After my anxiety really blew up when I was in my twenties, my main issues were mostly physical….heart palpitations, adrenaline surges, shaking hands, hyperventilating, etc.
One such recurrence happened right around the time my first child was born.
Each of my pregnancies brought with it a unique set of mental health symptoms, and with the birth of my first child came intense, irrational worry and phobias.
I was somewhat familiar with postpartum depression (PPD) at that time. After I found out I was pregnant, I wanted to be prepared and ready for it if and when it came, so I talked to my doctor about the signs and risk factors to watch out for. I thought I was on top of everything.
But one thing I had never considered was the possibility of postpartum anxiety.
PPD does often have some elements of anxiety to it, but I was not aware that there was a specific postpartum issue that can exist with PPD or without, that involved a massive increase in anxiety symptoms. I hadn’t planned on it at all, and when it reared its ugly head, I was completely blindsided. You might find that really surprising considering my past history with anxiety, but I had never once heard of anxiety increasing after having a baby…other than the “normal” anxiety that comes along from the stress of caring for a child. I had heard of mothers feeling “sad”. I had heard of mothers feeling unattached to their babies. But nobody warned me about the symptoms that were about to come my way.
I love my doctor but I have to say that a little “head’s up” would have been nice.
Postpartum anxiety is so common. Having a baby is a HUGE contributor to anxiety because it is such a strong life change and we are usually completely neglecting ourselves in order to ensure that our babies get the care that they need. I can’t speak for all moms but with my first pregnancy, I was kind of over focused on the “cute and sweet” aspect of it, and when I realized how hard it was after the baby got here…it was a bit of a “jolt” to my system. And I doubt that is an uncommon reaction.
With a first child, our whole world changes and it doesn’t matter how much we love and adore our babies…our systems need time to adjust and that adjustment period can be a bit “rocky” to say the least. You could be on the greatest cruise ship in the world but that doesn’t mean you won’t get sea sick for a while.
And I can’t leave out the hormonal factors, of course. I don’t know HOW hormones affect anxiety, I only know that they DO. I take full responsibility for all of my anxiety symptoms, but hormones absolutely, 100%, affect my thinking and ability to cope with stress. PMS and postpartum are always a bad time for me anxiety wise and with my first child, it was no exception.
In addition to the hormonal factors, I had just found out on the day my daughter was born that my mother was dying of mesothelioma, AND I had just taken my three-year old nephew in to live with me because my sister had drug problems and couldn’t care for him. So my life was just full of chaos and drama and highs and lows and it was an extremely difficult time…. one of the worst of my life actually.
It wasn’t long after my baby was born, that I started developing fears….
Not just fears over things that you would expect somebody to be afraid of, like dogs or spiders or airplanes…… although there were plenty of those. There were also some really odd phobias that developed, that seemed to come out of nowhere.
For example, I developed a fear that I might drive my car off the road. I know…sounds crazy right? Except……. if you are here reading this page….you may know exactly what I am talking about.
One day I was driving down the road and didn’t remember driving the last mile of highway, and it really freaked me out. Now I know that is a common thing that happens to people all the time because you just zone out and get lost in thought while you are driving. But at the time, I didn’t know that it was common, and I started analyzing why it happened and I started to wonder if I was blacking out. And if I was blacking out….then what was to stop me from swerving out of my lane and into a ditch or into another car?
Almost instantly, a phobia was born. Whatever the phobia is called that someday you are going to drive your car into a ditch….I now had it.
I also developed fears about choking while eating.
One day, I was eating a piece of steak and it didn’t go down smoothly. After I swallowed it, I still felt the sensation in my throat that it was there. And because I am not happy unless I am dissecting every thought I have down to a bare nub, I started to pick that sensation apart. Why did I STILL feel it after my steak went down? How did I KNOW there wasn’t a piece of steak still lodged in my throat? What if it shifted and it blocked my airway?
Pretty soon…I developed a phobia of choking so powerful that I would not swallow my food unless I chewed it down to a microscopic size. Thank God I have a healthy relationship with food, and I know I need food to maintain my moods, and my existence….. because if I didn’t…… I can easily see myself having allowed this to become a situation where I was too scared to eat.
I also developed a fear that I might go crazy like those people on the news, and harm myself or somebody that I loved. I remember not long after my daughter was born, there was a show on TV about Andrea Yates, the woman who drowned her children in the bathtub a few years prior. I had heard of her before and I knew what she did and it made me sick to think about it…especially now that I was a mother myself. I had always just assumed she was a psychopath or just an incredibly selfish, horrible person. But then as I was watching that show…….I heard some words that jumped out at me. “Postpartum Psychosis”.
I had heard a little about postpartum psychosis in my past. (I am a person with health anxiety, so there aren’t many health conditions I have not heard of.) I was a little nervous about it while pregnant, but never in an irrational sense. I knew it wasn’t as common as PPD, and my mind was already filled with worry about my pregnancy and the birth, so I was already getting my “worry fix” and not subconsciously finding the need to look for more. Well, after having the baby and no longer having the pregnancy and birth to worry about….apparently my worry addiction was looking for some place new to land and let me just say that “postpartum psychosis” was exactly what I didn’t know I was looking for.
