Eight steps to more mindful parenting mental chatter
Do you ever hear voices? Whispers in your mind rehashing old issues or cyclic comments like, “I’ll never be a good enough parent”? Mental chatter is to blame for the repetitive thoughts that buzz inside the human brain and cause anxiety and stress. But, take heart. If mental chatter is causing you stress, there are some positive ways to calm the chaos.
With the demands of parenthood, it often kicks troublesome thoughts into high gear. I wish I could stop thinking about how my birth plan didn’t go as I’d hoped. Why can’t I breastfeed? My child can’t roll over yet but others his/her age can, why?
Parenthood is a wild ride filled with heart-warming moments, challenge, stress and uncertainty. There’s angst over doing things the “right” way, a baby that won’t settle no matter what trick you pull out of the latest must-have parenting bible, and the inevitable sleepless nights can make you feel like you’re going a little crazy. As well as poor sleep, parental anxiety can also lead to changes in appetite, and obsessive worry about many aspects of parenting.
Facing up to new-parent anxiety
Anxiety is a natural response to a perceived threat that is either real or imagined. Terri Smith, the CEO of Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA), says one in five mums will experience it in some form and one in 10 dads will, too.
The problem with anxiety is it becomes a bit of a self-perpetuating cycle that can also escalate. “A common scenario is mums find themselves besieged by mental chatter, replaying in their minds the words, ‘I’m not a good mum, I’m not a good mum,’ because they’re feeling so completely overwhelmed,” she says. “The negative self-talk induces feelings of anxiousness, and the more you think about it, the more anxious you feel,” she says.
Parenthood is a wild ride filled with heart-warming moments, challenge, stress and uncertainty.
Parenting is a tough job and expectations are often different to the reality of it all, says Smith, “especially for those who thrive on planning and order. You can’t do a lot to prepare for it — the best thing you can do is to prepare to be flexible.
As kids grow and develop into unique and independent little humans, starting day care and eventually school, it can bring with it a whole host of new stressors. How is my son doing at his new day care? Is my daughter keeping up with her classmates? Why can’t I be as organised as other mums?
Sometimes, as parents, your brain will constantly race with thoughts and you’ll second-guess parenting decisions you’ve made. You might even compare yourself to others who often seem to juggle it all with ease.
Reaching out to friends, family, your partner and support groups can help if you’re struggling to still the mental chatter inside your mind. But often if you feel like you’re failing at parenting, connecting with others probably isn’t something you’d be motivated to do. Child psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien from The Quirky Kid Clinic says a common response to anxiety is to disengage and to distance yourself from others, but it’s not the answer. “Avoidance definitely is not your friend if you are feeling anxious,” she says. “By avoiding situations and things that you find overwhelming, you’re actually telling yourself that you can’t cope.”
O’Brien suggests developing a coping strategy by breaking down what you’re actively avoiding into small bite-sized pieces. “For example, if it’s mother’s group, do a drive-by one day. On another day perhaps, go past with the pram, or maybe even sit in for a few minutes to get a feel for the group,” she suggests. “By circling in, you’re teaching yourself that you can cope by taking small steps towards your goal.”
You’re also learning that the negative outcomes you envisioned didn’t actually happen and, by embracing the anxiety you feel, you can still your racing thoughts and work to manage them.
Perhaps your mind chatter is about grievances that occurred a long time ago. Give yourself permission to let go of past hurts. You have a choice to forgive and move on, or dwell in the past.
Try to filter out destructive thoughts. O’Brien says unfortunately though, it’s human nature to focus more on unhelpful comments rather than those that are uplifting. “If you’re given negative feedback, you’re definitely more likely to tune into that than a whole bunch of positive comments,” she explains.
If you find yourself dwelling on injurious or unhappy thoughts, instead think about what you have achieved, acknowledge your strengths and be proud that you brought this tiny piece of humanity into the world. Take comfort in the fact that you will be the very best parent that you can be for your child. You might not always get it right, but that’s OK. Making mistakes and learning from them is what makes you human.
If you find particular friendships aren’t working for you any more, let them go. Distance yourself or walk away from friendships that don’t nourish your spirit and make you feel good about yourself.
O’Brien says developing friendships with others that are pre-disposed to positivity is vital for good mental health. “If you are in the company of positive people, you’ll notice a shift in your moods and you won’t focus on negative self-talk,” she says.
Let the kids lead the way
You can learn a lot of things from your kids — slowing down and chilling out is one of the best lessons. Mindfulness educator Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn extols the belief that our children innately practise the art of mindfulness. Watch your baby at play, mesmerised by a shadow of light dancing across the room or engrossed watching a spider in the garden with the early morning dew clinging to its web. Nothing exists for them beyond that moment. They stop. They pause and ponder. They are engrossed in the here and now.
