by Austin Dixon
I never fully recognized myself as an anxious person before having kids. I think this was mainly due to lack of self-awareness, but I was also able to live a more carefree life when I did not have children. Anxiety was likely always there, sneakily presenting itself in hidden forms, but I did not notice it. Not until my miscarriage, and then when my first child was born.
The miscarriage, though very early on, was devastating. Even though the internet told me how common they were—10 to 15% of women who know they’re pregnant miscarry—it was no less physically and emotionally painful. I felt isolated and alone. At the time, I was the only person I knew who had experienced a miscarriage. I had no idea the impact this could have on a woman. None.
While my miscarriage was heartbreaking, my story is not a sad one. I got pregnant a second time soon after the miscarriage. I went through pregnancy without any physical issues, though I can’t say the same for my emotional state. I started to recognize my anxiety in ways I never had before. Every time I had to pee for the next nine months, I was terrified that I would see blood. I would panic when I had not thrown up in 12 hours, sure that I was no longer carrying a living being. Even once I started feeling the baby move, I was just scared that I hadn’t felt it enough. In my head, I made up a completely arbitrary “baby moving timeline.” If my child did not meet my imaginary time frame, I would quickly become convinced that something was horribly wrong. It is amazing what we convince ourselves is true.
Interestingly, the closer I got to giving birth, the less anxious I became. I am not sure why this was. I did a lot of research on labor and delivery so I would know what was happening when it all started, but knowledge does not usually soothing my anxiety. I typically manage to create such believable anxiety-inducing stories in my head that they override any actual knowledge or logic. It’s a talent, really. So each time I entered late stage pregnancy and felt the anxiety start to slip away, I would think “Great. It’s gone. I am good, now.”
The real anxiety hit when my first child made her entry into this world. But it was sneaky — it let my hormones do their job in the beginning, allowing me to float on a high of endorphins while slowly seeping into my consciousness. But then it hit me, and began to wreak havoc on my days and nights.
This is probably a good time to mention that I have a very low threshold for physical or emotional discomfort. Even my clothing style is what I describe as a “Professional Pajama” look. I try to create physical comfort in order to facilitate emotional comfort. Sometimes, you have to work from the outside in when your insides aren’t cooperating. I mention this because I know other women struggle way more with postpartum anxiety than I did. But I believe what I experienced is extremely common, and a woman with a higher tolerance for discomfort might choose to suffer what I suffered alone, without seeking the help of friends, family, and healthcare professionals. That is exactly what I hope this post can prevent.
Once my postpartum anxiety hit, I spent most of my days fearful that something was wrong with the baby. I would count her breaths and check the clock, convinced she was having trouble breathing. She wasn’t. I hated bath time because she was so wiggly and slippery – I was afraid she would slide from my hands. She didn’t. My uncle is a pediatrician, and though I wasn’t in the habit of calling him, his number was put on speed dial. I obsessed over carriers, food, tummy time… and guess what? She is fine. As my kids got older, I would obsess over dry-drowning. Thank you, internet, for providing me with that new worry. And don’t even get me started on tick bites and the flu. The list goes on and on.
I never got any help because at the time most people were just starting to talk about postpartum depression, and I had not heard much about postpartum anxiety. But then, we live in a culture where mental illness is all-too-often taboo, and I just thought this was what motherhood felt like.
I now know that postpartum anxiety disorder affects one in ten new moms — and that it can also affect men. Sarah Gottfried, M.D., who wrote The Hormone Cure, says, “You constantly feel worried and on edge…I think of postpartum anxiety as the loss of the normal sense of balance and calm, and postpartum depression as a loss of heart.” Jonathan Abramowitz, Ph.D., Director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic at UNC-Chapel Hill, says, “We call postpartum anxiety the hidden disorder because so few moms recognize it and it goes undiagnosed.” Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW, founder of the Postpartum Stress Center, notes that, “All new mothers are anxious…The question really becomes, ‘When is it pathological?’”
In answer to that question, look for any signs that excessive worry and anxious thoughts are interfering with your ability to get through the day and to function, or if you feel extremely overwhelmed. Whattoexpect.com says, “It’s time to talk to a healthcare provider if you’re unable to concentrate on your day-to-day life; have trouble functioning at work or home; experience a frequent sense of panic, fear or restlessness; have obsessive thoughts; or don’t enjoy things that used to make you happy. Other signs of a more serious anxiety disorder can be physical, including heart palpitations and muscle tension. This level of anxiety isn’t normal or healthy.”
Like most women, it took me awhile to get help — much, much longer than it should have. It took a few spells of almost debilitating anxiety before I went to a professional. By that point, my anxiety had expanded to include worries about myself in addition to worries about the kids. I think that I was so used to anxiety as my normal state of being that I didn’t notice when it got out of control. I found a great therapist, and I did the work he asked me to do. I worked really hard. It hasn’t been easy, but I am so much better.
I am still anxious. I don’t know that my anxiety will ever completely go away. But I know how to handle it better. I don’t believe the stories I make up as much as I use to. It takes constant effort, but I am doing it. I use acupuncture, therapy, exercise, and small daily self-care rituals to keep things in check. The extra effort is worth it. Observing my anxiety rather than being consumed by it is life-changing. We are all humans. We all need help. It truly takes a village.
Take this free, anonymous online screening for anxiety to learn more about whether you or someone who you love may need help with their anxiety.