The statistics on women (and men!) suffering from postpartum depression are astounding. The issue is complicated and filled with grey areas that go beyond simple chemical imbalances, hormones and genetics. The truth is, I believe that we understand very little of this mental health issue!
While the media might have us believe that sufferers of postpartum depression are likely to dangle their infants out of open windows or attempt suicide, women and families everywhere know that the reality of PPD can be much less dramatic, but still incredibly scary and confusing.
Unfortunately, the image that we have of PPD being an illness that causes women to jump off of bridges is a damaging portrayal of an issue that can affect anyone at any time in any degree of seriousness, because when the only thing that we look out for is suicidal thoughts, then we miss or ignore some of the many other symptoms of these mental health issues. And yes, I said "issues"! Postpartum depression is not the only condition a birthing person might struggle with after having a baby- there are other conditions such as postpartum anxiety and postpartum psychosis.
What I am going to share with you today is not the science behind why and how this affects women, or the history of these mental health issues. Partly because I believe the science is lacking and like I said, there is still more to learn. Also, I am not a scientist. But what I will share- my own story- is, in my experience, just as important. Because perhaps someone out there might read this and say "Whoa! Me too..." or "Oh, I thought I was the only one!"
Sharing our stories is powerful medicine for us who do the telling, but also for those who listen because it normalizes the experience and lets us know that we are not alone. It can also empower someone to get help, or give them words for an experience that they didn't previously have. What I am going to talk about in this blog today is not postpartum depression (yet. Stay tuned for that!), I will be sharing my most recent experience with you: postpartum anxiety.
Postpartum anxiety was a sneaky and confusing little bugger when it first began to creep up on me after giving birth last July!
You see, I was prepared for all kinds of things. For those of you familiar with me and my story, you know that I was a surrogate for my third pregnancy. So I prepared myself mentally to feel a little melancholy at coming home without a baby to hold. I was even aware that I might slip into a bit of a depression because I have dealt with PPD in the past. I felt that I had the tools to handle whatever came my way, and I was prepared to deal with all of it with grace and the support of my husband.
But this postpartum anxiety wasn't like the heavy darkness that slowly settled over my head years ago. After little Baby Mae was born I felt incredible. I actually really enjoyed this postpartum experience, because I was able to care for myself like I have never done before! Without a newborn I was sleeping deeply every night, caring for myself daily with gentle ayurvedic routines, pillow-talking with hubby in the middle of the day, journaling, reading... it was like the best vacation I've ever had. I was feeling refreshed and rejuvenated in a way I've never experienced after my weeks of bed rest!
The birth was fast, but I became aware that it was a little too fast for my comfort. The way my body felt so entirely out of control was beginning to settle in my mind and I found myself experiencing moments of absolute panic just as I'd begin to fall asleep. But in the moment I didn't believe anything was "wrong". I would simply breath and then drift off to sleep. But then as time went on, I would notice that at various times during the day I'd find breathing difficult. My chest would tighten suddenly, My eyes would swell up with tears and I'd feel a definite sense of panic. But of what?! I could never figure it out.
Soon this panic began to manifest as a feeling that I was surely dying. I would be walking through the grocery store. Sudden panic. And then the mental self-talk goes something like this:
"Oh God. Relax your face, don't make it obvious... I'm dying. What will I do with my kids, I don't want them to be frightened. Can I make it home first? I would like to die somewhere comfortable.."
And another part of my brain, sounding much smaller:
"Wait, what? Silly, of course you aren't dying! Where is this coming from? Something isn't right..."
And this began to happen several times a day. I started to be afraid to fall asleep while simultaneously resigning to the idea that I wouldn't wake up the next morning.
It felt weird to me too! I knew something was "off", but I also knew that this wasn't depression at all. I settled into a new normal and didn't pay these panic attacks much attention. I started to create ways to deal with the sensations as they arose, and then I'd let it fade and go away. Moving on.
But then I started to project this fear onto my kids. I would suddenly be overcome with panic during mundane every day occurrences, and I would be certain (and terrified) that they were going to die. If one of them sniffled- "Oh my God, she's dying!" If one of them complained of a pain, "She has childhood cancer!"
This, I knew, was not like me and it was also very strange for my personality. I became terrified of germs, eating any food that I didn't prepare at home, and the list goes on. I was also hiding it all really really well.
So what's the deal? What was going on and where am I at now?
I started to suspect postpartum anxiety and contacted a few people to confirm a diagnosis. Unfortunately there aren't any state-of-the-art ways to diagnose these kinds of issues, so it is more like a conversation, a series of questions, and then "Yep! Sounds like anxiety!" (If you are seeing a healthcare practitioner who doesn't believe in anxiety and tells you that you are just tired, see someone else!)
