Lessons on working-mom anxiety from Zika (yes, from Zika)

While researching my book over the past many months, I've gotten to know the Seleni Institute, an absolutely one-of-kind resource for maternal mental wellness. I can't tell you how much I wish this place had opened its doors two years earlier when I really needed it. Seleni provides counseling for depression, anxiety, fertility struggles, and miscarriage, along with parenting help, breastfeeding support groups—and acupuncture and massage. Even its wallpaper is soothing. 

Recently, Seleni has fielded many calls from panic-stricken women about the Zika virus, which can have devastating effects on a developing fetus. This week, I sat in on a training session Seleni hosted for therapists on how to counsel these women, and I was struck that so much of what was suggested is just plain old good advice for anyone whose worrying is getting in the way of their work or their mothering. Things like:

Get out of your head and into your body: To stop the vicious cycle of rumination over a worry (which can make it worse), try distracting yourself with a mindful use of one of your five senses: a warm shower on your skin, a nice-smelling lotion for your hands. "These things sound very simple, but they distract in a healthy way," says Seleni psychologist Shara Marrero Brofman, PsyD.

Have an elevator speech ready for anxious family and friends: You know what makes anxiety worse? Having other people anxious for you. To give yourself some reassuring control, realize that most people's nosiness comes from a place of kindness and concern, and formulate a little response you can have ready. You might want a one-liner for people you aren't that close to ("Thank you for your concern") as well as a longer version for people like your mom, who might just need to be told that you've thought things through in an informed way. 

And most of all, worry well. "It's not realistic to tell people not to worry, but we can help them contain that worry," says Seleni clinical director Christiane Manzella, PhD. Worrying can become a compulsion, but so can reassurance. One suggestion: Set aside a time to worry. "Tell yourself, okay, I'm going to use part of my lunchtime at work to go online and look at only these two websites," says Dr. Manzella. By giving the worrying some boundaries you'll keep it from creeping into every moment of your day.