I heard those words on my TV that day, and instantly a fear was born.
Postpartum Psychosis? That sounds awful! What If I get that? What if hurt my baby? What if I hurt my nephew? What if I can’t stop myself?
I am not at all trying to suggest that all women with postpartum psychosis go on to try to harm their children. (Please go to www.postpartum.net for real facts about postpartum psychosis.) But that is right where my exhausted mind went with it. Straight to worst case scenario.
It’s true that in the weeks prior to watching that show, I already thought I was going crazy and that I was having a nervous breakdown of some kind. But it never occurred to me that I might develop postpartum psychosis and lose control of myself and hurt somebody else.
(That is the thing about anxiety. We do just fine until something “occurs” to us).
And now it had definitely occurred to me. It was my worst nightmare. I couldn’t imagine ever harming somebody I loved. What if I became like that Andrea Yates woman and just woke up one day and hurt my kids?
I became plagued with these kinds of irrational fears, and they very quickly drifted into the “intrusive thought” realm, which is basically when you can’t seem to stop thinking about these thoughts no matter how hard you try.
It was one of the worst times of my life because not only was my mother dying and my sister’s drug addiction was creating havoc, but I had waited 10 years and gone through all kind of fertility treatments and thousands of dollars to get pregnant. And now my baby was here and I couldn’t enjoy a second of it. I was in misery every day.
Looking back I just don’t even want to think about how tired my mind must have been to have thought those things and not immediately realized how unfounded and irrational those fears are. As I sit and edit this page..I have a lump in my throat because I feel so sorry for that girl that I used to be. I remember how she felt and my heart just goes out to her. She really does seem like a different person from myself…that is how much I have changed since those days..but I remember….I remember so strongly how scared I was. And I just wish I could go back and tell her that everything will be okay. ( But its okay. She wouldn’t have believed me anyway. She had to walk her yellow brick road and find the truth out for herself. And she did. :))
The only person I had told about this was my husband. I told him everything about my anxiety because I trusted him 100%. He is the type of guy to always say it like it is and that is something I need in my life. As usual, he was very undisturbed by any of it, which kind of shocked me. I would say, “I am telling you that I am afraid I am going to get postpartum psychosis and hurt the kids, and you think that’s……no big deal.” He would just say “You really need to calm down. People think weird thoughts all the time. You are over reacting to what is going on and worrying about stuff that is not going to happen.“
He completely trusted me and I didn’t understand why. It’s almost like I WANTED him to agree with me so then he could tell me that I was right to be so upset….that all my worry and fear was over something REAL. I think part of me wanted those concerns of mine to be real because that would mean that it all made sense……that I wasn’t just creating wild, crazy concerns out of thin air. Because honestly to me, at that point, I was desperate for something……anything…..to make sense. I had experience with anxiety…I knew about panic and adrenaline and worry and all that. But that all made sense to me. I had educated myself on it. But these new symptoms……..I knew nothing about them….no first hand experience anyway, and they played on my worst fears.
Its like my subconscious knew that I was no longer afraid of myself dying from panic or anxiety….so it decided to switch my fears to something else…..like the death of my loved ones. My subconscious knew that was worse to me than my own death and that it would take me right back into the pits of the worry addiction hell that I craved……the hell that in a ridiculously twisted way was my comfort zone. And it was right.
I knew I had to do something. Nothing I was trying on my own was working, so just as I did with my first round of symptoms, I decided I needed to talk to a psychologist and find out what was going on. Normally I am a “do it yourself” kind of gal when it comes to handling my anxiety problems but this fear was too big for me to handle on my own. I needed reassurance from a professional.
There is no shame in asking for help, and I felt no shame. I have never felt shame about my anxiety, post partum related or otherwise, one time in my entire life. I don’t have time for shame. YOU don’t have time for shame. We have more important things to be concerning ourselves with. We have business to take care of, and sometimes we need to ask for a little help in order to do that. Its called doing what you gotta do to get better.
I remember the day that I went into her office , not feeling shame, but oh so scared because I had finally made the decision to confess ALL my phobias and fears and weird thoughts to her. I just decided that I couldn’t live this way anymore and I was going to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. If she decided I was crazy and they locked me up, I guess that was what needed to happen.
As I talked and told her every single fear I had, the tears were gushing down my face. It felt SO unbelievably good to get it off my chest. I was purging myself of months of stress and worry and I will never, ever forget how I kept feeling lighter and more free with every confession.
But as I was telling her all of these things, the interesting thing is that the psychologist never batted an eyelash.
She barely even raised her eyes from her notepad to look at me. She didn’t look shocked or disgusted or afraid of me. She just looked……….bored, actually.
I continued on telling her my fears and she asked me some questions about my life and I answered them and cried some more and I finally ended with the words, “I think I am going crazy.” And she raised her head and gave me a look that said “Oh bless your little heart.” and she said, “Actually, I think you are a really strong person to have gone through everything that you have gone through.”