Slow down to calm and centre your mind and stop the noise. Play with your child and ignore the dust bunnies on the floor and the dishes in the sink. They’ll still be there but the moments, these precious moments with your child, are fleeting. Enjoy them.
Social media can be both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, it allows you to share photos and stories and stay in touch with others but, on the negative, it can often portray unrealistic imagery and stretch the truth. Accessing social media is all too easy; with a push, swipe, or poke, you become an observer to another’s life story. But these images and videos are often glossed over, glammed up and glorified. You might find a three-year-old who can recite the alphabet backwards, while yours still thinks it’s hilarious every time he shoves a pea up his nose.
Smith says social media can create a lot of expectations about parenting that can lead to pressure and anxiety. “If you find that the mental chatter you’re experiencing gets worse after connecting on social media, it’s worth stepping out of it for a [while],” she says.
Don’t let fear hijack your conscious thoughts. Rebecca Dennis, the author of And Breathe and founder of the Breathing Tree, says when humans are in a state of flight-or-fight, that’s when the body is propelled into physiological chaos. “Blood pressure rises and our muscles contract as we’re getting ready for ‘battle’, and our breathing patterns change,” she says.
Breathing properly can help to soothe the mind and body, calming unwelcome thoughts. It only takes a few minutes to centre your psyche and find a place of inner calm. Practise it daily — or whenever you need to — to calm the mental chatter.
Take comfort in the fact that you will be the very best parent that you can be for your child. You might not always get it right, but that’s okay. Making mistakes and learning from them is what makes you human.
“Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Breathe normally and feel your belly and ribcage expand and contract with each breath. Relax your jaw and shoulders. Try only letting your belly expand on the inhale and feel into your lower back and visualise the breath expanded here,” Dennis says.
“Then try only letting your chest expand and explore how your lungs feel with each breath. Notice if the breath is moving your shoulders up and down. Relax your shoulders and allow the breath to expand the ribcage and belly on the inhale. Visualise the breath expanding in and out rather than moving up and down.”
Develop your own mantra
Developing your own mantra can be helpful, especially when navigating a challenging parental moment or when mental chatter causes you stress. For example, if your child gives the cat a cool new hairdo with nail scissors, after explaining to them why it’s not a good idea, repeat your mantra to give you a sense of calm. Say your mantra to yourself whenever you need a quick mental pick-me-up. Find the words that resonate with you and learn them by heart. “I’m in charge of me and I choose happiness and contentment” or “I love my child, and I’m doing the best I can for them” are two examples.
Be your own bestie
Self-care is important. Take time to nurture yourself and try to make good sleep hygiene a priority. Lack of sleep temporarily adversely affects the brain and cognitive function. Try to avoid screens before bedtime, play calming music and aim to go to bed at the same time each night. In the day, if you can, have a nap when your baby does so you’re more rested if the baby wakes at night.
Embrace a form of exercise you enjoy as part of your self-care commitment. Get outside in the sunshine. Load up your plate with leafy greens and fresh fruits. Eat more healthy fats and drink less alcohol and caffeine.
Create a sense of calm to quell the mental chatter through practising visualisation and grounding techniques. It’s a very effective way to control anxiety in a matter of seconds. Imagine your feet firmly planted on the ground and notice the physical sensations under your feet and toes. It’s a simple strategy to bring you back to the present.
Dial down the internal dialogue
Be your own therapist. Write down your worries and concerns; take the words that taunt your conscious thoughts and jot them down on paper. Light a match underneath it and as the flames take hold, watch as the wind scatter the words out to the universe.
Just like jotting them down, the very act of verbalising negative mantras or thoughts gets them out of your head. Once the words are spoken out loud, it takes their power away.
Sometimes it also helps to say your negative repetitive thoughts out loud. Just like jotting them down, the very act of verbalising negative mantras or thoughts gets them out of your head. Once the words are spoken out loud, it can help to take their power away.
Don’t buy into the victim mindset. Vow to embrace life with compassion and empathy; helping others refocuses your energy, takes you away from your own worries and quietens the mind.
Try a little Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The aim of CBT is to evaluate, challenge and discard distorted thoughts and unhelpful thought patterns. Then, you can replace them by creating new helpful thought patterns that are truthful and empowering.
Always try to catch yourself in a thought — change it up and switch that negative self-talk to something more positive. Practise the art of gratitude and be thankful that you have joyful, healthy children. Your children will see a shifting focus in your consciousness and parenting, and they and you will be happier.
A word on anxiety
Severe anxiety for new parents can show itself in many behaviours, including constant cleaning, worrying about germs and checking on the baby constantly. Sometimes, this is to the point of obsession. Anxiety can also manifest into panic attacks, which can mean a racing heart, sweaty palms, trembling or shaking, dizziness, hot or cold flushes and feeling as though you are losing control. If feelings of anxiety persist, it’s important to get clinical help or call the numbers below.
PANDA helpline: 1300 726 306
Beyond Blue helpline: 1300 224 636
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