My Postpartum Anxiety Journey
There isn’t a lot of mandatory course work discussing this topic or ways to treat it. It’s more often discussed in passing as something you may or may not run into in your practice. The problem with the lack of mandatory education is that you are DEFINITELY going to have women struggling postpartum in your practice. Whether it is 1 month or 2 years following birth, I have often seen women continuing to struggle with the transition from childless life to motherhood. According to Postpartum Support International, 15% of women struggle with depression following pregnancy. Symptoms of postpartum depression are: irritability, lack of interest in the baby, appetite/sleep disturbances, crying and sadness, feelings of guilt, shame, and hopelessness, loss of interest, joy, or pleasure, and possible thoughts of wanting to harm the baby and/or yourself.
Another issue that I’ve seen in the training for mental health professionals, is that Postpartum Anxiety isn’t even mentioned as an issue. It isn’t discussed at all. According to Postpartum Support International, anxiety occurs in 6% of pregnant women, and 10% of women postpartum. That is a pretty significant number to not be discussed more in depth. The symptoms of postpartum anxiety include: constant worry, feeling like something bad is going to happen, racing thoughts, disturbance of sleep/appetite, inability to sit still, dizziness, nausea, or hot flashes.
Following my son’s birth, it was such a whirlwind that I hadn’t paused to take note of where I was mentally. I was so focused on making sure the temperature in the room was right, I had followed the Pinterest clothing diagram to a T, I was perfectly measuring his formula bottles, and pumping every 2 ½ hours. After about a month of this, I realized that my independence was gone. My ability to walk out the door and get coffee on a whim was gone.
My well-intentioned friends would invite us to go out to places at night or to the pool (it was summer at this point). This further increased our isolation as we identified that we had to be home by a certain time, we were exhausted, and one of us had to be with the baby at all times. When you are the first of your close friends to have children, it can also feel isolating because your life has taken a different path.
My husband was attempting to be supportive in the ways that he could, but my anxiety was so high that it felt hard to let go of the reins and allow for him to do things and share the responsibility. He would take care of the baby and let me nap but I would spend the whole time worrying about what he was doing. If I heard the baby cry, my nap was over and I would rush out to make sure everything was okay.
I was not only annoying him, but I was beginning to annoy myself. What happened that I suddenly became so on alert? I have had impactful deaths before in my family, and felt I had handled them well. However, what I was beginning to realize was that the trauma of losing an important family member had resurfaced when my son was admitted to the NICU. That same feeling of being out of control, unable to plan and struggling to trust anyone but myself.
Being a mental health professional, I had always hoped I would know when I needed help. However, it took me 8 months from his birth to seek therapy, and 10 to seek psychiatric care. I knew I had reached my limit when I was waking up multiple times throughout the night in a panic due to nightmares about my son drowning in the pool we didn’t have, or falling ill and rushing him to the hospital.
Even through all of this, I struggled to seek support from my family and friends. I would tell my husband in passing that my sleep was decreasing and that I was having nightmares, but not to the extent they were occurring. I don’t think most of my friends even know now that I was experiencing this intense form of panic. Once I started therapy and medication, I started to level out more. I was sleeping better and being able to process more surrounding my anxiety. While there are tools that can be helpful in reducing anxious symptoms (journaling, exercise, listening to music), what I found to be most helpful was talking about the unrealistic expectations I had put on myself, and on my husband. Being able to identify my own Cognitive Distortions (irrational thought processes that influence thinking patterns), helped me set more realistic expectations for myself and my loved ones.
I wanted to share my postpartum anxiety struggle for a few reasons. One, I feel that with most mental health issues, we suffer in silence. More specifically, mother’s postpartum suffer in silence. It feels as though you have failed at parenting if you can’t do it all (at least that’s how it felt for me). Two, I want to share my story to empower those reading it to get help, seek support from family and friends, and identify with a community that they can relate to.
I am so happy now that I took that time to work on myself because shortly after, I found out I was pregnant again.