Having a new baby at home is an emotional whirlwind, even in the best of circumstances. You will find yourself constantly wondering if they are sleeping well, eating enough, hitting appropriate milestones, and trying to shield them from any possible germ. On top of it all you’re probably not sleeping the best, your dishes are piling up, and you feel like life is constantly in a general state of disarray. Listen- it doesn’t matter if this is your first dance with motherhood or your fourth, it is common to feel some anxiety when you bring a new baby home. However, for some women this feeling of anxiety can become overwhelming and sometimes straight up debilitating. It can affect your ability to enjoy your new baby and take care of them- or yourself.
When I had Porter, I could not stop imagining all the ways he could get hurt. I was terrified I was going to drop him, I was always worried something was wrong, and every corner or sharp surface had the potential to become a scene from Final Destination. At my OB follow up, I took the depression screening and passed. When she asked me how I was coping with the loss of sleep I joked saying this is what Marine Corps basic training had really prepared me for and it was nothing. In reality, I passed the screening because I wasn’t experiencing postpartum depression and I wasn’t feeling sleep deprived because I was wired and constantly on edge. My body was literally buzzing with this hypervigilant energy. So if it wasn’t postpartum depression, what was up with me?
Postpartum anxiety affects somewhere around 6-10% of new moms but it often goes unreported since it is the lesser known cousin of postpartum depression. Since it is not often talked about, many moms aren’t sure what to think when they start experiencing this intense type of worry, even if it is a lot more common. There are a couple more specific ‘flavors’ of postpartum anxiety: postpartum panic disorder and postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder. Their symptoms match their respective non-postpartum counterparts where you either experience obsessive, recurring thoughts or sudden panic attacks related to such thoughts. Since I am no stranger to anxiety due to PTSD, I began to notice that what I was experiencing went above and beyond the normal scope of worry and I began to take active steps in combating it.
Let me pause here and say that the most important step in getting help for postpartum anxiety is getting diagnosed and discussing your symptoms with your doctor. Yes, there are scheduled visits in place but you can – and should- schedule an appointment with your provider whenever you feel like you have any worrisome symptoms. When you discuss your plan, be sure to choose a method of treatment that works for you and your lifestyle. There is absolutely no shame in getting help, in going to therapy or in taking medication. Not doing or doing these things does not, in any way, make you a less capable, loving, or less of a bad ass mama jama. So don’t spend one more ounce of energy denouncing yourself for accepting any of these methods of help.
Since I have several years of therapy under my belt I know what works for me and what specific actions I needed to take. I felt comfortable tackling this on my own but knew if it got beyond my control I had options and a support system in place.
- First, I needed to get out of the dang house. I felt more comfortable in my home because I could better control my environment and out there I didn’t know what was going to happen if Porter started screaming or pooped himself or God-forbid I had to nurse him in public. However, I could never learn to deal with those things if I didn’t get exposure to them. So, I forced myself to go on at least one errand or outing a day. Depending on the day it was either a trip to Target, the farmers market, or maybe just a walk around the block. Whatever it was, it was an accomplishment. The more I was out in the world the more comfortable I became being in it.
- Second, I had to lean on and trust my partner. I will never forget the first moment I told myself I had to walk away from Porter. He was crying inconsolably, despite being changed and fed, and I was rocking and trying calm him down. When you suffer from PPA, you often feel like you cannot be away from your child, that if you give him to anyone else something bad may happen to them. This over controlling behavior can inadvertently affect your significant other in profound ways, so you need to lean on each other to get through this. Chris offered to take the baby and I knew I had to hand him over so I could take a minute for myself. I walked outside (being outdoors is a safe space for me so try to find yours) and I hysterically cried. It took a couple of minutes just to calm down, a couple more to stop shaking, and then finally it felt like my skin was no longer on fire. Coincidentally, Porter stopped crying too and when I came back inside he was resting peacefully on his father.
- Third, I had to exercise. Just getting into the routine of exercising at all is the most important step. I was walking daily at a minimum of around the block and up to a 1.5 mile loop which is a great place to start. Once I was cleared by my OB at 4 weeks I was ready to take on more and incorporate some type of strength training and yoga back in my life. Except now… what was I going to do with my one month old baby? It is actually astonishing how little “mommy and me” classes or baby friendly workout environments exist and since my anxiety still wasn’t well managed enough to leave him for long periods of time- I felt kind of stuck. However, there are still a lot of options for things you can do at home, like walking, or workouts with minimal equipment. So start there! At around three months I was ready to get back in the yoga studio and I took my next big step of leaving Porter with a trusted friend. Was I a bit of a psycho prepping her with instructions? Yes. Did I rush back home immediately after class? Also yes. However I think a lot of healing started happening in that first hour away, on the mat, carving out that time for movement for me.
- Lastly, I utilized relaxation techniques. In this particular facet, you really need to find what works for you. Deep breathing, guided visualization, body scanning, there are a bunch of different techniques available to try so experiment to see what you resonate with. I was lucky enough to work with an amazing doctor at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center who specialized in mindfulness techniques. Since my goal of dealing with PTSD was to get off of medication we spent a lot of time working on this skill which was further supplemented by the general teachings of yoga. Whenever I feel myself getting anxious or in the middle of an extreme moment of anxiety, I go into a coherent breathing technique (taking about 5 breaths per minute). I was taught this technique to the sound of monk chimes which are specifically timed to rewire your central nervous system. Now I can do them without the sound track but it is always nice to have it when I want. If this interests you, feel free to download instructions and audio files here. This relaxation technique helped me not only during PPA but will continue to help me when I deal with the general anxieties of motherhood. It is a lifelong skill.
With the right treatment in place and skills in your tool belt, it is possible to manage and ultimately recover from your postpartum anxiety. You may be chasing the idea that once ‘x’ happens (they sleep through the night, they hit this milestone, they are this many months old etc) it will go away. However, anxiety has a tendency to snowball out of our control and if you delay addressing the problem it can make it harder to overcome. Remember these feelings of worry or “baby blues” are super common, but if they start becoming overwhelming and interfering with your life then it is time to speak to your doctor about it. You’ve got this mama.
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