by Amy Pierce, MS, LMFT
New mothers are often overheard saying that becoming a mom was the biggest, most life-changing thing they have ever experienced. We all expect a major adjustment to have its stresses along with the joys. So, how does a mother know if the anxiety, worry, or stress she is feeling is “normal” or if it is something that she should get some support with? Here are some ways to tell the difference between postpartum anxiety and transitional stress:
Every parent has periods of feeling overwhelmed or anxious that go away with reassurance. There is uncertainty that comes with this new job, but you should feel more confident over time. It is not normal, however, to be really worried all the time. Constant thoughts like: Am I doing this right? Will the baby wake up? Is the baby eating enough? Is there something wrong with my baby that I’m missing?
It is normal to have fearful, distressing thoughts about harm coming to your baby that come and go. Really, it’s common! You should be able to keep in mind, though, that these thoughts are not realistic, and not feel distressed for long. Postpartum anxiety, however, can include disturbing thoughts that can feel scary and make you wonder whether you aren’t the person you thought you were. These thoughts may start with the words “What if…” and do not go away even as your experience with motherhood grows. If you fear being alone with your baby or become avoidant of things in your house that could potentially cause harm, (knives, stairs, etc.), then seeking professional support is a good idea.
Obviously sleeplessness and some fatigue from nighttime parenting is on the menu! It is possible that your little one may not sleep an extended stretch for over a year. However, if you’re having trouble sleeping even when your baby is sleeping and even though you are so, so tired, this is likely a sign of more serious postpartum struggles.
Other symptoms of postpartum anxiety include racing thoughts, inability to relax, checking on things over and over, headaches, chest pain, no appetite, feeling on edge, and a fear that you have lost yourself or are going crazy. Postpartum anxiety is common – one in six postpartum women have it. It is different from postpartum depression, but they often occur together. Many women have the feelings described above every now and then, for a day or two. We all have bad days. Postpartum anxiety is not just a bad day here or there. It is feeling like this a lot of the time, for two weeks or more, and having trouble with daily functioning. Don’t worry though (pun intended), because postpartum anxiety is very treatable. A great resource in the Twin Cities is Pregnancy and Postpartum Support Minnesota, a group of mental health and other professionals that can help you make a plan to recover. Visit their website at ppsupportmn.org or call their Helpline at (612) 787-PPSM to find resources. If you wonder if you have anxiety in pregnancy or postpartum, talk to your partner, doula, or midwife/doctor and consider reaching out to a psychotherapist or other trained professional. You should not suffer alone!
Amy Pierce is a doula and Marriage and Family Therapist in St. Paul, MN. She sees clients in her offices at Psych Recovery Inc.