Reviewed by Dr Jessica Gunawan and Physician Brandon Yew
How to Deal with Generalised Anxiety Disorder for First-Time Parents
Published | 7 min read
While being a first-time parent naturally brings a whole new level of worry, not being able to function could be a sign of generalised anxiety disorder.
Many first-time parents experience great joy when finding out that their first child is on the way. The joy can be mixed with a great deal of anxiety, which is normal. But when the anxiety doesn’t let up, worsens, or gets in the way of everyday living, it may be what’s termed as “generalised anxiety disorder” or GAD.
What is Generalised Anxiety Disorder?
Some anxiety in dealing with life’s challenges is normal, and even useful, as it’s our body’s way of warning us of danger. It focuses our attention on getting out of harm’s way. Generalised anxiety disorder, however, is a condition in which the anxiety itself gets in the way of safety and well-being.
Also known as post-natal anxiety among parents, the condition affects about 1.7% of Malaysian adults. We spoke to three parents who shared their experiences on dealing with anxiety as first-time parents.
Symptoms and What
Causes of Generalised Anxiety Disorder
Generalised anxiety disorder in Traditional Chinese Medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), most anxiety disorders are caused by emotions, chronic illness, weak body constitution, fatigue, diet, and other factors. Eu Yan Sang TCM physician Ooi Yong Chin says, “Irregular lifestyle habits, staying up late at night, an unhealthy diet, and frequent consumption of fried, pungent and spicy foods will cause yin–yang imbalances, Qi Stagnation, Blood Stasis and Deficiencies in the body, all of which can contribute to anxiety.”
What first-time parents say
If you have generalised anxiety disorder, you’ll often have a constant stream of worrying thoughts that cycle through your mind endlessly. You feel as if you’re unable to control these thoughts from repeating or spiralling.
Reena (not her real name), 36, is a freelance dentist and stay-at-home-mom. She had a lot of anxiety and doubts about whether she’d be a good mother. When she was pregnant with her first child at 26, she recalled having racing thoughts and questioning herself.
This psychological symptom is accompanied by physical symptoms such as restlessness, irritability or being on edge, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, difficulty getting quality sleep, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, as well as body aches.
“At age 29, I had a lot of fatigue and difficulty sleeping when I began having anxiety about my baby’s health. I felt inadequate and worried about always being judged,” shares Sherry (not her real name), a 45-year-old human resources director.
Meanwhile, Michael (not his real name), a 38-year-old lecturer, remembers having a constant emotional rush of worry over the responsibilities of becoming a father at 30 and losing a certain sense of freedom and lifestyle. “I had anxiety wanting to do many things at the same time, lacking focus,” he reveals.
It’s unclear what causes generalised anxiety disorder, but researchers and healthcare professionals believe the condition is influenced by a combination of factors:
- Chemical imbalance: Long-term heavy stress sometimes can create an imbalance in brain chemistry.
- Medical conditions:
Hyperthyroidismincreases the thyroxine hormone, causing unintentional weight loss and a rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Family history: Those with generalised anxiety disorder often have other relatives with a history of mental health disorders in the family.
- Psychological disposition: Certain personality traits such as being a perfectionist may make a person more likely to develop the condition.
- Environmental triggers: Major tragedies or sudden drastic changes can increase the risk of developing GAD for those already predisposed to anxiety.
Addressing Generalised Anxiety Disorder as a Parent
If you feel you might have generalised anxiety disorder, it’s essential to reach out to your doctor to determine the best course of action for you. Not addressing the condition could lead to worsening symptoms at a time when you need to be at your best both for yourself and your child.
A psychiatrist may prescribe anti-anxiety medication, talk therapy, or both. Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, may include cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) to reduce your anxiety.
In addition to professional medical treatment, there are some things you can do to help with your anxiety. Practise a healthy and balanced lifestyle including stress management, avoid substance abuse, and join a support group for other first-time parents.
Michael says that what helped reduce his worrying was to let himself focus on one thing at a time deliberately and to have clear boundaries. “Make sure to leave work-related activities at work and dedicate your full attention to your child when spending time with them,” he reflects.
Parental Anxiety – Can It Affect Your Child?
Keep in mind that parental anxiety can also affect your child’s development. Young children look to their parents to ascertain whether they are safe. Infants can sense when their parent isn’t feeling safe and would in turn feel unsafe.
Sherry felt her baby’s refusal to breastfeed and constant crying likely had something to do with her symptoms of anxiety. She was probably not far off the mark; a study of 456 mother-and-baby cohorts in China in 2020, for example, revealed that babies of mothers with higher feed anxiety scores were more likely to refuse to open their mouths when breastfeeding.
TCM Remedies and Treatments
According to TCM Real Medical Senior Physician Brandon Yew, while getting help from mental health experts is necessary for those with the condition, TCM has a lot to offer as a supplemental treatment too. TCM also echoes taking care of overall health to avoid anxiety from getting out of hand in the first place.
“TCM can help with the physical symptoms of the disorder through herbal medication, acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, gua sha (scraping), tuina (Chinese manual therapy) and blood-letting. These are all formulated carefully by a TCM physician to address the unique body constitution of every individual patient,” he shares.
Acupuncture and acupressure
A 2021 meta-analysis published in the Annals of General Psychiatry looked at 20 acupuncture studies with a total of 1,823 participants. The study was able to show that acupuncture was more effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety than control conditions. The analysis also revealed that acupuncture works better when used earlier in the treatment of anxiety.
While waiting for a TCM appointment and evaluation, you can try self-massaging certain acupoints.
TCM herbal formulations such as Xiao Yao San (消遥散) work specially to rebalance the Liver and Spleen, where emotions such as anger and anxiety are regulated. Studies have shown that this formula works well in treating insomnia combined with anxiety.
Several calming TCM
Remember to seek the advice of a qualified TCM physician prior to taking any of the above herbal formulas or remedies.
Reena’s oldest son is now 10 and has a little brother. She advises, “Try to do what you can and let that be good enough – if you have a baby and you don’t have time to clean the house, then accept that. Things don’t have to be perfectly neat and clean all the time. Make time for
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