“What?” I thought. Didn’t she hear a word of what I said? I was so completely confused.
I remember thinking “I am trying to get help from you, lady. Do you even have a degree?” I was annoyed and not happy that the free psych visits my husband’s insurance provided was at a place with people who clearly didn’t know what they were doing.
I promise you that is exactly what I was thinking.
But she kept smiling and told me that what I was going through was all simply a sensitive person’s reaction to stress and change, and that it was possibly complicated by hormones and that I was not even close to being crazy. She said that everything I was going through was very common among people with anxiety disorders, both in the postpartum period and otherwise. I was told that there was no way I could just “lose my mind” one day and that it was extremely unlikely I would end up with postpartum psychosis.
And most importantly, she also told me that the fact that I was so worried about going crazy was one way to be sure that I was NOT going crazy. Apparently, the specific fears that I had, although they seemed really unusual to me, were really not all that unusual. That may have been one of the things that surprised me the most. Not only did other people have irrational fears….but they had the same “crazy sounding” irrational fears I had.
The more this psychologist talked, the more I started to believe what she was saying. She made sense to me. She explained this all in a way that made it “click” for me. (I’ve told you about the “click” before. The “click” is a crucial part of anxiety recovery.) (I would link to it if I could remember what post I wrote about it in, but I will when I find it.) But anyway, I was not crazy. I was not going to hurt my kids. Thoughts aren’t the same as urges.
She also told me that a lot of the feelings I was having were due to my feelings of not having control over my life anymore. And that made so much sense to me. I am….a creature of habit…routine is security for me and I lost all that after the baby came home. I would say that having a baby was like my life had been turned into a roller coaster ride, and I felt like I had to hold on really tight to everything around me or I or the baby would go flying off the ride. That is why I obsessed and worried so much about everything going on around me. It was just a primal sort of reaction to the chaos in my life driven by that maternal extinct to keep my environment and baby safe.
I cannot tell you how the tears were flowing down my face that day. Such relief. Intense, intense relief.
When I left her office, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I wasn’t a freak. I was “normal”. I was going to be okay. That day is definitely in the top ten of the happiest days of my life. I don’t have many “happy” days. I am just not wired that way and I am okay with that. I am too much of an over thinker for it. But that day…..oh that day was sheer joy.
I started educating myself about my new symptoms and eventually over time, like with my first round of anxiety symptoms, they were all a thing of the past. I took better care of myself, I ignored the urge to dwell on those fears and indulge them and I eventually forgot them and moved on. New symptoms, including more irrational phobias and intrusive thoughts developed after the delivery of my other kids, as well as at other high stress times in my life, but I got through all of them too, usually with some sound straight talk from somebody who could see that I needed it, followed by some good self-care.
I am bound to have more episodes of intrusive thinking in the future as well…it goes with the territory of being me. Although I can assure that it definitely won’t be postpartum related next time. 🙂 Probably more like peri-menopause. Hormones are awesome, aren’t they?
Always keep in mind that those of us with anxiety are so analytical and such HUGE over-thinkers that we can turn pretty much anything into a phobia and any phobia can become an intrusive thought if the “atmosphere” in our mind is just right.
If the ground in our mind has been fertilized with just the right amount of stress and mental exhaustion, we can grow Jack and the Beanstalk sized phobias and worries. Our imaginations are that good.
Remember that it doesn’t matter what your phobia is about or how crazy it sounds…..there is no phobia that is any more or any less weird or “crazy” than another phobia. You cannot be responsible for where your exhausted, stressed out and/or hormonal laden mind decides to land. It is going to land on whatever it lands on. Airplanes falling out of the sky, driving your car off the road, not being able to swallow your food…..its all the same…just fantastical fiction your subconscious conjures up and you aren’t the tiniest bit “crazy” for any of it. However, you are responsible for recognizing that these are signs of exhaustion and mental stress and that you need to start taking better care of yourself.
Please know and understand that there is just no limit to where the mind can go when it is tired and stressed and full of adrenaline. Your anxiety can “latch” onto anything. Please know that you could have the craziest phobias in the world and still be 100% normal. (Well, as normal as the average person anyway………the old saying is true that the only normal people are the ones you haven’t met yet.)
When it comes to anxiety disorders, “weird” phobias do not equal sick mind. They equal tired mind. They are just a sign that you need to rest and emotionally heal from the stress in your life.
Do not be afraid to seek professional help, and do not be afraid to ask for personal help as well.
As the saying goes: anxiety disorders, whether they are postpartum related or not, are a big sign that you have tried to do it all, and control it all, completely on your own for too long. You don’t have to keep it up forever. See if you can let go a little bit and let some other people in to share your mental loads as well as the physical ones. Once you do that, AND resist your urge to over-analyze these fears, you will almost always start to see your phobias and irrational thinking disappear.
For more information about postpartum anxiety, here is a helpful article from Parents.com, as well as an article from PSU.edu. that discusses the prevalence of postpartum anxiety in today’s world. You can also check out another postpartum post of mine in which I answer a reader’s question about her symptoms.
Thanks for reading.
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