The panic was overwhelming. The majority of my waking moments were consumed with fear and worry. Yet, there was a beautiful infant in my arms and I desperately wanted to be the “typical” mother who was embracing the ability to be “super.” The feelings of anxiety and worry I was experiencing were not necessarily new to me since I have had Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) for years. I am also a Physician Assistant in Women’s Health and knew the signs, symptoms, and physiology behind postpartum anxiety and depression. However, in comparison to the past, my panic in the postpartum period was far worse and I feared the next episode.
I even found myself questioning my purpose as a mother. Yes, mothers worry and new mother’s probably even more so. In fact, when I lightly mentioned my anxiety to a few mom friends, the response was “Oh, get used to that feeling…it only get’s worse. Just wait until…” This made me internalized my worries and fears even more. Was he breathing? Happy? Gaining weight? At only a week old, I would even begin to worry or catastrophize about events 5-10 years down the road! My appetite decreased significantly despite my knowledge of the increased need for calories with breastfeeding. This only perpetuated the guilt and encouraged the worry cycle.
I am the daughter of an OB/GYN, a medical educator, a Physician Assistant in OB, and even wrote my doctoral dissertation on the use of mindfulness to overcome anxiety. Yet I still felt alone, ashamed, and completely afraid. Wasn’t I supposed to be able, physically and mentally, as a woman and as a mother, to handle my emotions? After all, I knew the tricks, the techniques, and the medication options. I even felt that maybe I was less of a woman or a mother if I couldn’t overcome this on my own. So I struggled, and my husband struggled. Finally, I realized that to move forward, I had to ask for help. Sitting with my concerned husband one night, I decided that I was ready. A quick email to one of my colleagues, Dr. Jeff Temple at UTMB-Galveston, was immediately answered. He spoke with me over the phone to calm my current state and discussed with me what I needed to do next.
I asked Dr. Temple to answer a few questions about postpartum anxiety and discuss resources available to help those suffering. Once again he stressed the normality of these experiences stating, “Being responsible for the fate and livelihood of another human being is scary, and having to do this all day every day is overwhelming. I’m just surprised the rate of postpartum anxiety and depression isn’t higher – especially for first time moms and those with little support.” He went on to say that, “While a majority of perinatal women will suffer from some form of “baby blues” and be generally anxious about delivering and raising a newborn, about 15% will develop postpartum depression and 10% will develop postpartum anxiety. Many will experience both.”
He emphasized that distinguishing between expected and “normal” reactions when becoming a new mother from clinical symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety is a matter of the duration and degree of symptoms and whether or not symptoms impair everyday functioning. Dr. Temple offers the following suggestions for seeking help:
- Enlist the help of your family, friends, and neighbors. No one should have to spend 24 hours a day with a newborn. And if you know someone with a newborn, offer support.
- It’s OK to not want to spend every second with your baby. It’s OK to be annoyed with your baby. It’s OK to want to spend time by yourself. I always say that my two favorite times of day are when I see my kids and when I leave them.
- Don’t let your new circumstance dictate your life. Get up in the morning, get ready, eat, take care of yourself. Take your baby along for the ride – not the other way around.
- Babysitters are your friends. Date nights are good. Alone time is great.
- Communicate with your doctor if you think you’re feeling anxious or depressed. Having these feelings does not mean that you’re a bad parent or that you love your child any less. Keeping your doctor in the loop is essential.
My struggle with anxiety will never go away; there are good days and challenging days. However, on the day that I asked for help from someone other than my husband or family, I felt a sense of relief. Finally, I allowed myself to be the patient and not the medical professional.
As women, we also need to remember that we should not expect ourselves to be or allow other people to assume that we are super-human. We need to be able accept the fact that it is OK to ask for and receive help. We need to look out for each other and not be ashamed of talking about personal struggles. More importantly, we need to empower our daughters and sons to recognize that many times it is takes the strength of a team to simply survive.