criticizing, attacking, and reassuring the self

How To Find a Counselor for Your Teen

Here's what you need to know to make a great choice for your teen.

If your teen is struggling, you want to fix whatever’s wrong and try to help. And maybe they need help, but chances are, they’re going to talk to someone else before they talk to you. Right? Well, if they need to talk and they won’t talk to you, you’ll want to do everything in your power to find someone who will lead them in the right direction and encourage them to make good choices. That’s why finding a counselor for your teen just may be the answer you’re looking for. 

A counselor can be a great resource to help your teen manage any number of issues they may be dealing with. But the process doesn’t have to be overwhelming. 

Think about this: finding a counselor is a lot like interviewing folks to fill a job position. When hiring someone, you want to find the right fit. 

It’s the same with choosing a counselor for your teen. You wouldn’t want to hire the first person to walk into a job interview. It’s the same with choosing a counselor; it’s wise to “shop around” and find the best fit for your teen. 

But how do you go about doing that?

Here are some helpful tips for finding a counselor for your teen: 

Do a search.

Finding a counselor in your area can be as easy as an internet search. But be sure to look at reviews. Check over their website, and ask around about counselors you may be interested in. 

Don’t underestimate the power of a good recommendation. Ask people you know who have used counselors. Therapists often specialize in adults and adolescents, so don’t discount the ones adult friends have seen. 

Pay attention to the credentials. 

You wouldn’t want to hire a person without the right qualifications, and it’s the same with choosing a counselor. Except this is your teen who needs help. Here’s a simple breakdown of what counselor credentials look like:

  • Counselors are either licensed or unlicensed by the state where they practice. Licensed counselors have initials after their names, like LPC, LPCC, LCPC, or LMHC. They hold a master’s degree or higher, have completed a certain number of supervised training hours, and have passed a licensure exam. Ideally, you should seek out a licensed counselor.
  • Some unlicensed counselors are working toward either their advanced counseling degree or licensure. They usually offer cheaper rates and must disclose the status of their services. Because they work under the direct supervision of experienced therapists, these counselors can also be very helpful. 
  • Some counselors are psychiatrists (PsyD or MD). This means they hold a medical doctorate, can diagnose mental illnesses, and can prescribe medication.
  • Some people advertise themselves as counselors but are not licensed. These professionals may or may not hold advanced degrees in areas of counseling or psychology. When seeking the services of unlicensed counselors, it’s wise to use caution. 

Ask a potential counselor questions before the first session. 

Consider questions such as: 

  • Do you specialize in child and adolescent therapy? 
  • How long have you been in practice? Are you licensed by the state? Is your license current? 
  • What issues do you specialize in? (Counselors will typically specialize in depression, LGBQT+ issues, addiction, or other issues that may pertain to your teen’s situation. These are usually spelled out on their website if they have one. Be sure to ask if you don’t see an issue that pertains to your teen.) 
  • What kind of approach do you use with your teen clients? (Most counselors have theoretic approaches they use, but don’t let the psycho-babble throw you off. Get a sense of how the counselor relates to their clients in a way that’s understandable to you.)

Consider the financial aspect.

Check to see whether a counselor accepts insurance and, if so, whether they are in-network. Some counselors base client fees on household incomes (called a sliding scale). Fee payment schedules can also vary from counselor to counselor. Some require payment at the time of each session, while others allow a certain number of sessions to go by. Be sure to ask about how the counselor handles their client fees. I understand that many parents don’t plan for the expense of counseling, but it’s well worth the investment. Mental health is that important.

Ask what to expect with confidentiality. 

If a counselor chooses to conduct sessions privately with your teen, ask how they handle confidentiality. Don’t assume the counselor will share everything your teen says in the counseling room. Counselors work under the state laws and codes of ethics that direct them as to how to handle client confidentiality. Ask the counselor about this before the first session so you will know what to expect. 

As a parent, your teen’s mental health is a top priority. And you want their counselor to be effective. Good counselors are out there; it takes a little digging to figure out who can best be helpful. If you feel there’s no connection between the counselor and your teen after a few sessions, keep looking for a counselor who will be a better fit. Your teen will be more open and make better progress if they feel comfortable with their counselor.  It’s worth it! 

Other resources:

How You Can Help Prevent Suicide

How to Prevent Depression in Teens

Five Strategies to Help Your Teen Deal with Post-Pandemic Anxiety

*If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there are a number of websites and organizations with excellent resources for you. HelpGuide is a great place to start, along with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

My wife and I have been together since high school, and she was just offered a new position at work. Yay!! We’re so excited. But there was only one catch: the offer required that she take and pass a standardized test. Three things trigger her anxiety more than anything else: doctors, spiders, and tests. When any of these three is a possibility, she can’t sleep and loses her appetite. We’ve always known this was an issue for her, but we work through it. One step at a time.

