I was crouched on the kitchen floor, sweating and gulping deep breaths to calm down. In this moment, I finally acknowledged what I'd denied for weeks—this was postpartum depression.
When you have a panic attack because your toddler is whining about jelly choices and your newborn is starting to fuss in the other room, it's not hard to recognize that something is off-kilter in your emotional regulatory system.
Here's the real kicker though: I'm a licensed professional counselor. As in, I'm the person you would call to get help if you had postpartum depression. I didn't have any of the common risk factors for developing postpartum depression, such as a high-risk pregnancy or delivery, lack of support at home, a colicky infant, or extreme sleep deprivation.
I also assumed that if I started struggling, I'd know exactly how to recognize the symptoms and deal with it. And yet, even with all those advantages, here I was hiding behind the kitchen cabinets, totally thrown by this tidal wave of anger and helplessness that overtook me almost every day.
What moms should know about postpartum depression
How does postpartum depression catch so many women off guard? It's partially due to the perception that PPD is something that happens to someone else. There is a ton of growing awareness about the condition, but most people don't realize that one in five women will experience some degree of postpartum depression or anxiety in the first year after giving birth.
Also, it doesn't just affect first-time moms—it can happen after your first or third or even fifth baby. PPD can affect anyone, regardless of income, race, culture or education. Even Chrissy Teigen and other celebrities with nannies, personal assistants, and housekeepers still experience PPD.
Having supportive friends and family can help diminish your risk level, but these things don't inoculate you from the hormonal changes and stressors that also contribute to PPD.
When women don't think they have a "valid" reason to develop postpartum depression and anxiety, they are less likely to be watching for it or understand the symptoms if they do start struggling.
Many women aren't aware of some of the sneaky ways that PPD can show up. Moms usually expect symptoms similar to clinical depression: constantly crying, unable to sleep even when the baby is sleeping, difficulty bonding with the baby or finding enjoyment in the things they usually love.
Alternatively, women hear about typical signs associated with anxiety (which can often be a component of PPD): racing thoughts, constant worrying about the baby, and the inability to relax.
However, here are five lesser-known postpartum depression symptoms that can indicate postpartum depression or anxiety:
1. Fight or flight
One significant way that postpartum depression manifests itself is by triggering the fight-or-flight response.
When you're already struggling, getting just a little overwhelmed or stressed can prompt your brain to start sending danger signals to your body. Many women experience this as a feeling of panic, thinking, "If I don't get out of here RIGHT NOW, I am going to lose it!"
Often your physical response can feel way out of proportion to your thoughts. You might be able cognitively recognize that what's happening isn't that bad, but your body responds like it's in actual danger due to the stress hormones flooding your brain.
2. Rage and irritability
If you get triggered but can't escape the stressful situation (hello, dinner prep with whiny kids underfoot), your mental state can turn aggressive to shield you from the perceived threat. This makes total sense in a survival situation, but in the case of postpartum depression, the "threat" is often your toddler or baby.
Thus, you might find yourself lashing out in an explosion of anger—yelling, slamming your hands on the counter, throwing toys into their bins—that leaves you shaky, confused, and full of guilt after the surge of adrenaline passes.
3. Increased need for control
If you're a planner who thrives on routine and order, this tendency can go into overdrive with postpartum depression. As postpartum anxiety rises, the need to control your environment increases with it.
This is a common defense mechanism to cope with anxious feelings. But as any parent knows, newborns scoff at routines and toddlers live to create messes. Something as simple as a skipped nap or seeing toys all over the floor can be enough to send you into a tailspin.
4. Feelings of guilt and inadequacy
Because moms dealing with postpartum depression often feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, they often report thoughts such as, "What if I'm not cut out for this? Am I going to mess up my kids? I should be grateful for this time with them rather than feeling miserable!"
Even if you don't feel this way all the time, these thoughts can be especially difficult if you're already in a vulnerable mental state.
5. Physical symptoms of postpartum depression
Lastly, postpartum depression and anxiety can be a very physical experiences. It might feel like:
- Rise in body temperature
- Feeling shaky and sweaty
- Tingling in your fingers and lips
If a trained mental health professional like me can miss the signs of postpartum depression and anxiety in her own life, then it can certainly happen to any other mom out there.
If you notice any of these signs of postpartum depression, reach out to a mental health professional for support. A therapist can help you connect the dots to see when and how you're most vulnerable for getting overwhelmed. Most of all, therapy is a dedicated space where you can focus on caring for yourself so that you can regain some emotional resiliency.
Postpartum depression can happen to anyone, and it manifests itself in many different ways—some obvious, and some less so.
At first, it was easy for me to say, "Oh, this is just what having two kids is like," when I found myself feeling overwhelmed and irritable. Eventually (thankfully) I recognized that although my circumstances were "normal," my responses were not, at least not for me. This realization enabled me to get the additional support and guidance that I needed to find my emotional equilibrium and start fully enjoying motherhood again.
If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, please reach out to get support. Put your oxygen mask on first, mama. You deserve to take care of yourself.