I can't help but wonder how much I missed when my children were younger.
When I try to think about their first years of life, it's difficult for me to remember first smiles, first words, the first time they said “mom." Instead, what floods my thoughts is time spent at the computer Googling symptoms and hazards, struggling with breastfeeding, trying to prevent anything bad from happening to them—hours feeling like a failure as a mother.
All because I suffered from postpartum anxiety.
Severe anxiety is three to four times more common than depression during pregnancy and early motherhood, according to research from the University of British Columbia. The study suggests that anxiety disorders in new moms are outpacing depression, yet health care professionals have given postpartum depression much more attention.
Lead researcher Dr. Nicole Fairbrother found nearly 16% of pregnant women and 17% of new mothers could be diagnosed with anxiety compared to the 4% of pregnant women and nearly 5% of new moms diagnosed with depression.
What's even more frightening is that very few obstetricians screen for anxiety during pregnancy or ask about it after birth. While any new mom can develop postpartum anxiety, those who are especially vulnerable include women with a personal or family history of anxiety or previous experience with depression, eating disorders, or OCD.
As Fairbrother explains in an interview with On the Coast, “Pregnant women and postpartum women who are suffering from an anxiety disorder may not be getting the screening or assessment or treatment that they need because we aren't thinking to ask about these kinds of concerns because we're so focused on depression. We know that outside of reproduction, anxiety disorders come in as a group. They're about twice as common as are mood disorders which include depression."
I am actually a bit embarrassed to say that relief was the first thing I felt after reading this study. For the first time ever, I felt some sense of comfort knowing that the debilitating and intrusive thoughts that took over my life during both pregnancies, and for many years after, did not belong to only me.
I finally knew I was not alone.
Symptoms of postpartum anxiety look very similar to those of other anxiety disorders:
- Constant worry
- A feeling that something bad is going to happen to your baby
- Disturbances in sleep and appetite
- Racing thoughts
- And physical symptoms such as an increased heart rate, headaches and nausea are common
In addition to those symptoms, I also felt a constant need to be reassured by family and my children's pediatrician about everything that had to do with my babies' health and safety. I spent countless hours questioning my ability as a mother and even more time wondering if every decision I made was putting them at risk.
No matter how hard I tried, I could never quiet the thoughts that raced in my head at all hours of the day and night. I struggled to bond with both of my children because every time I tried to relax, all I could think about was what I wasn't doing.
Postpartum anxiety has been referred to as the “hidden disorder" because so few moms recognize the symptoms and seek help for this all-consuming condition. Too many women suffer in silence because they feel their thoughts are crazy and out of control. Many of them hide it for fear of being found out and judged by those who don't understand, while others have no idea that what they feel is felt by others.
Even now, as I write these words, I still feel shame about my own mental health. I wonder why I can't be stronger or fight harder. I think about how unfair it is to my family that so many of our days are spent living with my anxiety.
As my son lays his head on my shoulder and watches me type, I know he won't remember any of that. All he sees when he looks at me is his mom, perfect just the way I am. He loves me and will always understand that his mom worries more than she should. What I take comfort in the most are the days when my anxiety does not take over and I am able to relax and take everything in.
I can just be.
Anxiety has been my constant companion. I now understand that everything I do in life and everyone I love will have to share space with these intrusive thoughts.
While this study may be too late to change the outcome for me, my hope is that pregnant women and new moms may finally get the help and support they so desperately need. It's time we speak up about something that affects so many, so deeply.
Help is available. Ask for it, fight for it, demand it. And please remember, above all else, that you are not alone. You don't have to suffer in silence.