Knowing that you aren't crazy is always comforting. But it doesn't fix anything, does it? There are medications on the market for anxiety, but me being me (and maybe you being you), I felt that I'd rather treat this as naturally as possible before resorting to medications.
So why me? I made preparations regarding my mental health before giving birth, I have resources, I do yoga and meditate every day and I was getting plenty of sleep and healthy, nutritious food. What gives? That's the thing about these mental health issues. They can happen to ANYONE! It is never your fault and there is no way you could have prevented this, so there is no use in beating yourself up or carrying any guilt. Once you reveal the problem to yourself (oftentimes realizing that there is a problem takes longer than we'd like to admit), it is only moving forward from there.
Let's review just in case you have experienced some of these things as well (and remember, this was MY experience. You might feel that some of these are familiar, but the time to seek help is the time when you know that something is wrong or off.):
- I started having trouble falling asleep
- I was experiencing a tightening in the chest, a feeling of sudden panic and had difficulty breathing
- My thoughts were irrational and filled with panic
- I began to fear for my children and their well-being in an irrational way
- I knew deep down that something was off
Moving Forward- What Did I Do?
Unfortunately, conventional medicine did not offer me anything of use. This is a problem with the system that I personally find really disheartening, and I have no advice for this. Unless my situation got to a point where i felt medication was going to be helpful, I felt that I had to rely on my own resources. Let me say again- my experience. This may be helpful to you, but if you only take one thing from this let it be this: take the time to listen to your body and what it is telling you.
No More Coffee
The first thing I did was cut out caffeine. I did this because it is known that the caffeine in coffee may cause anxiety to worsen, but mostly because I listened to my body and I saw a direct correlation to when I had coffee to how many panic attacks I was experiencing in a day.
Don't get complacent with your health
Balancing my hormones, filling up with superfoods and supportive herbs such as the tablets from Banyan Botanicals became a top priority. I started sipping on mineral broths, reishi mushrooms, miso broth, etc. and filling up with fats, protein and a lot of leafy greens. I also found that I needed to keep my exercise routine gentle and supportive. A lot of yin yoga and slow, gentle flows.
The sister science of yoga became a real lifestyle in these months postpartum. Daily morning massage with warm oil, scraping my tongue, rinsing my nasal passages with my neti pot, warm baths during the night, balancing the food and tastes on my plate, taking time out for pranayama (breathing practices)... I found it was hard to feel anxious when you are just soaking yourself in feel-good vibes throughout the day. Literally living a full day of self-care! Look up simple morning and evening rituals for your own supportive practice. Make it a non-negotiable, even if you have a newborn! It is not an indulgence, it is necessary.
Ask for Help
I got help. A lot of it. I received all of the help that was offered to me with gratitude and I didn't began to mentally plan the ways in which I would immediately pay them back. This was a time for receiving. I let myself be loved on and catered to and I took mental breaks when I needed them and trusted that my family would be okay. And guess what? They always were! Ask friends and family for a meal, for someone to babysit, for your partner to do more than his fair share of chores around the house so you can get a break, talk to a therapist. If none of these things are possible for you, hire a postpartum doula!
Talk to Your Tribe
This might be the biggest and most helpful thing I can offer and the best thing I do for myself. Find those people in your tribe who can listen without judgement or trying to "fix" you. Find the ones who hold space and make you feel seen and heard. Love them hard, let them in and just TALK! A good way to begin the conversation might go something like this,
"Hi! I am really going through something right now. I feel like I have a lot to say, and you are someone I feel safe with. Are you available to spend some time with me to just listen to what is going on with me?"
This can be a heavy topic for someone who loves you, so getting their permission first and opening up the space for honest sharing is an important step for yourself as well as for them. It gives them the option to say "No, not yet" if they need time to take care of themselves first so they can be fully present for you. It is also a practice in voicing exactly what you need- someone to listen. Not someone who will be sharing what is also going on with them, or rambling on about their co-worker Susan who went through something similar and cured herself with acupuncture and herbs.
A lot of my self-care has continued to where I am now, 6 months postpartum. I have created a practice that feels sustainable for the long-term even though my anxiety has only come back once in the last 2 months. (After having a cup of coffee!) I don't expect to suddenly "cure" anything in just a few short months with green juices and meditation. Mental health is more complicated than that, but for myself, this is working.
I would like to wrap up by saying that overall, these last 6 months after giving birth have been great. I feel happy and fulfilled and generally I feel like the same Jasmine that I've always been! Anxiety or even PPD don't have to be something that take over your life so completely that there is room for nothing else. That can be part of why these experiences are so confusing to us as we are going though them, and also may be why we wait so long to admit that we have a problem.
If you have any questions or you would like to share your own story with me, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For your local resources try contacting your local doulas and midwives, talk to your OBGYN, and show up to some of the Mom Meetups in your area.