by Callyn Giese
It was shortly after my daughter was born that the feelings of dread and uneasiness began. I had a normal, easy c-section delivery, but that was followed up by a spinal headache lasting two full weeks. I was struggling to help my new baby breastfeed and gain weight, while also keeping my three children safe, fed, and entertained after my husband returned to work. At times, I would feel panicky; my heart would race, my stomach would drop, and I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my body. I would have this urge to scream, or run, or just hide alone in a dark closet. At other times, I would have a vague sense that something was wrong, that there was something I should be worried about. I’m a worrier by nature, but what I was experiencing wasn’t my normal.
Annie is my third child, and by the time she was born, I considered myself an old pro. I had dealt with breastfeeding, dairy protein intolerances, eczema, untold numbers of blowout diapers, teething, introducing solids, potty training, sleep issues, even an emergency surgery. But this was something new; this was something related to me. And I wasn’t in the habit of checking in on my own mental and emotional health. One night, I convinced myself that a divot in my breast was breast cancer. I laid in bed, quietly crying for hours as I planned my funeral out in my head and imagined my children growing up without me. In the clarity of that next morning, I realized something was wrong with my mental health, and I needed help.
In prenatal classes, I had heard all about postpartum depression and knew the warning signs. However, until my experiences after the birth of my daughter, I didn’t know that anxiety could be a postpartum condition. As it turns out, even though it isn’t talked about or studied as widely, postpartum anxiety may be even more common than postpartum depression.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, about 10% of postpartum women will experience postpartum anxiety, which can occur alongside postpartum depression or completely separately from it. Like other postpartum mood disorders, it is caused in part by the sudden and drastic decrease in estrogen and progesterone in your system. This change can lead to greater sensitivity to stress and is only made worse by the sleep deprivation inherent with having a newborn.
How do you know if you have postpartum anxiety?
Some worry, even irrational worry, is normal after the birth of a new baby. However, worry becomes a problem if you are unable to dismiss your anxious thoughts, you dread everyday tasks, you experience panic attacks, and/or your anxiety interferes with your ability to function.
Everyone’s experience of postpartum anxiety is different, so symptoms vary. They can include:
- An inability to relax
- A constant sense of worry or dread
- An inability to sleep
- Decreased appetite
- Hot flashes
- Rapid Heartbeat
There are things you can do right now that may help alleviate your anxiety
Find a support network
I can’t stress enough the benefits of making connections with other mothers of small children. These connections can be beneficial in two big ways:
- They will provide you with a sense of community. Last year, I read this fantastic book called The Book of Joy, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. In that book, the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama stress that community, community feeling, and shared experience is key in helping us overcome challenge and adversity in our lives.
- They can also be an invaluable resource when you have questions or problems.
This support network can be IRL or virtual. A few years back, I was lucky to have been invited to join an awesome Facebook group for moms. The women in that group have not only given me a sense of community; they have also helped ease my mind countless times and have been there for me through all my crazy questions and gross rash pictures.
Get some sleep
I know – ha ha ha, right? But seriously. Hand your baby off to your partner, relative, or friend (or if you’re a Kardashian, hire a night nurse), and get yourself some sleep. And if for some reason your partner, friend, or relative isn’t available, try tapping into that support network we just talked about. Connect with local moms you can trust and suggest swapping babysitting. She can watch your baby for a few hours while you catch up on sleep, and then you can return the favor.
Talk a walk outside
“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t kill their husbands.” Legally Blonde references aside, both exercise and being outside can help alleviate anxiety. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, “working out in nature helps to reduce anxiety, among other benefits, even more than going to an indoor gym.” So, strap that baby in a stroller and get some sunshine on your skin.
Try a meditation app
Meditating will focus your attention away from anxious thoughts and help calm you down. There are a number of great meditation apps out there right now, for instance the Calm or the Headspace app.
When should you talk to your doctor?
Please don’t ever feel uncomfortable or silly talking to your doctor. Only you know your body and your true mental and emotional state. You are your own best advocate, and if your instinct is telling you something is wrong, you should have no qualms giving your provider a call. You should especially speak to you doctor if:
- Your anxiety worsens
- Your anxiety causes you a lot of distress
- Your anxiety impacts your relationships or your ability to bond with your baby
- You experience panic attacks
What is treatment like?
Aside from some of the coping strategies I mentioned above, there are a number of treatment options available for women with postpartum anxiety. After talking with your doctor, he or she may suggest seeing a therapist who specializes in perinatal mood disorders or cognitive behavioral therapy. For more severe cases, there are medications that can help as well.
Annie is eighteen months old now, and I feel like I am just now seeing the other side of my struggle with postpartum anxiety. I reached out to my doctor and we changed up my birth control, I exercise, I connect with other moms, and I journal. All these things have helped. But looking back, I wish that I had been more aware of postpartum anxiety from the get-go and sought treatment from a therapist shortly after she was born. I hope the upside to my story is that you don’t dismiss or downplay your own worries and symptoms. Taking care of your mental health doesn’t make you a selfish parent. In the end, it will make you a more balanced and joyful parent.