Her anxiety before these events made me curious. Is this normal or is it a sign of something more? Is she ok? I mean, I get anxious about some things, but not to that extent. So, I did a little digging. In the process, I came across some interesting articles and research regarding something called “anticipatory anxiety.”

What is anticipatory anxiety?

It sounds clinical, but anticipatory anxiety comes from fear or worries about things that could happen — situations, events, or experiences that may lie ahead. It can stem from past experiences, but it doesn’t always. My wife’s anxiety with tests or spiders doesn’t stem from past trauma. The anxiety with doctors? Now that’s a different story. 

Some symptoms may include things like hyperventilating, chest pain, difficulty concentrating and feeling apprehensive. It can also show up as sleep issues, loss of appetite, emotional numbness, and trouble managing emotions. 

Aren’t we all a little anxious about the future?

Sure! It’s normal for all of us to feel anxious about the future from time to time. Tests, moving, big trips, new jobs, and major medical procedures are just a few examples of things that cause anxiety. It’s not unusual to worry over these things, but there’s a BIG difference between being worried and having anticipatory anxiety.

Let’s take a look at some differences. A 2015 study looked at “phasic fear” (fear that precedes a threat you can predict) and anticipatory anxiety. Phasic fear lasts for a short time. On the other hand, anticipatory anxiety lasts longer and is a reaction to an unpredictable threat. Each fear activates different parts of the brain. The researchers found that we all experience different levels of anticipatory anxiety. BUT if a person suffers from an anxiety disorder, anticipatory anxiety can go well beyond what most people experience. Anticipatory anxiety can be life-limiting for those who suffer from panic disorder, PTSD, or a phobia.

An American Psychological Association survey in March 2021 found that 50% of participants reported anxiety in the current reentry phase of the pandemic. We’re probably all a little anxious right now as the world reopens and kids return to school (in some areas of the country for the first time since March 2020). We might even worry about a COVID recurrence or future pandemics.

So, how do we cope with anticipatory anxiety?

Anticipatory anxiety can put stress on personal relationships because you’re distracted by what-ifs. It can be life-limiting as you try to avoid things you’re afraid of. But you can cope with anticipatory anxiety and work to overcome it. 

We can also help others cope by paying attention to their actions and emotions. Maybe you have a loved one with anticipatory anxiety. If so, you can encourage them to use the coping mechanisms listed below. A strong support system that offers love, grace, and encouragement can make a world of difference.

Here are some methods to help you cope:

Practicing a relaxation response: Deep breathing, guided imagery, or meditation are a few examples. Find something that calms you.

Self-talk: Talk to yourself like you would talk to a friend who’s having a similar experience. Self-compassion can make you more mindful. It can also motivate you to recognize and face your fears.

Healthy distractions: Take a walk, listen to music, engage in your favorite hobby, or exercise.

Challenge your anxious thoughts: Ask yourself if you’re being realistic. If you aren’t, challenge those thoughts with realistic ones.

Take action: Sometimes, the best solution is to confront whatever makes you anxious. This may mean taking small steps toward conquering your fears. You don’t have to tackle it all at once.

So, my wife faced her test anxiety. She studied diligently. The kids and I cheered her on and offered words of support and encouragement. We created an environment at home to lessen her anxiety as the time to take her test got closer. And she passed her test. With that, the fear is gone… until the next test. But, when it comes to spiders, we’ve got a long road ahead. [Read How To Help Your Spouse Deal With Anxiety]

Overcoming anticipatory anxiety takes work. But, reining in your fears will be helpful for you and your family. If you think your anticipatory anxiety could be a sign of something more, consult with a therapist or counselor for guidance. 

Sources:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/behavioural-and-cognitive-psychotherapy/article/abs/anticipatory-anxiety-as-a-function-of-panic-attacks-and-panicrelated-selfefficacy-an-ambulatory-assessment-study-in-panic-disorder/F74B866DB57404E82BAB423D9F48689F

https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3524

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/da.22382

https://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/26/10607

https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2021/one-year-pandemic-stress

“Why am I so bad at this?” 

“I don’t know if I can do this.” 

“Why don’t I feel that overwhelming loving feeling toward her? Is there something wrong with me?”

These are the thoughts that raced through my mind as I was sobbing at 2 a.m., trying to rock my 4-week-old baby girl back to sleep.

