Since having a baby four months ago, I have experienced many of the wonderful aspects of being a new mom.
But I’ve also experienced something unexpected and unpleasant: a lot of anxiety.
And while some of it is warranted (ie. concerns about SIDS, the scariest thing in the world), some of it is not (ie. my fear that someone will kidnap my baby in the night).
I’m not normally an anxious person, so this is a new – and extremely uncomfortable – place for me.
Once I began talking with fellow parents (and non-parents), I have come to understand that heightened anxiety for new parents is common, and not just amongst women. One male colleague of mine was kind enough to share that after he had kids, he would get up several times a night to make sure his doors were locked.
In fact, this type of anxiety is so common that there’s actually a term for it: post-partum anxiety (PPA) (clever, hey?).
According to Postpartum Support International, 10% of women will develop PPA (compared to 6% who will develop post-partum depression). The same organization also lists symptoms of PPA as:
- Constant worry
- Feeling that something bad is going to happen
- Racing thoughts
- Disturbances of sleep and appetite
- Inability to sit still
- Physical symptoms like dizziness, hot flashes, and nausea
(Most people who’ve had a baby – and those who haven’t – will probably tell you they’ve had some/all of these symptoms at some point in their lives so take that “10%” with a grain of salt my friends.)
Regardless of the stats and numbers, I decided I need to deal with this, mostly because I cannot afford to lose ANY MORE SLEEP because of this baby (whom I adore).
So I contacted the psychology department at the University of Regina, and was put in touch with Kerry Spice, a registered psychologist and eTherapist with the Online Therapy Unit (a program that offers free online mental health programs to those in need – read more about it by following the link).
Within a counselling role, Kerry focuses primarily on cases involving anxiety and depression, so she was a wonderful resource.
Here are a few things I learned:
Anxiety is normal and it affects everyone
I used to think that people who suffered from “anxiety” and “anxiety disorders” were different than me because I didn’t. (I’m a slow learner haha.)
This is not the case, Kerry told me.
“Although we may see anxiety as sort of an exclusive concept, it is actually a normal human emotion,” she says. “It’s natural and healthy for everyone to experience some levels of anxiety and it’s actually a survival mechanism, to help prepare us for things that are threatening or dangerous.”
So, in many ways, anxiety is normal and can even be helpful for motivating you do to things.
Anxiety becomes a problem though when it happens too often, is too severe, and occurs at the wrong times or doesn’t match the environment, Kerry says.
“When it affects our quality of life, then we call that an anxiety disorder – so the difference is that function or impact on quality of life.”
She also said one in four people suffer from anxiety or depression, but many more experience these issues at milder levels at some point throughout their lives.
Anxiety can be triggered by life events and some people may be more susceptible than others
Obviously, it’s not just new moms who experience anxiety.
Some people are more genetically susceptible to anxiety but genetics can’t explain all anxiety.
A better predictor is how we perceive and react to life experiences and “trauma” (which can be any emotionally charged event – it doesn’t necessarily have to be a crisis). Our stress levels and available supports are also relevant, Kerry says.
“You and your best friend might experience the same event and have very different emotional reactions to it. That’s based on your underlying beliefs, experiences, and available supports.”
Anxiety is more likely to develop when we feel like events are out of our control, like we can’t cope, like we don’t have support or when we view the events as severe/catastrophic.
According to a Parents.com article about PPA, you may also be more susceptible to post-partum anxiety if you have “a personal or family history of anxiety or previous experience with depression, certain symptoms of PMS (such as feeling weepy or agitated), eating disorders, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).”
Side note: I know this is a serious topic but I have to make a joke here – is there any woman in the world who has NOT experienced the PMS symptom of “agitation” hahahaha.
There are easy things you can do to help!
- Talk about it
This was the most important thing I learned from Kerry: TALK ABOUT YOUR ANXIETY WITH YOUR SUPPORT SYSTEM!
This may seem like common sense, but for introverts like me talking isn’t always as easy as it seems.
But sometimes that’s really all you need, Kerry says.
“Sometimes it’s the avoidance of taking about the issue that makes it worse because it makes it scarier.”
Talking about your anxiety will help you solve problems you might not be able to on your own, Kerry says.
“Sometimes we can internally problem solve and work through things but not always, so if we’re not doing helpful things to problem solve then talking to someone else can support that along.”
Side note: I can verify this works. One night my husband and I were supposed to go out and leave our baby with a sitter. About an hour before we were supposed to leave I began to feel anxious.
On a whim, I told my husband why – I was worried we would get into a car accident on the way to the venue and I wouldn’t see my baby grow up – and waited for him to laugh at me.
Instead, he told me that he often had similar concerns (validated my feelings) and then proceeded to map out the most technically, statistically safe driving route to our destination. (Hahaha I love this man.)
I felt a million times better and we proceeded to have a lot of fun that evening.
- Write it down
Another option for helping us problem solve is by writing things down, which can help validate what you’re feeling and again, help promote problem solving, Kerry says.
“Sometimes you’ll know intuitively that something is unrealistic but when you write it down, that makes it real,” she says.
“That then helps promote our ability to problem solve, think of alternative thoughts, or spin the problem into a different frame. Sometimes it takes more than just positive thinking, it’s about being realistic too and then being able to manage and cope with that.”
Side note: I can also verify this works. I usually feel particularly anxious at night, so in the mornings I write out a list of all the worries from the previous evening that kept me awake. Usually once I see them on paper, I can appreciate how unrealistic they are. Sometimes I send the list to my sisters and we laugh at them together. But sometimes the list features a valid concern, so then I know I have to deal with it in a realistic, practical way.
- Maintain overall good health practices
Mental health is part and parcel of your overall health, which is why meeting all your basic health needs is always important, Kerry says.
This includes making sure you are sleeping, eating a nutritious and balanced diet, staying active, and practicing the laws of moderation.
Side note: I want to make a joke here about moderation and wine consumption but I don’t want the Judging Mom Police on my case, so will refrain hahaha.
When to seek professional help
I don’t think it ever hurts to talk to a therapist.
“Good emotional wellbeing and maintaining this is important and it would be ideal for all people to consult a professional at some point in their lives,” she says, adding that too often people only seek the support of a professional once their symptoms are impairing their functioning in some way.
“In my opinion, it would be ideal for everyone to have a wellbeing check-in – like you have a medical checkup –just to keep coping in a healthy range, but this is not always possible.”
Beyond that, however, there are clear signals that it’s crucial that you seek professional help for your anxiety problems. This includes if your functioning is impaired, if you’re not able to cope with day-to-day life, and again, if your anxiety occurs too often, too severely, at the wrong times, or doesn’t match the environment.
“The key is to keep our symptoms within a healthy range and this can look different for everyone,” Kerry says.
A therapist can talk to you about more coping mechanisms, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
For more information about the Online Therapy Unit, visit: www.onlinetherapyuser.ca/about
Disclaimer on this article: I am in no way an expert on this topic and I am not offering medical advice. I am just sharing my personal experience and some information I received from an expert, in the hopes that it might help others who have had similar experiences. Please feel free to “write down” your list of post-partum concerns in the comments if you wish!