There is indescribable magic in the power of vulnerability and conversation. So why does the topic of mental health feel like a four letter word that requires a bar of soap to the mouth? Why can we so effortlessly tell a friend the intimate details of our marriage and lives but shy away from the one thing that’s actually scaring us, like our struggles with anxiety? Maybe we…
…are scared of the judgement.
…want to appear stronger than we feel.
…don’t know how to define or qualify our issues.
…think this will go away.
Or maybe we feel alone in our pain, even though an estimated 33% of American women suffer from anxiety (compared to 22% of American Men).
But how do you know when it’s more than just ‘typical’ feelings? How do you know when it’s time to speak with someone about your symptoms of anxiety?
Those were the questions secretly floating around me for the first ten months of my son’s life. Admittedly, I have always been a ‘nervous’ person with her fair share of panic attacks in college (who didn’t?) and middle of the night mind racing as an adult. Those symptoms concerned me, sure, but never really to the point of talking to anyone about them. Part of me figured I was functioning well enough, I didn’t need outside help.
“I think I had blinders on and didn’t want to admit that it was time to speak to someone. There is such a stigma around mental health and I didn’t want to be viewed differently by others.”
After my son was born, the symptoms I had once experienced during particularly stressful times became a common occurrence. My heart would start pounding into my chest on almost a daily basis, and too often I would need to gasp to disrupt a thought of catastrophe. Images of terrible things happening to him haunted me regularly. Exhausted, I would return to bed after a middle-of-the-night nursing session and find myself unable to go back to sleep; my mind would want to go over something that went wrong in the day, like a DVD menu that kept repeating itself.
Eventually I talked to my mom and husband, and decided to schedule an appointment with a mental health counselor. After a couple sessions I realized I could have saved myself a lot of pain by doing so sooner. Now that I am trying to get a better handle on my anxiety, I’ve been wondering: how many of my friends are experiencing this? How many moms are feeling this way but are too afraid to get help? How do we know when these feelings are beyond the range of ‘normal?’
Why do we hear so much about postpartum depression and so little about postpartum anxiety?
I started asking around. It started with a few online conversations, and I created an anonymous survey to gather a wider scope of experiences. I’d like to share some of these stories and voices, and what I’ve learned through them.
Over 65% of the women who completed the survey had children in the infant-toddler phase when they decided to speak to someone about their anxiety.
“My anxiety was directly after having our first. I was seriously struggling with nursing, had a ton of pain, and my son was losing weight. I found myself crying on a daily basis and would dread every time my son woke up because it meant another struggle of trying to feed him and failing.”
“I could never sleep, and in the beginning when (she) was a newborn I thought it was completely normal. Everyone gets up to check on their baby like 50 times a night right? (Apparently not). But when she hit 8 or 9 months old and was sleeping through the night and I wasn’t, I realized I had a bigger problem. I also would freak out and cancel dates the day off because I was terrified something would happen to her and I knew that wasn’t normal.”
“I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t leave the baby. I was paralyzed with fear.”
“I never felt like I was relaxed and I worried about every change I saw with my baby: how much he was or wasn’t eating and peeing, how much I was away at work, if he was meeting his milestones, if he was growing, if he was getting enough sleep and stimulation for brain growth, you name it. And I was insane about germs and trying to keep everything clean. It was ugly.”
“It took me a long time to realize that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal. Having a baby is such a huge change you have no “normal” to compare your situation to. I was so busy just trying to catch my footing that I didn’t realize I was experiencing anxiety; I assumed it was part of being a new mom.”
Anxiety doesn’t always look like worry.
According to Mayo Clinic and Calm Clinic, symptoms may include:
- Feeling nervous, restless, tense
- A sense of impending doom
- Feeling overwelmed
- Increased heart rate
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
- Gastrointestinal issues
- The urge to avoid things that may cause concern
- Violent or irrational thoughts
- Racing or obsessive thoughts
“I had terrible rage and everything upset me.”
“I was so irritable, and prone to anger/rage. It felt like everything was too much to handle, and I was constantly trying to calm myself down. I just couldn’t overcome it, and “trying harder” wasn’t working. My kids weren’t getting the real, best version of me.”
“I returned to work and was often paralyzed by indecision. It was like I was living in a fog. I was always decisive and efficient at work. I knew something was wrong when I was constantly feeling overwhelmed.”
“I would come home from school (I’m a teacher) crying. I couldn’t stop thinking about things that happened. I was so stressed out and we were not getting pregnant. I would have panic attacks, feel nauseous before and during work, my heart would race. I couldn’t fall asleep. It was hard for my husband to help me. I needed outside help.”
“When my anxiety started to manifest itself as anger toward my husband and at that point 4 month old, I knew I needed help.”
Did they wish they sought help sooner? Many did.
Getting the right kind of help can depend on your needs and preferences. You may want to talk to a family member, mom friend, mental health professional, general practice doctor, or your OB. The bottom of this post includes some helpful links if you’re unsure where to begin on your healing journey.
“I just didn’t recognize what I was going through was anxiety. I wasn’t fearful or worried. The way anxiety is usually depicted or described is a scared or nervous person who is afraid of bad things happening, and that was not how I experienced it. I wish I had known a more in-depth description of symptoms.”
“I think I was ashamed that something was wrong with me. I didn’t want to seem weak I wanted to seem like a tough mom that handled everything so easily.”
Are you concerned about your symptoms of anxiety?
The are different treatment options for anxiety: ranging from mindfulness exercises, therapy, lifestyle changes, and medication. Talk to your doctor and support system about the right path for you, and please know you are not alone.
If you are local, consider utilizing one of the resources the University of Iowa has highlighted here. The Johnson County Crisis Center also links helpful mental health resources for residents. Need help finding a licensed mental health professional in your area? Psychology Today has an extensive data base, just enter your location and they will direct you to a number of practitioners.