Postpartum anxiety and postpartum depression share many symptoms and very often accompany each other. The extensive range of thoughts, emotions, and behaviours it can encompass means that it is not one size fits all. The good news is that these conditions can be navigated with the right treatment that’s unique to you. Some of the common symptoms can be found here. Please note that the symptoms documented are not exhaustive nor always present. Let’s now delve into what anxiety and depression are.
I refer to anxiety as the body and mind going into fight or flight mode. This can include worrying, feeling stressed about the future, and panicking. Depression is the low seemingly never-ending hum of sadness, lethargy, and darkness – often accompanied by thoughts of the past or feeling stuck. They are like the yin and yang of mood disorders. Both are equally exhausting and debilitating, especially when you have a new child to care for. Awareness and acknowledgment of how you are feeling are key to tackling it.
If there is any part of you that feels there is something amiss following the arrival of your new child, then please do not disregard it. Seek some support whether that is from your healthcare provider, doctor, partner, family, friends, therapist, coach, or counselor. Maternal anxiety and depression can impact families, regardless of whether it is their first child or not. Circumstances such as finances, childcare, career, and social expectations can all contribute. Previous mood disorders should also be taken into account as some emotions, thoughts, or behaviours may be triggered during this time.
Sharing your thoughts and concerns with family and friends can be difficult as fear of judgment, opinion, or advice may prevent full transparency. During my own experience of postpartum depression, I did not fully share how I was feeling with my family and friends, and as I was living overseas, and did not want to worry them or appear like I was not coping. It’s in cases like this where having an impartial listening ear and creating an arsenal of practical tips and tools to look after yourself can prove to be invaluable. It was following my own experience of postpartum depression and anxiety, when my son was born in 2017, that I decided to study as a coach and offer support to other families.
I now provide a safe space to talk and give oxygen to the thoughts and concerns faced by those impacted by the arrival of a new child within their household. During those first 18 months of my son’s life, I would often have a feeling in my stomach that I likened to the feeling you get when running late for something that is really important – that was anxiety. It’s extremely common to experience a level of anxiety when bringing a new child into your home, and it’s not something that only affects birth mothers, but also fathers, partners, adoptive parents, foster parents, step-parents, siblings, and anyone within the household. Here are some indicators of anxiety and depression as they present physically, emotionally, and behaviourally:
Anxiety can present itself physically as:
- Restlessness (the same feeling can be experienced if your caffeine intake is high, so aim to reduce it if this rings true to you)
- Disrupted sleep
- Loss of appetite
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
Anxiety can present itself emotionally as:
- Feeling on edge
- Finding it hard to relax or feel calm
- Brain fog (finding it difficult to focus or being forgetful)
Anxiety can present itself in behaviours such as:
- Avoidance of people or places
- Checking things over and over again
- Being overly cautious about situations or care for your baby (for example, extreme worry about your baby being in someone else’s care)
Like postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety can be influenced by various factors – emotional, physical, social, biological, financial – as well as any previous mental health issues.
Anxiety is often a F.E.A.R-based emotion:
This is manifested in thoughts anticipating that something negative is going to happen.The following are some examples:
“I can’t leave the baby with anyone else in case there is an accident and my baby gets hurt or injured.”
“What if someone hurts or attacks my baby?”
“I am worried someone may try to take my baby.”
These concerns can be valid, but if they’re becoming intrusive, obsessive, or irrational, then it’s best to discuss it with a professional who can provide you with tools to gain a balanced perspective as this can become unhealthy for your and your baby’s well-being. An example of a useful tool is the ‘Thoughts on Trial’ worksheet that can be found in the Stepping Into Parenthood online programme. It’s designed to challenge negative thoughts by putting them on ‘trial’ as if in a courtroom. You become the defence, prosecutor, and judge, and thereby encourage multiple perspectives. Writing your thoughts down will also ’empty’ your head and give you the benefit of being objective.
Depression can present itself physically as:
- Tired, lethargic
- Sleep problems
Depression can present itself emotionally as:
- Feeling sad, hopeless
Depression can present itself in behaviours such as:
- Sleeping more
- Avoiding social interaction
- Being irritable
- Using alcohol or drugs
A word I often would use at the time of my postpartum depression was ‘disconnected’. I felt like I was watching myself, but not truly experiencing my life with my gorgeous baby boy. Thankfully, I received some support from a life coach, which began my healing journey that was the catalyst for me paying it forward and helping other families. I strongly believe that treatment lies within the individual and, in ensuring that, they are meeting their own human needs.
Medical treatment such as antidepressants should also be discussed with your doctor. Again, every person is unique and therefore so is the treatment. A collaboration of medicine and personal development was how I was able to help myself. Whilst I no longer require medication, I am grateful for the ‘springboard’ it provided at the time. Unfortunately, there can still be a stigma surrounding medication – which needs to be changed. If you are diabetic, you take insulin. If you have a headache, you take aspirin.
Likewise, if you are struggling mentally, please talk to your doctor and educate yourself on the options available to you. Researching on the internet can be overwhelming. Trying different methods without success can leave you feeling hopeless, and they may not be the right treatments for you. That is why there is power to be found in simplicity. Introducing small changes is much easier to sustain (particularly if you are already feeling overwhelmed) and therefore more likely to have a long-lasting impact.
For the last four years, I have implemented and worked on creating changes like having a simple morning routine, focusing on time-management and scheduling, meal-planning, being aware of external stimulants and their impact (such as what I read, watch, and listen to – this can also mean reducing social media), creating boundaries with the people I spend my time with, prioritising relaxation and exercise, and peppering my day with things that bring me joy. There are many ways to incite joy by using your senses. You can connect with nature, eat foods that nurture your body, listen to uplifting music or podcasts, and shower or bathe with your favourite scents.
Opening the narrative on expectation can also prove to be useful in restoring some calm. Often, we push ourselves to be and do everything, and scrolling through social media does not always help as it promotes a world where people appear to have it all together when in reality they don’t. Like a TV show or a movie, much of what you see is either fictitious, staged, or simply a highlight from their life – not the full picture. As Theodore Roosevelt put it, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Do not compare your life to that of others, as everyone parents differently, so turn down the volume on the opinions of others.
The expectation of other members of the household is also something that should be discussed – ideally before the arrival of the new baby as a means to reduce anxiety. Delegation of the day-to-day running of the home can also release pressure, create inclusivity, and provide a sense of control and significance for everyone involved whilst providing a safe and happy environment for the new arrival. Look at budgets, chores, cooking, and outsourcing. Form flexible routines and mindfulness, and shift your focus to gratitude, joy, and happiness – this will leave less space for anxiety and depression.
Maternal mental health – like all mental health – has been impacted by the covid-19 pandemic, leaving mothers with a baby in isolation at a time when support is essential. At such times as ever, the internet is a double-edge sword. When looking for resources, information, and support, you can be just a click away from a vital lifeline. However, it can also heighten overwhelming feelings and confusion as the information can be conflicting and inaccurate.
As the world reconnects, take a moment and reconnect with yourself first. Understanding what makes you tick is the key to unlocking the best practices for you to navigate any anxiety or depression you may be experiencing. And remember, you are not alone. There is support. And you are doing a great job!