You come home from the hospital, exhausted, stitched up, in a daze, and suddenly in charge of a little human life; what is not to be nervous about? When you become a new mom, you don’t know what the norm should feel like. It’s hard to navigate all of the overwhelming demands, thoughts, and emotions. Yet sometimes your nervousness is more than just nervousness; it may be a mental health disorder called postpartum anxiety. You've probably heard of postpartum depression, but you may have never heard of postpartum anxiety before. Even though I am a mental health counselor, I had never heard of postpartum anxiety until I experienced it after my first son was born over five years ago.
Symptoms include but not limited to constantly worrying, intrusive thoughts, insomnia, restlessness, irritability, rage, and feelings of impending doom. When I struggled with postpartum anxiety, I had feelings of paranoia, insomnia, and impending doom. I felt keyed up, on edge, and would wake at 3 a.m. and be unable to go back to sleep no matter how hard I tried. I remember lying in bed looking at my sleeping baby and stressing over the fact that I couldn’t sleep when my baby was finally asleep. The worst part was that nothing would ease the fear. I couldn't function enough to use any of my normal coping skills to help get me through. I had no idea what was wrong with me, and couldn’t find anything to help. In my quest for answers, I reached out to an online moms group about what I was experiencing. A fellow mom sent me information on postpartum anxiety and it described exactly what I was facing.
When I finally figured out what was going on, I went to see my doctor who prescribed medication. I didn’t know how to feel about it because I had never taken medication for mental health before. I was so desperate to feel like myself again, I didn’t care what kind of stigma there might be. Thankfully, medication was a game changer. It didn’t take away the anxiety altogether, but took the edge off enough so I could function enough to use coping skills and relaxation techniques to manage.
I found prayer and scripture very helpful as I learned how to cope with my anxiety. I would pray to God for strength, confess my feelings of weakness, and ask him to remind me that he was by my side through it all. Prayer became a continual moment-by-moment conversation with God, sometimes with a long prayer of exasperation and feelings of being overwhelmed, and other times a desperate “help me” in the middle of all the chaos in my mind. Reading scripture also helped remind me of the truths and promises that were mine to hold onto. Anxiety will lie to you and tell you that you aren’t safe when you are safe, and having the truth of God’s word is such a powerful tool of defense when your mind is fighting against these lies. I held on to verses such as:
Exercise was another helpful coping tool. I went running a lot. When I would run I would forget about the world for a moment, and then come home with a whole batch of endorphins that would help me feel strong again. Along with running, I would always be listening to music to help me relax. I would have music on when I was cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, and just hanging with the baby. I listened to a lot of worship music, because worship would always help me to keep my mind on all the good, and remind myself that I am loved by a God who is in control of it all.
As hard as it felt to get out of the house at times with a new baby, I made it a priority to spend time with friends, and opened up to them about my struggles. My friends provided empathy and support, and made me feel less alone in it all. I felt like I had an army of friends standing behind me, friends who didn’t judge my struggles, but were there to help in any way they could. Through all of this help, over time I started to feel like myself again, and that felt like a miracle.
Although I didn’t end up seeing a therapist in my journey, I believe that seeing a therapist is also beneficial while navigating through postpartum anxiety. A therapist can help you challenge negative and irrational thoughts, teach you relaxation techniques, and help you communicate your needs to your support system. One of the best aspects of therapy is having an outside person that provides a safe space to explore the thoughts and feelings that are often difficult to say to those directly in your life.
I remember going through a birthing class before my oldest was born and the teacher talked to the husbands about keeping a look out for symptoms of postpartum depression. She said oftentimes the wives are so deep in their mental health struggles that they aren’t aware they are struggling with a disorder. This is the same for postpartum anxiety. I had no idea I was struggling until I got to a place where I couldn’t feel like I could function. My husband had to be the one to express that what I was going through wasn’t normal motherhood nervousness. As a husband, if you notice your wife struggling, don’t be afraid to speak up. Try to help advocate for her needs when she is struggling to do so for herself. Encourage her to seek help from a medical and mental health professional. Also, help her to get out of the house, see friends, take a nap, go for a walk, or whatever you know helps her relax.
In the past few years, I have seen more information starting to come out about postpartum anxiety, and continue to come across more moms who have also struggled with this disorder. I am passionate in talking about my experience with postpartum anxiety in hopes of providing more awareness to the issue, and help more mom’s feel less alone in their struggle during such a difficult time as those early motherhood days.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Deb Koster