Today was an off day for me. I was a bit out of sorts, which usually means I’ve been over thinking too much. Getting stuck in my own head has been kind of my thing, ever since I was a kid. My dad used to tell me that I was my own worst enemy–I couldn’t relax and I had to evaluate everything. I was the kid who couldn’t sit and watch tv without also having a book in my lap or a sketch pad or something to occupy my hands. I was always fidgeting. And I didn’t learn how to relax until I was an adult. After my first daughter was born early, I got postpartum depression. Eventually, I knew something was wrong with me. Although I’ve always been a bit on the anxious side, I’d never experienced the type of anxiety that I did after her birth. At the time, all I knew of postpartum depression was what I had seen on tv or heard about in the news. The tragic incidences of mother’s suffocating their kids or something equally as horrible. So I freaked out at the hospital the day they told me my daughter would probably be going home soon, and I ended up in the emergency room at the urging of her compassionate social worker. (Preemies often qualify for SSI and are assigned a social worker.) The doctor put me on medication which calmed me but which I hated. I felt like I was in a fog; I couldn’t think clearly which was almost as bad as being anxious. When I told my doctor I would rather work through the anxiety than stay on medication, he had me do biofeedback training, something I’d never heard of before. Basically, I got hooked up to a machine that measured my heart rate and body temperature and a few other things, and then I did breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques in an effort to control my body’s response to stress. It took several sessions before I was successful at it. I remember the day my numbers registered in the normal range that proved I had relaxed. I took the squiggly-lined printout home and put it on my fridge as a reminder that I can control my body’s responses to anxiety.
While it was an exhausting ordeal (on top of everything else at the time), I did learn some lasting lessons about myself. Like how my body reacts physically to stress. One of my first stress indicators is that I unconsciously begin to hold my breath. I literally stop breathing. I guess I’m trying to prepare myself for a punch or something because it doesn’t make much sense otherwise. But it’s been great to know I do it because the fix is easy. I can consciously begin to breath normally, which naturally begins to relax my body. But the bigger lesson I learned is that I am in control of myself. I know that sounds weird, but for an over-thinker, that’s a biggie. Sometimes worry can make a person feel a little crazy. I remember at the time my daughter was in the hospital, I worried about so many things, not the least of which was all the lasting medical complications she could have. But the longer my postpartum depression went unchecked, the more my (irrational) fear became that my anxiety would cause me to harm her like other “crazy” moms had done to their kids. As if, somehow, I wouldn’t be able to control myself. And maybe those other moms really had lost control. But thankfully, that wasn’t me. It wasn’t me then and it’s not me now.
I do still have days when I know I’ve been worrying about things too much, like today. And times when I find myself holding my breath and needing to do some deep breathing. But now I can feel the stress in my body pretty quickly, so I can deal with it quickly. Tonight I met a girlfriend for dinner and a chat, one of my favorite ways to deal with stress. Not only am I grateful tonight for that, but also for those lessons I learned long ago that have stuck with me. They are simple things that have made a big difference.