What You'll Learn
- Fear vs. Anxiety
- Trauma’s Role In Anxiety
- Postpartum Anxiety Differs From Normal “Mom Worry”
- Symptoms of Anxiety
- When Anxiety Becomes Disruptive
- Seeking Support For Postpartum Anxiety
We know that becoming a parent will bring worry and anxiety. It comes with the territory. You’ve never been responsible for something more important than this tiny human you are now caring for. But where is the line between normal amounts of worry and paralyzing amounts of anxiety? Do you worry and wonder whether it takes up too much of your focus? Do you get very stuck in over researching what is "right"? The thing is, anxiety shows up in many different ways. The key is to be aware that something isn’t right and seeking help when it’s disrupting your ability to enjoy motherhood. Therapist Kate Borsato and I discuss the differences between normal parenting worry and postpartum anxiety, how anxiety shows up in our lives, and when you should seek help.
Fear vs. Anxiety
“I’ve never met a mom who doesn’t worry,” Kate said. It can be hard to tell the difference between normal worry and postpartum anxiety. As a first time mom in retrospect, I can recognize I had postpartum anxiety, but I couldn’t identify it at the time.
Fear versus worry is a good place to start. Fear is the fight or flight response triggered by a clearly defined threat. It is a reaction to something specific in the moment. Whereas, worry and anxiety is struggling to determine if something is a threat. Our brains can worry about worrying.
Trauma’s Role In Anxiety
Previous trauma tends to put our threat detector in overdrive. We might perceive threats in situations we wouldn’t have before the trauma. “Past traumas can really hang out in the present by making you really cautious and really hypervigilant,” Kate said.
Past traumas can really hang out in the present by making you really cautious and hypervigilant.
Whether you name something trauma or not, adverse incidents tend to stick with us. A lot of moms have birth trauma, where things may not have gone as planned during labor and delivery, or maybe we just didn’t feel heard by medical staff. But those things can affect your postpartum experience.
Postpartum Anxiety Differs From Normal “Mom Worry”
“We all know what anxiety feels like whether we’ve used that label or not,” Kate explained. “We have a built-in system in our brains that responds to the unknown.”
There is a place for tension in our lives. It’s the mechanism that motivates us to get off the couch and catch the bus, meet our deadlines, and show up to work on time. As a new mom, it makes sense the tension might ramp up some. You’ve been sent home from the hospital with a tiny human and the directive to keep them alive for eighteen years and then turn them out as a productive member of society. That’s scary.
“You are dialed into any threat that is out there,” Kate said. “A little bit of hypervigilance is all about safety.” The upside of this is it keeps your baby safe.
Symptoms of Anxiety
When anxiety gets to be too much, it can become debilitating. Kate gets shortness of breath that feels like she can’t breathe. Some people are afraid to go down the stairs with their baby, so they may avoid the stairs altogether.
Anxiety can show up as perfectionism and a desire to be good enough in our role as a mom. “Anxiety can just drive perfectionism,” Kate said. “Before motherhood, perfectionism can serve you in ways that our society values.” Working hard for good grades and raises can feel doable.
But you can go into motherhood with a lot of ideas about what a good mom should be. You may think you’re going to be able to continue the same perfectionist behaviours in other areas of life that you’ve been rewarded in the past.
“You try to live up to all of these ideals that you don’t actually believe in,” Kate said. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to be the best you can be, but you should decide what actually matters to you and use that as your standard rather than something that’s been handed to you from your parents, society or wherever.
Anxiety can also show up as insomnia, lack of appetite, intrusive thoughts, binge eating, or even rage.
When Anxiety Becomes Disruptive
“Is this disrupting your ability to enjoy motherhood? Is this disrupting your day-to-day life?” Kate asked. If a behavior is isolated, it’s probably okay, and it may be a safety thing. “I’m afraid my baby will choke on carrots, so I feed my baby steamed zucchini,” might be okay. That’s different from “I’m just keeping baby only on milk until two rows of teeth have come in.”
“Anxiety becomes a problem when it creates a problem in your life,” Kate explained. She suggested mapping out how anxiety feels for you. “Once you become familiar with that you can witness it in that moment.”
Anxiety becomes a problem when it creates a problem in your life.
Like avoidance, control can be another indicator that we’re struggling with anxiety. Some moms worry about choking and may not want their partner to prepare food for baby, because they want to make sure it’s done in a very specific way. Some people try to control who has access to their child. You may not want anyone to take care of the baby, because you’re not sure they’ll do it as well as you.
Some of these tactics can obviously cause strain on relationships. It’s very hard on Mom too if she’s never able to have help with childcare or she needs to prepare every meal the kid eats.
Paying attention to what sets your anxiety off might help you deal with it, but some people feel like they’re always having symptoms of anxiety. There are two proven tools to help with this including working with a therapist to separate anxious thoughts and find our individual baseline. Another tool is medication that can be helpful during the postpartum period.
“Sometimes you can’t think your way through this alone,” Kate said. “You need to connect with somebody who can support you, and I’m happy to share I connect with my own therapist,” she said.
Seeking Support For Postpartum Anxiety
If you’re feeling distressed like you’re treading trying to keep your head above water, it’s okay to reach out for help. You don’t have to be certain of it. No one really walks into a counselor’s office and says, “I have anxiety.” They say, “I’m overwhelmed,” “I don’t like this,” or “I’m just not very good at the whole mom thing.”
Even as a trained professional, I sometimes don’t recognize the behaviour until I’m in it. Just try to curiously explore your thoughts and behaviours rather than harshly judging yourself.
[In the pandemic] 1 in 3 women are experiencing postpartum anxiety and depression.
“[In the pandemic] 1 in 3 women are experiencing postpartum anxiety and depression,” Kate said. Just try to understand it’s not your fault. It’s a physiological reaction, but you still need help like you would if you caught the flu or broke your arm.
If you’re still trying to figure out if postpartum anxiety might be something you’re dealing with, or if you’re still trying to navigate the postpartum waters, I’ve put together a postpartum checklist to help you through it!