It’s lying awake at night wondering if your child has suddenly turned over on his belly and can’t breathe. It’s obsessively piling on globs of hand sanitizer on anyone who comes within 10 feet of your newborn, and wanting to cry if the sanitizer runs out. It’s not trusting anyone to hold your child for more than a minute for fear they'll drop them or worse, run away. So many moms can describe what postpartum anxiety feels like, yet many of them are completely unaware they even have it.
While it’s known that 1 in 7 moms experience postpartum depression, the stats on other postpartum mood disorders (in general) are a bit less clear. We do, however, know that roughly 10 percent of postpartum moms will experience anxiety, which means and includes much more than doctors used to believe. Thanks to a somewhat increased awareness in mental health, it’s important for parents to recognize the signs and know when to seek out help.
When I spoke with other moms about postpartum anxiety (PPA) and the symptoms, many of them were surprised. I confess that, as someone who experienced PPA (and who still has lingering anxiety related to my child), I had no idea what postpartum anxiety was until I was diagnosed. So, read some of the stories of other moms who’ve been through it and educate yourself — and others — on this difficult and debilitating condition.
“I had postpartum preeclampsia and ended up in the ICU exactly one week after [my daughter] was born. Even though I was seen by a psychiatrist while I was there, it seemed that they were checking for postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis. I kept saying I felt anxious, but no one seemed to care. They probably figured, “You have high blood pressure; we know you're anxious.”
Clearly I didn't have a good stay at ICU.
I feel like (my) postpartum preeclampsia had a lot to do with an increase with my regular anxiety. I already have anxiety and have seen a therapist (before the baby) to deal with it, but I felt that my nerves were killing me. It was horrible. I felt like there was no hope. I was on edge all the time. I felt like I was drowning and I was just scared and worried all the time.
It took a while for me to bring the anxiety down to my baseline. I think using the tools I had learned in therapy and continuing my therapy sessions for a few months helped me. I also think my ICU stay ‘scared me straight.’ I didn't want to be there. I had enough self awareness to say, ‘OK, I got myself in here because of my anxiety. I need to do something or else.’
It wasn't easy and it took a lot of effort. But just the idea of being at the hospital and away from Layla was enough to get it together or at least try. This has made me not want to have another child, just to avoid feeling like that again. But I want [my daughter] to have a sibling so I am willing to walk through hell again.”
“I had this too; never even knew it was a thing. When [my daughter] Leia was about a month old, she started sleeping longer stretches at night. For some reason, I couldn't get myself to sleep. I would obsess over the idea of some killer who was for sure scoping out my house and I would plan out how I would have to defend the family. I would then get up and switch the lights on in different rooms so ‘the killer’ would know I was awake and watching.
I didn't even think this kind of thinking was not normal for a while. I finally looked up my symptoms and figured out that it was not me but my hormones making me all anxious. It helped me out a lot. It took a few months, but I was able to get through it.
I'm still overall more anxious now than I was before motherhood. I also still put my hand on [my children’s] chests every night to make sure they are breathing.”
“After my son was born in December of 2012, I went absolutely bonkers for about 6 months. Between a traumatic cesarean birth, breastfeeding difficulties, sleep deprivation, and a bad reaction to hormonal birth control, I felt like a complete nutcase. I was largely unaware at the time, but looking back now, recognize that I had a pretty severe case of PPD and PPA.
My PPA manifests itself in obsessive thoughts. I struggled greatly with breastfeeding my son due to an undiagnosed tongue and lip tie. I began to fixate on mastering breastfeeding. I had to breastfeed him. At one point, I was in a cycle of breastfeeding, pumping, feeding him what I pumped (often only half an ounce to an ounce), washing my pump parts, and starting over. I was doing this every hour to two hours. If I wasn’t occupied with breastfeeding or pumping, I was reading about it.
At his 2-month checkup, he hadn’t lost any weight, but he hadn’t gained. So, preparing and topping him up with formula was added into the cycle. There were days I spent every 30 minutes pumping, to try to boost my supply. I couldn’t let go. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t enjoy him. At some point, he was only getting a quarter of an ounce, if even that much, of breastmilk, but in my warped mind, he HAD to have it, no matter how much it was killing me.
Finally, at around 3 months, when he started to thrive on formula, I slowly started to cut myself slack, and let go. After a pretty monumental nervous breakdown, I was able to recognize that I was torturing myself and him, and needed to let go of breastfeeding and enjoy my son. Once clarity came back, I can look back now and recognize that my mindset was not normal then.
With my daughter, I had no to little PPD, but the PPA was back with a vengeance, and still rears its ugly head now and then. I become fixated on things, and I worry a lot. I don’t know if it was because she was a NICU premie, but I am constantly concerned that something is a sign of some mysterious illness that will take her from me. Sometimes it just manifests in the inability to think. It feels like my head and throat are going to burst. I am usually a fast thinker and a problem solver, and now I can’t sort through simple issues, like cleaning my house, or running errands, or making lists. Everything becomes a fog. This particular symptom is triggered by stress. On days like this, I feel like the worst, most incapable mom in the world, because I can’t even wrap my head around just getting my kids out of the house for some activity."
Toni G, 34
“It was so bad I couldn't leave my house because I was afraid something bad was going to happen. Like a car wreck. Or dropping the baby on his head and killing him. I ended up on meds that literally saved me.”
“I had postpartum anxiety with [my daughter], or at least it felt much more pronounced. I never took medication, but instead tried to take one hour, then one day at a time. I had a huge support system in my husband. I had a hard time grasping the idea of being responsible for not just one but two human beings.