I’ve always wanted to be a mom. As a kid, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered, “a mom.” In friend groups, I’ve always been the “mom” to everyone. When I thought about motherhood, I felt totally confident and prepared to become a mother. 

But the day she was born, all those things I thought would come naturally never came. And even now, 3 months into it, I’m still struggling with those late-night thoughts.

Let me clarify something before you get any further — I’m not here to give you any advice. I can’t share a list of steps to help you out of these feelings because I’m still in it myself. And I don’t have it figured out (not even close), but I can offer you this: You’re not alone. I see you. 

And I see you questioning yourself and your baby, wondering if you’ll make it through this in one piece, struggling to understand how different motherhood is than how you thought it would be. And I’ve realized, for me at least, that these feelings aren’t just rooted in sadness or sleep deprivation, but grief.

Grieving What Used to Be and Accepting the New

After my husband, my daughter, and I survived those first 3 weeks of postpartum and the fog *somewhat* lifted, I had this unshakeable feeling that the Caroline I had known 3 weeks earlier was gone. The super type-A, confident, reliable person I had been was just upheaved, and a new life — a new person — had just begun. And while I was told to enjoy it, to celebrate having “mother” as my number one descriptor, and to lean into this person I was becoming, I couldn’t do it. I liked the person I used to be and the life I had before motherhood. I didn’t want anything to change. But it had to.

I’ve grieved things as they used to be. I can no longer be on-call for everyone’s every need. I can’t go out with friends at the drop of a hat. No more snuggling on the couch every night with my husband and our dog. Heck, even the clothes I wore no longer fit, and they probably never will. Now, everything revolves around a feeding and sleeping schedule. I have to look for childcare, turn down calls and visits, and set firm boundaries with friends and family. 

Maybe you’ve changed careers, or maybe you’ve given up your job to stay home with your baby. And maybe you’ve felt ostracized by family and friends because of this transition into motherhood. Regardless of what your life as a mom looks like, we all have to mourn the life we had before our little ones came into our lives. For good and not so good, things will never be the same.

Grieving Who I Thought I Would Be

There is this second aspect of grief that has taken me nearly 3 months to understand. It’s this feeling that I’m not the kind of mom I always thought I would be. My whole life, I envisioned this fun, adventurous mom dancing in the kitchen with her kids. But when my daughter was born and struggled to eat and refused to sleep, I thought I would lose my mind. That vision of the energetic mom quickly disappeared, and what felt like a shell of a person took her place.

For over two months, there was rarely a day without a breakdown from me, my husband, and our baby. It has been hard to bond with and love on my daughter and nearly impossible to feel close to my husband. At times I’ve felt like I just can’t do it anymore.

*I want to take a second here to say something that needs to be said. Since the very beginning, I’ve been in conversations with my doctor to monitor Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Anxiety symptoms. Since 1 in 7 women experience PPD, I was very aware that this was a possibility for me. It is always a good idea to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms or have any concerns. For more resources on Postpartum Mental Health, check out: Postpartum Support International. You can also call the PSI Helpline at 1-800-944-4773 (#1 En Español or #2 English) or TEXT: 503-894-9453 (English) or 971-420-0294 (Español).*

I’ve felt stuck in a never-ending cycle of trying to force myself into who I am “supposed to be,” then breaking down when that pressure is too much for me to handle. After the first 10 weeks of this, I gave up. I stopped trying to force that image on myself and started trying to accept the mother I am right now. This doesn’t mean I can’t learn and grow as my baby girl learns and grows — that will always be my goal. 

But I want you to hear this: It’s ok to rest in who you are right now. Take the pressure off yourself to be the mom you feel like you’re supposed to be. Ignore the people who tell you to enjoy every moment, because not every moment is enjoyable. If no one else has, I want to tell you that it’s ok to need a break, to ask for help before you get desperate, and to be honest when people ask, “Don’t you just love being a mom??”

I know it gets better. But until it does, I don’t want to pretend that I’m loving this stage. People give new moms an unrealistic expectation to immediately bond with their baby, to be joyful about the many challenges of motherhood, and to appreciate all the fleeting stages their child will go through. 

But what happens when none of that feels possible? Most new moms are left to wonder if there’s something wrong with them. But I firmly believe that these feelings of grief are ok to process through. I’m content with where I am right now. But I’m also looking forward to growing into the mother I know I can be. And I’m ready to take this journey one baby step at a time.

Other Resources:

What They Don’t Tell You About Postpartum Depression

6 Ways A Husband Can Support His Wife Through Postpartum Depression

How To Feel Confident As A New Mom