Parenting is stressful. Being anxious is normal. But what happens when it’s something more?
Shortly after my first child was born, I became convinced that I was screwing up his sleeping/feeding/everything. So I confided in my beautiful and wise best friend, who told me that parenthood is basically “a thousand small heart attacks a day.” She reminded me that all moms (and dads) are worried; having some anxiety as a parent is normal. I laughed and agreed, and life marched on. I got some things right, screwed lots of other things up, and tried to keep my sense of humor about all of it. I made it through the first couple of years with #1, and then we had our second kid.
So when my first postpartum panic attack came about three months later, it was a total blindside. This was different than me worrying that I would never get all the laundry done or that we had failed at sleep training. No, this time, I had forgotten to pay one of our credit card bills the previous month.
In retrospect, the fact that I had remembered that I had forgotten was an accomplishment. I had a newborn who couldn’t decide which she hated more: sleeping between the hours of midnight to 5 a.m. or any car trip longer than ten minutes, plus a three-year-old adjusting to life as an older sibling. And I had just found out that there was a high likelihood that my husband would be transferring to a new role in his company, and we’d be moving to a new state in the next three months. But I couldn’t see the proverbial forest for the trees in the midst of all of it.
All I knew was that I was gripped with an overwhelming sense of fear and dread about telling my husband that I had dropped the ball and had destroyed our credit score. (Something which did not happen, but in my anxiety-ridden state, it was a foregone conclusion).
I was sitting across the table from him when the credit card company called to inquire about the missed payment, and as the realization of what was happening dawned on me, I started shaking. I broke out in a cold sweat, my whole body tensed, and I felt a wave of nausea wash over me. Mind you, my husband is one of the kindest, most compassionate people I have ever met, but I was gripped with a sense of panic that he would be furious and never forgive me for being one week late with the credit card payment.
The next one came while watching the season premiere of Homeland. Another one came on while I was driving in the car. I was convinced that the pain and tightness that I felt in my chest (a panic attack calling card) meant that even though I didn’t smoke, I had been stricken with lung cancer.
I can’t remember the triggers for all the ones that followed, but I do remember feeling like I needed help.
What I didn’t know then, and what I fear is still widely unknown by many women, their partners, their family members, and even many health care professionals, is just how prevalent postpartum anxiety is. And for many people, it begins during pregnancy.
I was aware of postpartum depression. Between the informational pamphlets from my OB in the waiting room and in the new mother packet from the hospital, the articles in parenting and women’s magazines, and the occasional celebrity who came forward after becoming a mother to talk about her PPD, I felt confident that I knew what to be on the lookout for, the warning signs to be aware of. And while anxiety and depression often team up together, I had no idea that the physical symptoms I was suffering from were hallmarks of panic attacks.
Symptoms of A Panic Attack: It’s Not Just Your Mind Playing Tricks.
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Rapid, pounding heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
- Hot flashes
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
- Numbness or tingling sensation
- The feeling of unreality or detachment
“Sense of impending doom” may sound almost comically melodramatic, but from personal experience, I can attest to how accurate this is.
If you’ve ever seen Star Wars, envision an X-wing fighter careening through the trenches of the Death Star with its laser cannons blasting away in hyperdrive. Your brain is firing away incessantly, and the horrible feeling that something terrible will happen and you are helpless to control it becomes overwhelming.
And considering that it was an episode of Homeland that triggered one of my panic attacks, I think of Carrie Mathison’s unfortunately nicknamed “Crazy Wall” as a visual of how the progression occurs—finding out that one of the kids at your child’s daycare has RSV (respiratory syncytial virus…and yes, it sucks) triggers the thought that your child catches it. It will be so severe that he’ll need to go to the ER. They’ll have to intubate him so that he can breathe. You can picture it all happening so clearly. Your mind has now tricked your body into thinking there is an actual life or death situation at hand.
Postpartum anxiety is tricky. It doesn’t always kick in immediately after childbirth. Your triggers may be something unrelated to actual parenting challenges or even your kid. For me, the late credit card payment set off the feeling that I couldn’t do anything right. I was failing as a responsible adult. Not knowing what could trigger the next attack was its own source of anxiety. The physical symptoms follow in tandem, feeding into the fear. There’s a reason why a panic attack’s chest pain is often mistaken for a heart attack.
The good news is that postpartum anxiety is treatable. It may take a dual approach, like behavioral therapy and medication working together for many people. The idea of medication can be daunting for a new mother, especially a breastfeeding one, but there are some very safe and effective options.
And what’s even more daunting for many people is the idea of asking for help. What if they think I’m crazy and just being an overly neurotic new mom? What if they tell me that this is just because I don’t get enough sleep, and it’ll pass?
It’s okay to need help. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to get help.
That’s one of the many lessons of being a mom that can take a long time to sink in. Be as good to yourself as you would want someone to be to your child.
Keep pressing. Keep asking.
PSI’s Postpartum Support and Postpartum Progress are wonderful places to start. PSI’s support line can also help you find local resources: (800) 944-4773.