Combating Postpartum Anxiety
Prior to 2013, I thought “anxiety” was that thing I felt when I had to stand up and talk in public speaking class in college, take a difficult test, or do something that was outside of my comfort zone. I thought it was something that was easily controlled, that it wasn’t a big deal. Boy…was I wrong. I experienced first hand just how scary and crippling anxiety/attacks can be after the birth of my first child. It doesn’t discriminate, and it CAN happen to anyone. Postpartum depression and anxiety are two topics that no one talks about in this country, but we need to… because I believe it is so much more common than we are led to believe. Did you know 15-17% of women are affected? That’s a lot of moms! Most of whom probably feel helpless and overwhelmed, all while trying to navigate a new life of caring for a tiny human that is SOLELY their responsibility. I so wish I’d had more resources to turn to back then, which is why I thought I would share my story. If I’m able to help anyone else feel as though they are not alone (and not crazy), then I have done my job. I also decided to share this because it is part of the reason why I am so passionate about living a healthy lifestyle and about the Whole30- both helped me to get through this rough stage of my life without needing any sort of medication.
A little back story…My now husband and I started dating in 2011 and found out we were pregnant in 2012 – which came as quite a surprise (albeit, a good one since luckily I knew he was “the one” from day 1). I went from being what you could say was the “party girl” type to a soon-to-be (and completely unprepared) mom overnight, and it was a lot to take in. We moved out of the city to a small apartment in the burbs and soon after got engaged.
Fast forward to April 2013 when Annabel was born. To make a long birth story short, I went in to be induced at 41+ weeks and ended up having an allergic reaction to the induction meds, which resulted in a c-section after 24 hours of attempted labor. Regardless of not having the most perfect experience, we were overjoyed at the sight of our perfect baby girl. We went home after 4 days at the hospital and the recovery process was ROUGH. Not to mention I hated breastfeeding and gave up after about 6 weeks. It wasn’t until Annabel was about 2 months old (ironically around the same time I stopped breastfeeding and my hormones were trying to adjust themselves back to normal), that I started feeling what I now know was the postpartum anxiety.
I would have these racing, consuming, terrible thoughts all day long. What if she stops breathing? What if I am walking down the stairs and drop her? What if I somehow accidentally hurt her? Not because I WANT to hurt her, but what if it just happens? What if Bryan dies in a car crash and we are left alone with no husband and father? I would literally drive myself NUTS. I hated myself for thinking these things, but I felt like I had no control over what was going through my head. From everything I had heard (which wasn’t much) about postpartum depression, I knew I didn’t feel sad or “depressed” – I just felt like I was losing it. Which made me not want to tell anyone because I didn’t want them to think I was crazy and take my precious baby away! I confided in my husband who was and always has been my # 1 source of support, but I know it was so hard for him to understand. I googled everything I was feeling and knew it was NOT postpartum psychosis (which only affects less than 1% of new moms) – but of course that’s the first thing you think others will assume if you tell them you’re thinking all of these morbid thoughts. I found a few articles about postpartum anxiety and OCD – not realizing that was actually a thing – and thought, ok… this must be it.
I was overwhelmed with love for Annabel but also paralyzed by worry. I was able to take care of her, change diapers, sing to her, etc. but it felt like I was just going through the motions…while constantly looking into the future at the next possible catastrophe. After my 4 months of maternity leave was up and it was time to get back to work, I sad to leave my baby but also so excited to get back out into the world. Maybe this is what I needed to cure whatever was going on. But…it just got worse. As a Recruiter who talks to people all day as part of my job, I started experiencing panic attacks. They would come out of nowhere and make me feel like the wind was knocked out of me. The room would start spinning and I would just feel like I had to escape. Meanwhile, we were getting married that October and I planned our entire wedding feeling this way, went to my bachelorette party feeling this way, and it wasn’t until when Annabel was about 7 months old that I got the courage to tell my doctor what was going on. She referred me to a social worker (aka counselor) who I only went to see a handful of times. We talked about everything that was going on and she confirmed the fact that this was indeed postpartum anxiety, that I was NOT going crazy, and that there were ways to overcome this without medication (which I specifically mentioned I really wanted to avoid).
Two of the things I learned from my sessions that still help me to this day are mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – or in layman’s terms, how to take control of your thoughts. It’s basically the premise that your thoughts create your emotions…not the other way around. I also think just hearing the confirmation that what I was experiencing was NORMAL and that I was not going nuts helped me feel to feel better instantly. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I tried to make sleeping and eating healthy a priority, stopped relying on nightly glasses of wine to temporarily numb my feelings, and immersed myself in work and my family/social life. Eventually…I started to feel like myself again and was so hopeful for the future. I think that was around the time when Annabel was 10 months old. Looking back, the time period after Annabel’s birth was also when I began to experience the symptoms of my Celiac Disease. My doctor suspects it was triggered during this life event (as many autoimmune diseases are triggered by a major stressor). You can read more about that here in My Health Journey.
When we found out we were having another baby in 2015, I was so excited but also so terrified that I would experience all of this all over again. I was determined not to let it take over my life like it did the first time. I ended up exclusively pumping for about 4-5 months with my son Finn (NOT fun, but he was tongue tied so I had no other option! and I was determined to breastfeed as it’s known to help ward off the immediate PPD symptoms) and decided to try my first Whole30 around the time that I stopped breastfeeding in March 2016. I figured it would be good timing since the dip in hormones seemed to be the main trigger for the anxiety. I kept waiting for it, but much to my surprise I barely felt ANY of the symptoms I had previously felt. And if I did feel any sort of anxiety coming on, I immediately used what I had learned in therapy to nip these feelings in the bud. It was great to feel in control of my body again. I truly believe my change in diet and lifestyle helped during the transition phase, combined with the tools I had learned in counseling.
As we prepare for the arrival of baby # 3 right now (9 weeks to go!), I can’t help but wonder if the anxiety will creep back into my life. I plan on doing everything in my power to avoid it – through self care, taking time for myself, eating right, and practicing mindfulness. My biggest piece of advice to anyone who may be experiencing something similar- DON’T WAIT to reach out to someone for help. You will be so glad you did. Our babies are only so little for so long, and it pains me to think back on how I basically missed out on enjoying Annabel’s first year of life.
I also want to mention that if you need to take medication, that is OKAY. Do whatever you have to do to get better. And, just know you are not alone 🙂
Here are some great resources and articles relating to postpartum anxiety: