You’ve heard of the baby blues and postpartum depression (PPD), but postpartum anxiety? What is that?
Highlighted on the popular website Scary Mommy, it turns out, postpartum anxiety is actually three times more common than PPD. A study from the University of British Columbia found that 16 percent of pregnant women and 17 percent of new moms suffer from postpartum anxiety. That is compared with five percent of moms and four percent of pregnant women who have PPD. Dr. Nicole Fairbrother, the lead researcher, told On The Coast, “Pregnant women and postpartum women who are suffering from an anxiety disorder may not be getting the screening or assessment or treatment that they need because we aren’t thinking to ask about these kinds of concerns, because we’re so focused on depression.”
Unfortunately, I know postpartum anxiety all too well.
I experienced it after the birth of my son for over a year. I’m not sure when it began, but I do remember clearly. While on the drive home from the hospital, I had my first panic attack in the car. Before, my son and I had been in a private room and were well looked after by the nurses for five days. On the way home, the security of having knowledgeable women around to ask questions or to show me how to breastfeed and help take care of my baby's health was gone. I remember having the feeling that I wanted to go back to the safety of the hospital and that my house was not safe to bring my son home. The anxiety symptoms lasted about thirty minutes. I got through it, but I should have recognized it as a red flag. However, at that time I was a person that had a “clean, mental-health history,” meaning I had never had depression, severe mood swings, or other mental health issues, so I chalked it up to the baby blues. Little did I know over the next three months, that panic attack would slowly creep into postpartum anxiety, greatly impacting my life and lasting for over a year.
How did I know it was postpartum anxiety?
There was a lot going on in my life at that time, as there is during the first year for most first-time mothers, but after a year I self-diagnosed what I had been experiencing. On top of having my son, we moved back to Malaysia when he was three months old, I started a high-profile new job, and we had to find a home and re-establish our life in Malaysia after spending only ten months in America. It was all very stressful, but what differentiated my anxiety was that it centered around my son. I was always concerned about the baby's health, welfare, and safety. It wasn’t about the job, the house or the move. With the constant anxiety, I was a changed person, feeling anxious, nervous, and stressed all the time. I was difficult to be around.
Since I was living full-time in Malaysia at that time, a country with the lowest rates of PMAD in the world at 3%, I turned to their traditional women's health remedies, specifically their postpartum recovery practices, and was able to re-balance my hormones in three months. I felt that once I identified what I was experiencing, which also included symptoms of postpartum OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), 50% of the problem was solved. I had feminine massages that included herbal rubs and a womb lift. My cervix was low after pregnancy and childbirth and may have contributed to my continued hormonal imbalance. Once it was lifted to the correct position, my energy levels were re-established, and everything seemed to flow better. I also had herbal, vaginal saunas that strengthen my womb and body internally. I took recommended traditional herbal Jamu (traditional herbal medicine from Indonesia), medicine, and drinks specifically for postpartum recover, even though it was a year afterward. I also ate better and included more hot meals and bone broths in my diet.
Once I knew what was going on inside my brain, I better managed my postpartum anxiety at work by doing breathing and short meditation exercises and talking myself through episodes of intrusive thoughts and feelings that got better over time. Malaysia has the lowest rates of PMAD in the world, so there aren’t any doctors specializing in the field, even now. I suffered from the anxiety until I identified what it was, and then the emotional relief of finally understanding what I was going through and seeking out a solution helped greatly.
As new mothers, we must take care of ourselves and make that a priority along with everything else in our lives.
We need to be able to function in order to take care of our baby and partake in our own lives. If I were in the United States, I would have gone to a doctor much sooner, been diagnosed ,and started a treatment plan that was a blend of Western and Eastern medicine and appropriate for me as a breastfeeding mother, closely monitored by myself and a physician. I wouldn’t have had to go through it alone and would have recovered much more quickly than I did. This is what I would recommend for any new mother who feels her anxiety has been going on for more than a few weeks and may be intensifying.
How can you manage postpartum anxiety in the workplace? Firstly, get a professional diagnosis so you have a base to start from. A handful of symptoms of postpartum anxiety include racing thoughts, an inability to settle down or relax the mind, being exceptionally worried all the time about your baby’s safety, having disturbing or scary thoughts that you’ve never been having before, feeling a sense of dread, and engaging in, “what if?” scenarios. These are unnatural thoughts that our brain keeps imagining like they are a real threat. You can read about more symptoms on Postpartum Progress.
Suggestions for controlling panic attacks also work well for getting a hold of postpartum anxiety.
Kate Kripke, LCSW, of Postpartum Wellness Center in Boulder, Colorado suggests having a toolkit of things to choose from when you begin to notice early signs of anxiety in A Toolkit for Postpartum Anxiety & Panic Symptoms:
• Take 10 deep belly breaths (also known as diaphragmatic breathing).
• Drink a big glass of water.
• Eat a protein-based snack such as lean meats, nuts, cheese, or a hard-boiled egg.
• Ground yourself in the present: Look around you and note (out loud if possible) everything that you can access in all five senses. What do you see? What can you hear? What do you smell? What does it feel like to be sitting on your chair? What, exactly, do you taste as you eat your snack?
• Find a “mantra” of sorts that you can tell yourself such as “I am going to be okay,” “I am doing the best that I can,” or “I am taking care of myself.”
• Go outside. Stretch. Feel yourself move and notice the sensations in your body.
You should also consider using the popularly recommended workbook, The Pregnancy and Postpartum Anxiety Workbook: Practical Skills to Help You Overcome Anxiety, Worry, Panic Attacks, Obsessions, and Compulsions by Pamela S. Wiegartz.
Like any PMAD, postpartum anxiety is treatable and curable. The cause of PMAD has not been identified, but it is attributed to an unbalanced level of hormones after pregnancy and childbirth. With the trend in post-pregnancy recovery and wellness happening, I counsel expecting mothers to have a detailed recovery plan in place by Week 35, before she gives birth, not afterward. An after-birth recovery and recuperation plan should include nutrition, diet and meals, body care, personal care, activities, and mental health resources.
Valerie Lynn is a Traditional Feminine Healthcare Expert specializing in Postnatal Recovery as well as author of, The Mommy Plan, Restoring Your Post-Pregnancy Body, Using Women’s Traditional Wisdom and the cookbook Healing Meals: Simple Recipes for New Moms (Q1-2018). Valerie has lived, worked and conducted research in Japan, the U.K., Australia and Indonesia. Her coaching practice in New York City supports expecting mothers and their families guiding them through a new mother’s recovery based on the most holistic and effective after birth recovery program in the world with success rates of 97%. Her seminar, Optimizing Maternity Leave: A Roadmap to Post-Pregnancy Recovery is gaining recognition in the public and private sectors. The objective of her work and the seminar is for every new mother to create her own individualized, systematic, daily 6-Week & Beyond Post-Pregnancy Recovery & Recuperation Plan starting from Day 1, Birth Day; encompassing new nutritional needs, diet and meals, personal care, body care, activities and maternal mental health needs. Having a Recovery Plan in place ensures a systematic and progressive healing and recovery takes place during the Healing Window of Opportunity that every woman has naturally but doesn’t benefit from.