People who are anxious not only avoid situations, but also often develop habits or “fixes” they rely on to temporarily alleviate their anxiety. In clinical terms, these are called safety behaviours.
- texting your partner to make sure he or she hasn’t been in an accident
- asking for the same reassurance from family and your baby’s doctor, over and over
- spending a lot of time on the Internet looking up car seat crash test ratings and food recalls
- carrying a diaper bag overflowing with things you might need, just in case
- choosing a spot at the back of an exercise class, or a seat near the exit, so you can leave a situation easily
- avoiding eye contact with people as you push the stroller on the sidewalk, so they will not engage you in conversation or try to touch the baby
- checking on the baby several times every night, just to make sure everything is all right
Quick fixes are often counterproductive
Quick fixes feel good in the short run, because they relieve anxiety temporarily. In the long run, however, they just keep your anxiety going. You act as if what you are afraid of is true, so quick fixes usually serve to confirm rather than disconfirm your fears. In addition, these fixes are often a lot of work, so they leave you tired and irritable.
Jennifer hides the kitchen knives and bars the kitchen door so she doesn’t accidentally stab her baby while sleepwalking.
This temporarily relieves Jennifer’s anxiety so she can fall asleep. But in the long run, by acting as if it is true that she might stab her baby, her fear is likely to continue day after day. Every evening as she goes to bed, she is basically giving herself the message, “I am a dangerous potential baby-killer, and I have to protect my baby from me.”
Here is another example:
Salima worries that Arman isn’t sleeping and feeding on a proper schedule. He cries often, and she gets worried something might be wrong when she can’t easily console him. She has visited her family doctor several times this past month to discuss these concerns. When her doctor reassures her that Arman is developing on schedule, but is just a bit fussier than some other babies, she feels better, but this only lasts a couple of days. She spends time every day looking up what being a fussy baby might be a symptom of on websites, and ends up reading about all kinds of rare but terrible conditions.
While Salima’s moment-to-moment anxiety is relieved by her safety-seeking, what is happening to her in the long run? She ends up preoccupied by fears about how her baby is doing and whether she is a competent mother, instead of focusing on other things. She cannot learn to trust her own judgment about the baby’s growth and well-being. She’s acting as if she believes she is not capable of trusting herself to take good care of Arman, and by acting in accordance with her belief, she continues to believe it. Acting this way is like sending herself the message, “I’m not a good enough mother; someone else would have sorted this out by now,” over and over again.
Resisting the habit of quick fixes
Quick fixes are tricky because they make you FEEL safer, but don’t actually MAKE you safer. They are a lot of extra effort and usually result in more anxiety over time.
You can break this habit by following a basic rule: when you identify an action as safety-seeking, try doing the opposite. Act as if you don’t believe your anxious thoughts. Instead, act as if you believe you are safe and confident in your own judgment. This way you can prove to yourself that you are safe, without all the extra effort.
You can do things like:
- Delay texting your partner or asking for reassurance. Set a timer for 15 minutes, and see if the urge to do it has reduced. Do something fun or relaxing in the meantime.
- Give yourself the reassurance you are asking from others. You know what they were going to say anyway; they aren’t going to tell you anything new.
- Step away from the Internet. Set some limits on the time you spend investigating potential problems and striving to find perfect solutions. Ensure that the information you are accessing is from reputable, established health organizations, and that you are using unbiased search terms. Keep a list of things you want to figure out, and give yourself 15 minutes per day for research. The rest of the time would be better spent going for a walk, or talking to your partner about topics you used to enjoy talking about.
- Travel light. See what it’s like to carry around only what you think you will probably need. If you run out of diapers, another parent will give you one of theirs. Just because you are a new mother, it does not mean you have to go around in a state of perpetual emergency preparedness.
Exposure tools help too
Fear Ladder: Jennifer’s quick fixes – securing the knives at night.
Goal: Act opposite to anxiety. Act as if I am confident that I am absolutely no danger to my baby.
|Step||Fear Rating (0-10)|
|1. Put the knives in the knife block, but put the knife block in an unusual location, such as in the oven. Put up the gate across the kitchen as usual.||2|
|2. Put the knives away where they usually belong. Put up the gate across the kitchen as usual.||4|
|3. Put the knives away where they usually belong, but with a chair in front of the drawer. Don’t secure the kitchen gate.||5|
|4. Put the knives away where they usually belong, and leave the kitchen gate open.||7|
|5. Leave a knife on the kitchen counter, and leave the gate open.||8|
|6. Leave all the knives on the kitchen counter, and leave the gate open.||8|
|7. Take one knife to the bedroom with me at bedtime and put it on the bedside table overnight.||9|
|8. Leave a knife in the baby’s room (in a secure place where the baby can’t get at it!).|