I cried way more in the beginning because I couldn't be with Isabella (my other daughter) like I was before [my daughter]. [My daughter] needed me constantly and I felt like i was neglecting my other daughter. I did everything i could to remind her how much I loved her, but there were days I felt I was losing our bond or I wasn't doing enough. Guilt overwhelmed me a great deal, which led to me being anxious and not realizing it.
As time went by and [my daughter] became part of our daily routine, the anxiety has subsided but there are still days I have moments when I burst into tears because I can't bear the thought of something happening to my children. We don't watch the news in the house and read them instead; even then I take certain things off my news feed because there are days when I'm happy just living in a bubble and keeping my joy intact.”
“My first child was an easy going baby and slept well. When I got pregnant for the second time, I was expecting the same thing. Big mistake!
My second child was an extremely difficult baby. I noticed a difference right away. When she nursed, it hurt so bad. Come to find out she had a tongue tie. I got that fixed, but it didn't help. Feeding was such a struggle and then the crying began and didn't stop for 6 months. She had severe GI issues and reflux. She also didn't sleep. I was so frustrated & exhausted.
I found myself getting anxious and depressed. Worrying about things that I never worried about with my first. I was terrified about SIDS and would compulsively check to see if she was still breathing. I didn't have the same bond with her that I had with my first child. I started to notice that other things were not right. She was 7 months and still not rolling over. Her arms and legs were shaking. I knew something was wrong and would obsess over it. She still wasn't sleeping either. I brought it up to her pediatrician at the time and she blew me off, so I would constantly be looking up her symptoms online trying to figure out what was going on. It became an obsession as well. I would stay up at night researching different things. I had started a new job in the meantime that was stressful as well. My other also child suffered because I wasn't as present for her.
I finally took the baby to the ER at our local Children's Hospital and got some answers. Her brain was underdeveloped for her age. So was her GI system and her immune system, but the doctors were hopeful she would outgrow it. This relieved a lot of my anxiety. And when we went for her check up a few months later, and the doctor assured me she would be OK, it went down even more.
We're still dealing with a few things here and there: sleep apnea, tonsillectomy, and some minor orthopedic issues, but now I feel like they are manageable. Back then, they weren't. They were completely overwhelming. I would say that my anxiety and depression lasted about 18 months. I came out of it slowly.
Now that I am pregnant with my third, I am nervous about going there again. I know that it is more likely to happen, but I am being proactive about it. I am planning to do anything I can to decrease stress. I am buying a monitor to measure the baby's breathing, and if he doesn't take well to nursing, I am planning to just use formula and not fight it. What I've come to learn is that the bonding between mom and baby is the most important thing and anything else is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.”
“I would be home on maternity leave and be convinced that I would drop my newborn out the window (we were in a 6th floor apt). I would stand with her against the wall, the furthest possible distance from any window in a panic. Clutching her. Convinced that if I let go, she she would be pulled across the length of the apt and put our living room. Madness. But the thought obsessed me.”
“After three years of fertility pills, shots, treatments and one miscarriage, I finally gave birth to my daughter at the age of 38. About four months postpartum, I started to feel off — exhausted, annoyed, impatient, spread too thin. It wasn't surprising since the baby had colic, feeding issues, sleeping issues, etc. I was putting all I had into her while still being present for my 5-year-old toddler and husband.
One day it just hit me, I wanted nothing to do with the baby. Nothing. I didn't want to feed her, hold her, rock her, nothing. And it was just over night that I got hit by it. [And] my anxiety was through the roof more than sad. I found it stemmed from my realizing that I didn't want to hold the baby and that gave me this anxiety about all the news stories you see. What if this gets worse? What if I can't control it? What if I want to hurt the baby? What if it never goes away? I definitely had more anxiety than depression.
I was so scared and in speaking with my doctor, she said it wasn't surprising. Although it's not known why PPD (and PPA) hits some people and not others, the fact that I had been feeding my body fertility drugs for three years, then pregnancy hormones, for it to all be gone, poof, in one day? My body just freaked out.
I wanted to avoid the drug route as much as I could since I have seen people get on the drugs for PPD/PPA and never make it off. I decided to go shock treatment first. I am not a morning person, nor am I a workout person, so, naturally, I signed up for boot camp early in the morning.
Within a week, I found my attitude towards the baby changing. Within two, I started to feel like me again. I think the exercise, as much as the time just focusing on myself, was the key. It's been a year and a half and I still go everyday, five days a week.”
“My son and I had breastfeeding issues in that I simply wasn’t producing enough milk. One lactation consultant told me I might have insufficient glandular tissue but it didn’t matter to me because I was determined to pump something for him. I became fixated on this for a long time. Then when I finally gave that up, I was fixated on my son possibly getting germs from anyone, so we rarely went out. My anxiety was through the roof every hour of every day. Then I began having intrusive thoughts that I or someone else might harm my child. I knew I wouldn’t, but the thoughts were there, taunting me constantly. My son is three now and I still have some anxiety, but it has gotten better.”
“Postpartum anxiety for me was only the beginning of a larger unfolding of my GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). I'd always been anxious, battling depression at various times, but postpartum triggered all the things I didn't know were there. I started to fear leaving the house, talking to people (even those I knew), and eventually, re-developed my suppressed OCD tics to cope. After the birth of my first, I had a hard time bonding because I was paranoid about her safety, my safety, life in general. It was a really hard time, looking back.”