Almost everyone has heard about Postpartum Depression, and you might even know someone who has struggled with it. Fortunately, in recent years, women are opening up more about the subject and seeking help before it’s too late. I even wrote an article about my experience with PPD after having my first baby (which you can read HERE if you’d like). While this is all well and good, what about the OTHER postpartum problem? The problem that affects 10 percent of new mothers, according to Postpartum Support International? I’m talking about Postpartum Anxiety. It’s not just “depression” that many new mothers (even experienced mothers) struggle with, ya know.
Many times, Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Anxiety come hand-in-hand. It’s easy to fall into overwhelming anxiety when you’ve been sleep deprived, stressed, and depressed. Many anti-depressants, nowadays, will even combine medicine to treat anxiety and PTSD. So I get why PPA gets lumped so easily with PPD and then forgotten. I get why the symptoms of anxiety tend to blend with the symptoms used to diagnose PPD. But when you’re the one suffering from panic attack after panic attack, it’s hard to “forget” about the problem.
So today, I’d like to talk about this side of postpartum life that seems to get skimmed over too frequently. And to do it, I’m going to be very real, very honest, and incredibly vulnerable as I use parts of my own experience with PPA to shed some light on the subject.
How Postpartum Anxiety happens:
Well, once again, we can thank those raging, postpartum hormone and estrogen levels for screwing our bodies up. Those levels raise a significant amount during pregnancy, and then drop off a cliff within the first few days after delivery. Then, we mothers go home to sleep deprivation, breastfeeding struggles, impossible expectations we place on ourselves, and sometimes, other children to care for through all of this. Its no surprise there are triggers everywhere, ready to take your normal worries and elevate them 100-fold.
I have moments of anxiousness/worry. Do I have Postpartum Anxiety?
It’s completely normal to have some anxiety once you become a mother. When you are the sole person who can sustain another helpless human being’s life, there’s bound to be some anxiety. And I believe some anxiety is good: It fuels us to continue to put our little baby’s needs above our own comforts. A mother’s worry can sometimes be a mother’s intuition that something is truly wrong. So only “moments” of anxiousness? No, probably not Postpartum Anxiety—unless you’d describe those moments as frequent disturbances to your regular life that affect your total ability to function. We all hear the chatter in our minds, worrying about the baby suffocating or what do we do if she chokes. Most women can dismiss those thoughts and they eventually stop popping up so often and stop terrifying us so deeply. But if you can’t dismiss those scary, racing worries and you can’t move on, you might be struggling with PPA.
What does it feel like to have Postpartum Anxiety?
Just like any mental illness, PPA symptoms, and the way they manifest, can range.
- Irrational thought patterns: A friend described her PPA this way, in which she would go from totally normal thoughts to full on panic within 60 seconds. My PPA manifests this was as well. Here’s an example: One day, I found myself in desperate need of a shower, so I timed it for when my baby would be asleep. I set up his bassinet just outside my bathroom door and put my toddler on my bed, watching her favorite TV show. The shower was feeling wonderful and I was totally fine when all of a sudden my thoughts started to race. It began with, “Do I hear him crying? I can’t tell over the water.” Then, “I’m sure he’s crying, what should I do? I’ll hurry even faster.” Then, “What if he is crying, I don’t hear him or I don’t get out fast enough, and my toddler gets annoyed with him? What if she tries to shush him and he won’t be soothed?” To finally, “She’s going to get mad and try to quiet him by holding a pillow over his face. She’s going to kill my baby!” At that point, I jumped out of the shower. Dripping all over the place and totally butt-naked, I sprinted into my bedroom, bracing myself to see a still, lifeless baby and a toddler totally unaware of her mistake. The anxiety was overwhelming in those few seconds that I jumped to this exaggerated conclusion because I was truly convinced of what I would find. Of course, what I ACTUALLY found was my baby still sleeping peacefully and my toddler clear across the room, still absorbed in her show. It took a good 20 minutes for me to calm down and get the images of my still baby out of my head. Then I felt embarrassed and silly for thinking something so upsetting would actually happen. When you can’t dismiss your irrational thoughts and they cause you to lose sleep, stop eating, or in some other way cause you undue distress, you may be suffering from PPA.
- Physical reaction: My first anxiety attack happened in the grocery store the first time I had to buy formula for my daughter because I wasn’t producing enough breast milk. Even though I had tried everything under the sun to increase my supply, my husband and I still found ourselves staring at the overwhelming variety of formulas. No one would fault me for needing to switch to formula, and yet, the guilt hit me fast and hard. Before I knew what was happening, I lost it. I couldn’t breathe, I just wanted to crumple to the ground and yet, also run as fast and far as I could to get away from that aisle. PPA can manifest physically with a racing heart, increased, shallow breaths, nausea, lightheadedness, and dizziness. You may feel the Fight or Flight instinct kick in. One mother in my area was recently killed because she was hit with a terrible anxiety attack that forced her to jump out of the car she was in and run, while on the interstate. Her story is a sad, worst-case scenario, but it’s a good example of how your body can take over your rational thoughts during an anxiety attack. If your anxiousness/worries are accompanied by these physical symptoms, you’re probably struggling with PPA.
- Insomnia: Do you lie awake at night worrying about everything you did wrong today? Do you constantly feel the need to go check on your baby to make sure she’s okay and breathing? Do you beat yourself up about every little detail of your motherhood and convince yourself you don’t even deserve to rest? Many mothers who suffer through PPA have a hard time sleeping due to these, and other, reasons. My own personal example: I can’t explain it, but I have to check on my children every night before I go to bed. If I don’t, I feel this nagging pull and I can’t get comfortable or fall asleep until I get up and go look at them in person. Just checking the monitor isn’t enough, though I do still check it multiple times before finally finding sleep. My PPA convinces me that even though I just checked on my baby, I’m sure he will stop breathing if I take my eyes off him. What if he passes away while I’m sleeping? I could have stopped it from happening if I had just been there! So these irrational worries keep me up long past my husband starts snoring.
- Moodiness: Since you’re constantly anxious, or know that an anxiety attack can consume you at any moment, your nerves become frayed. No surprise this would make you extra moody and irritable. Couple this with the previous symptom and it makes for one stressed momma. This moodiness is far beyond the understandable annoyance you feel towards a husband’s thoughtless comment or the toddler’s twentieth tantrum. Often, you recognize your PPA moodiness but feel helpless to adjust your attitude. You’re happy one second, angry the next, and crying by the end of the day. If you find yourself feeling this way, you aren’t alone, and you could be dealing with PPA.
These are just a few of the ways my Postpartum Anxiety has crept up and bitten me on the butt this second time around. I used to lump my anxiety together with my depression, but it’s an important illness to separate and focus on healing. Fortunately, once you begin to adjust and control your anxiety, your Postpartum Depression will be easier to manage. But because it IS separate from depression, it’s important to point out that you could be suffering from JUST Postpartum Anxiety. So if you’re reading this thinking, “But, I’m not depressed!” please understand that these symptoms can be separate from depression and are still just as dangerous to your mental health.
While I hate admitting my faults, I hope my experiences I’ve chosen to share today will help a struggling mother who reads this. You’re not crazy, you’re not alone, and your intense anxiety is not normal, “new mother” worries. Good luck in your recovery, and don’t ever think you’re any less of a good mother because you have this struggle right now. You are fantastic, and you won’t always feel this way if you get help, I promise!