Nothing brings on the anxiety quite like caring for a newborn. There's so much to worry about. Is my baby eating enough? What if I drop them? Is my baby meeting their milestones? It's no wonder new mothers develop postpartum anxiety (PPA), sometimes called a hidden disorder because it often goes unrecognized. I don't want any mother to have to suffer in silence, so I'm sharing my story. These are the personal red flags that made me realize I was suffering from PPA.
I've been dealing with depression nearly my entire adult life. Anxiety didn't strike until 2010, in the wake of a devastating breakup. In the weeks that followed, my chest would tighten and I would throw up in full-blown panic attack mode. My family convinced me to seek help. I was seeing a therapist, and a psychiatrist prescribed an anti-anxiety medication. The medication made me feel like a character in Alice in Wonderland, and I wasn't able to take it for very long. I dealt with my anxiety on and off for the next three years, with an especially bad bout after the death of my grandfather while I was living abroad. I ended up coming home early.
Then I met my husband and knew there was something special about him. Early on, I would freak out if he didn't text back right away or cry in bed if he turned away, convinced he was leaving me. Gradually, as he proved himself to be a kind, reliable man, I began to feel more secure. The anxiety dissipated. We got engaged, then married, then immediately became pregnant. Along with my doctor, I decided to continue my anti-depressant medication regimen during my pregnancy, because we felt having a healthy, happy mama was the best thing for the baby. I was on alert for any changes in my mental health, but honestly I was doing great. It wasn't until about seven months postpartum when a move to another state, sleep regression, and post-holiday blues combined to make me miserable. I now know it was PPA.
Everyone's unique, so your PPA signs could be completely different than mine. But perhaps reading these will increase your awareness and help you recognize symptoms in yourself. It's important to get help because PPA can interfere with bonding with your baby. If you tell just about any doctor or nurse that your emotional health is preventing you from caring for your child, they will take it seriously. I got a phone call from a nurse within an hour of sending an email and had an appointment the very next day. Just knowing I was doing something for myself helped me feel better. Through behavioral interventions and mindfulness training over the next few months, I was on the road to recovery. It's a constant battle, but I'm determined to be the best me so I can be the best mom possible.
I Looked For The Worst Case Scenario
My counselor calls this "catastrophizing." Basically, I would take a situation and assume the worst possible outcome. I met some new moms at story time and convinced myself they hated me. (This was totally unfounded, and those very ladies became dear friends.) I would imagine my husband reacting badly to something (a purchase I'd made, for example) and envision the entire fight. The fight would never happen, but I still experienced all the distress as if it had. I also envisioned terrible things (car crashes, kidnapping) happening to my baby and contemplated how I would punish myself if I let them happen.
I Had Trouble Sleeping
I am normally a champion sleeper. In fact, my husband thinks scientists should study me. So I knew something was going on when I couldn't control my racing thoughts enough to get to sleep. It was exacerbated by the fact that my daughter is very in touch with my physical and emotional state, and she slept worse when I did. I swear she only woke up when I was already awake.
I Had Nightmares
When I did finally fall asleep, I had terrible dreams. One time I dreamed that I walked out while bathing my baby (which I would never do) and came back to see her face down in the water. Another night, I dreamed that my husband and I died and my sister was supposed to take the baby but couldn't find her. My ghost was frantically trying to get my daughter to her aunt. When I woke up, I wasn't able to brush it off as "just a dream." I woke up confused by emotions I didn't understand, and I carried them with me throughout the day.
I Was Making Lists
This may have been a sign of postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I've included it here because it is often a comorbidity of other postpartum mood disorders. There's nothing wrong with writing lists, but I had lists upon lists upon lists. Writing them down didn't make me feel better or help take things off my mind. Instead, they led to racing thoughts about every little thing I had to do, from sending birth announcements and thank-you notes to unpacking boxes in the garage.
I Was Obsessing
I used to be a germophobe and, as a result, I washed my hands constantly. In junior high, I was convinced I'd get ringworm if I so much as touched the wrestling pats. This time around, my obsessions had surprisingly little to do with cleanliness or even my baby's actual wellbeing. I would spend hours reorganizing my photo files. I completely redid the baby book because I'd written in both first and third person. I got upset because the activity mat didn't match the decor. It was stupid, and I told myself that afterward as I then punished myself for wasting time I should have been spending with the baby.
I Worried Excessively
A non-exhaustive list of things I worried about postpartum:
*Is the baby breathing?
*What if she rolls off the changing table?
*Am I a bad mom if I stop breastfeeding?
*What if the dresser falls over on her?
*Am I talking/singing/reading to her enough?
*Why hasn't she rolled over yet?
Worrying is a normal part of motherhood, but when it starts to immobilize you, you may be looking at PPA.
I Lost My Appetite
Some people eat when they are stressed. I don't eat at all. After my first bout with anxiety, I was holding my pants up with safety pins. I learned at an early age to only eat when I'm hungry, which has helped me maintain a healthy weight. The problem is, anxiety makes me lose my appetite entirely. I'm not hungry, so I don't eat, and that exacerbates symptoms like lethargy and dizziness.
I Was Holding Lots Of Tension
I know I'm getting really worked up when I start to clench my jaw. My mindfulness coach said a lot of people hold tension there. I also hold it in my back and shoulders. Feeling tense was a major red flag, for me, that something wasn't right. It's important to listen to your body. If it's telling you something is wrong, get help. For you and your baby.
If you or someone you know is suffering from postpartum anxiety, please get help. Text "GO" to 741741 to access a 24/7, free, confidential anxiety hotline and speak with trained crisis counselors.