Recognizing Post-Partum Anxiety
From Anxiety Canada.
“It’s like I have all this nervous energy; I can’t slow down or turn my brain off. Like my adrenaline is pumping all the time. When I look at my baby, instead of feeling lovey-dovey, I feel my throat and chest clench. What is wrong with me?”Jennifer
I am so nervous all the time, I feel so out of control with worries. I don’t even want to leave the house and bump into anyone I know. If I go out I worry about Arman starting to cry – what if I can’t console him, and everyone stares at me and thinks I am a terrible mother?”Salima
Having a newborn at home is a time of emotional upheaval, even under the best circumstances. Whether it’s a woman’s first venture into motherhood or her fourth, anxiety is a common feeling during this time. However, for some women, anxiety can start to build gradually and interfere with her ability to enjoy and take care of her new baby – and herself. Unfortunately, even medical care providers can miss the signs of prolonged postpartum anxiety, sometimes mislabeling it as postpartum depression or attributing it to all the sudden life changes. Many people don’t know that it’s possible to have an anxiety disorder and depression at the same time.
A moderate amount of new fears and worries is normal and expected during this time of change. If you are experiencing quite a bit of anxiety, it can be helpful to first learn more about what anxiety is, and how it can show up for new moms.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural, adaptive response we experience when we feel unsafe or threatened. We perceive many kinds of “threats”; some can be specific and real (e.g., being followed down a dark alley). Some feel more vague, like a general sense that something “bad” will happen. We may also have an anxious response to a threat we are imagining in our heads, like picturing a loved one getting into an accident.
We can experience anxiety in these areas:
- In our bodies (increased heart rate, sore stomach, tight chest and throat, shallow breathing, loss of appetite, difficulty falling or staying asleep, etc.)
- In our mind (racing thoughts about the future; imagining the worst-case scenario; ruminating; worrying and obsessing, etc.)
- In our actions or behaviours (avoiding certain situations, activities, places, or people; over-controlling; asking others for constant reassurance; checking things repeatedly; being extra careful and vigilant of danger, etc.)
Other possible signs of anxiety during the postpartum period:
- loss of appetite
- difficulty sleeping
- muscle tension (grinding teeth, neck and shoulder pain, back pain, muscle twitching)
- difficulty concentrating and focusing
Everyone experiences anxiety differently
We’d love to hear and support your story.
Read some other sample stories from Anxiety Canada, too.
Jennifer is a young mother with an 8-month-old daughter, Maya. During her pregnancy she felt very protective of her unborn baby and was terrified of having a miscarriage like her sister. For the whole nine months, Jennifer would frequently go to the bathroom to make sure she was not bleeding. She would hold her breath around any chemicals and move on a bus if someone wearing perfume sat beside her. She switched to only natural products and cleansers at home, and brought her own bedsheets and cleaning products when staying at her parents’ house.
For the first few months Jennifer would check at least 10 times a night that Maya was breathing, despite having two monitors on in the baby’s room. Seeing how anxious Jennifer was, her husband offered to check on the baby instead, but Jennifer did not trust him to do it right and would refuse.
When Maya was two months old, Jennifer had a terrible dream that she was cutting up carrots in the kitchen and then turned towards Maya with the knife. Jennifer woke up covered in sweat and ran to hold sleeping Maya. Shaking and crying from the intensity of the dream, she wondered why she would have such terrible thoughts and if they meant that she could actually hurt Maya in real life.
From that moment on, things got a lot worse for Jennifer and her family. Jennifer became petrified that she would sleepwalk and stab Maya in her sleep. Every night before she went to bed, she put a gate across the kitchen door. She also put all the knives under a pile of plates so the noise would wake her up if she went looking for a knife in her sleep.
Jennifer has become afraid of being left alone with her daughter. On bad days, she begs her husband not to leave the house. She is terrified of giving her daughter a bath, afraid that she might snap and drown Maya. When she is really upset, she finds that if she sits in a certain chair in the living room and says a prayer perfectly 10 times she feels better. However, this ritual is taking up more and more time, and now she is doing this about a dozen times a day. She also feels constant nausea and a tightness around her throat and chest.
Jennifer’s husband is trying to be understanding but he’s getting tired of her obsessing and strange rituals. Sometimes she just wants to run away and leave her family forever. At least then she knows her thoughts would never come true.
