It has been difficult to put into words what I experienced in the early months of my postparum period. It feels like I’ve had a sort of fog over me for most of these last eight months. It’s been difficult to share something that is personal and upsetting, especially since it juxtaposes with a joyous time in my life. I would never want anyone to think that this experience has lessened the joy I feel about being a new mom, or to question the endless love I have for my son. But recently, the fog has seemed to clear and I am ready to share my experience with you.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental illness is not something unfamiliar to me. Anxiety disorder runs in my family and I’ve grown up around people who have been open about their lived experience with it. About four years ago, I recognized that anxiety disorder was interfering with my daily life. I was able to keep it at bay through the help of cognitive behavioural therapy. Going into my pregnancy I felt stronger and healthier than ever, both mentally and physically. I never anticipated that I could be hit again with the crippling anxiety that I had worked so hard to overcome.
You’ve probably heard of postpartum depression. But have you heard of postpartum anxiety? I didn’t know it was part of the category of postpartum mood disorders thousands of women face. 1/6 women in fact, and 1/10 men.
After having my son, I was aware that I was at risk of postpartum depression because of my family history. But I never felt detached from my baby; on the contrary, we were develop a strong bond. In my mind, I was in the clear. I didn’t know, however, that the fluctuation of postpartum hormones mixed with chronic sleep deprivation could trigger a range of other mood disorders, especially any pre-exiting ones.
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New parenthood comes with a healthy dose of worry. You wonder if your baby is gaining enough weight. If you’ll ever sleep again. If it’s been too long since their last poop. But as a sat in my doctors office describing my own thought patterns, she slowly checked off a number of boxes in a survey. “What you’re experiencing is postpartum anxiety disorder.” She knew and I knew it wasn’t just a healthy dose of worry but something that was interfering with my daily life and my enjoyment of my baby.
It didn’t show up right away. It started with a conversation with someone about vaccines. This person’s view was that vaccines could be linked to all sorts of diseases and disorders in children. I was just two weeks away from getting my baby’s first vaccines, and every day of those two weeks I couldn’t get the haunting image of my baby getting sick out of my mind. It was just the start of a downward spiral into a dark hole of endless ‘bad things’ that could happen to my baby.
As my love for my son intensified with each new day, the thought that anything could take him away or harm him intensified as well.
I was confronted with not only his mortality, but also my own. What if something happened to me? Who would be there for him? Who would love him as much as I do? The thoughts would keep me up at night, as I spent hours on my phone researching every scenario and how to avoid them from happening.
The fear started to alter my behaviour to the point I didn’t want to do certain things that were part of my daily life before. People close to me noticed what was happening. I had told my mom and husband I didn’t want to drive in the car out of fear that the air pollution would be too toxic for my baby. Not to mention the risk of getting into a car accident.
I think the hardest part of it all was the fact that these thought patterns were negatively impacting my experience as a new mom. I was tense and on edge. I felt small and weak; unfit for the job of protective mother. There were many days I felt hopeless about my lack of control over life. But as someone who has faced the demons of mental illness previously, I knew the steps I had to take to pull myself out of this state before it got worse.
Here are some of the ways I was able to recover from and manage postpartum anxiety:
- Talk to your doctor. They can confirm whether what you are experiencing is manageable postpartum worry (“Is my baby gaining enough weight?” “Will I ever sleep again?”) or something more severe.
- Talk to a therapist. I am thankful that I am able to access resources that helped me get well again. With the help of a therapist, I was able to identify healthy vs. unhealthy thought patterns and behaviours. We made a plan and I followed through with the actionable steps. It also helped to simply talk things out with a professional. I can recommend a good one.
- Talk to other moms. You may find, like I did, that your experience is more common than you think.
- Lean on friends and/or family for support. They have renewed patience and energy to play with your baby while you get some rest or take a break.
- Self-care. Within healthy limits, treat yourself often. That cookie from that certain bakery makes you happy. Have one. That shirt you were eyeing at the mall would make you feel bright and beautiful. Buy it. A warm bath while your hubby take baby for a walk. Go for it.
- Try supplements. Along with a healthy, balanced diet, supplementation could help support a healthy brain. Vitamin D if you live in Canada, a B-Complex supplement and some high quality fish oil can help fuel your brain.
- Get active. I didn’t have energy to do much, but I did take a 30 min walk with my baby every day.
- Meditate. At least 2 min a day. I try to do 10 min. I like the app Abide, which is a Christian based mediation app. I’ve heard great things about HeadSpace as well.
For the three month period that I experienced postpartum anxiety, I was fortunate to have people around me who could empathize with what I was going through. But I know there are some people who feel alone in their walk with any sort of mental illness. They feel ashamed and afraid to share because of what others may think of them.
By sharing my experience, I hope to raise awareness of something that doesn’t get talked about too much. I am standing in solidarity with anyone who may be battling the same thing I went through. Most importantly, I hope to normalize conversations around a topic that still carries stigma in our society. I know because for a moment, I felt reluctant to share my experience on here because of what some people would think of me. Would they think I am weak? That I am flawed? That I am weird?
People develop mental illness for a variety of reasons that often have little to do with personal failure or choices.
If you’re reading this and you are carrying any shame, know that you are not defined by any sort of illness or chronic condition. We all struggle with something, whether we admit it or not. If you are reading this and you’ve never experienced mental illness, recognize that we don’t know everyone’s life story; their early experiences, their family history, or their biological makeup. People develop mental illness for a variety of reasons that often have little to do with personal failure or choices.
As I look at my eight month old son, I can only hope he will grow up in a society in which people can speak of their personal journey with mental illness and be viewed not as crazy or weak, but as resilient and strong.