Salima is a single mom with a three-month-old son, Arman. Salima experienced a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy and was relieved when she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. The first month was a big adjustment for Salima, but overall things were going as well as she could hope. She was finally getting into a routine with feeding but Arman wasn’t sleeping for long stretches and Salima was exhausted.
About four weeks after Arman was born, Salima unexpectedly started to experience unexplained periods of dizziness. It felt like the room was spinning and things were unreal or dreamlike. She would have to sit or lie down until the sensation passed. Also, out of the blue, her heart would suddenly feel like it was racing. She would feel jittery and nervous, like she had too much caffeine. These sensations were especially likely to happen if she had been worrying about something for a long time. Salima completely lost her appetite and only felt like eating a few items like green apples and toast. Salima’s doctor asked if she was feeling depressed but she thought the symptoms didn’t quite fit. She wondered if her physical and mental changes were due to hormonal changes and lack of sleep.
During this period, Salima began to read and re-read parenting books on newborn health and sleep habits, hoping to find answers to Arman’s sleeping problem. She started to realize that parenting books are a double-edged sword for her. Instead of being helpful, the books made her feel as if she was doing everything wrong because Arman wasn’t responding. Their glowing anecdotes made it sound as if he would if she just followed their instructions on sleeping, feeding, and schedules. Salima started to distrust her own instincts. She began to constantly and repeatedly ask others for advice.
Usually a very outgoing and social person, Salima began to isolate herself at home with the baby. Timing errands between naps became more and more stressful, so she started to avoid going out unless it was absolutely necessary. Salima was able to get groceries and other necessities delivered to her apartment. This, however, has started to make her feel like a prisoner in her own home. She also worried about taking Arman out in public in case he started crying and she couldn’t calm him down. She wondering if her life would always be like this, never feeling like she could take a leisurely trip to the bookstore or coffee shop. She wondered if she would always be a slave to this new life. She found herself missing her old life and then felt guilty about thinking this way.
On the rare occasion she pushes herself to go outside for a short walk, worries pop up about Arman’s safety, like whether he is too cold, or whether a car might drive off the road and onto the sidewalk, or whether someone would grab him and run. She has stopped watching the news on television because it would create more new worries.
Most of the time Salima is too wound up to relax and enjoy her son. She feels extremely guilty and is worried that she won’t be the happy, secure mother that Arman deserves. Salima feels crazy with worry most of the time and is increasingly overwhelmed about her new role as a single mother. She says to herself, “How am I going to do this for the next week, much less the next 18 years?”
Ellen, a 37-year-old mother with a 5-year-old daughter, lives with her boyfriend. Two months ago she gave birth to their son, Kieran.
For the first 12 hours of labour, Ellen progressed well. Then her doctor discovered that the baby’s heart rate had excessively dropped and was not recovering. The medical team was concerned that the umbilical chord might be wrapped around her baby’s neck. Ellen was quickly wheeled into the operating room for an emergency C-section. The staff moved quickly around her, but did not look at her or tell her what was happening. During this whole ordeal, she was panicking and trembling uncontrollably. She felt out of control and frantic with worry about her baby. Everything was happening so fast. Ellen had always been terrified of having a C-section. She thought that she or the baby was going to die.
Ellen and Kieran stayed in the hospital for five days, recovering. Eventually they were both allowed to return home. For the first few weeks Ellen felt strangely numb and calm. Then, out of the blue, she started to have flashbacks of being wheeled into the operating room. Several times a day she relived her experience of labour, going over every detail in her head again and again. What went wrong? What did she do wrong? How could it have been different?
She would also have nightmares about her birth experience and wake up drenched in sweat with a racing heart. One minute Ellen would feel panicked and frightened, and the next minute she felt such intense rage that she would verbally snap at whoever was close by. Her relationships with her boyfriend and daughter were suffering.
Now, certain words and images trigger her. Whenever she hears an ambulance her heart races, she has difficulty breathing, and she becomes teary. Once she tried driving past the hospital, but she started shaking so much that she had to pull over. She also avoids watching any TV shows about birth and new moms. She stopped reading, which she used to enjoy doing a lot, because she can’t seem to focus on anything anymore. The hardest part for Ellen, however, is that instead of feeling positive and loving toward Kieran, she feels numb. She just wants to feel like herself again.