When New Mom Anxiety Isn't Normal

Kimberly Zapata

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Nothing can truly prepare you for having a baby. You can read What to Expect When You’re Expecting every day and listen to what any and every parenting expert has to say, and you’ll still go into the process unprepared; yYour body will ache and hurt, and your mind will be caught off-guard.

How do I know? Because I’ve given birth. Twice. And while my second pregnancy was somewhat easier — I knew what clothes to wear, which prenatals to buy and how to manage my acid reflux — the postpartum period rocked me. It crippled me and shook me to my core, and I became very anxious. In fact, my fears started affecting every aspect of my life, from my relationships with husband and daughter to my ability to work.

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But isn’t anxiety, as a new parent, par for the course? Well, yes and no. We spoke with doctors and consulted the research to help you figure out whether your new mom anxiety is normal. According to the experts — and the science — here are the tell-tale signs that you may need to seek help.

Racing thoughts

Racing thoughts are common, especially for parents who often find themselves overworked, overwhelmed, over-scheduled and overstressed. In fact, they are so common that Dr. Nicole Washington, psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer at Elocin Psychiatric Services, PLLC, told Bustle “occasional periods of racing thoughts are nothing to be terribly concerned about as they could be related to a reasonable worry.” However, when coupled with other symptoms (like restlessness, irritability and/or a lack of focus) these thoughts could signal a more serious problem. “If your heart rate is elevated and you feel like you are in a constant state of panic, then you might have anxiety or an anxiety disorder and you should be evaluated by a professional,” Cali Estes, PhD., therapist and founder of The Addictions Academy, told Bustle.

Having visions and/or intrusive thoughts

Many of us have visions. We imagine, dream, daydream and fantasize until our hearts content. But anxiety visions are different. They are driven by fear and centered around danger, harm and/or a perceived risk. Of course, it is very normal for new moms to be anxious or afraid — every parent I know worries if their little one is eating enough, sleeping enough and/or spitting up too much — but if these visions impact your daily life, you may want to seek help.

Intrusive thoughts are also a signal something is wrong, i.e.  I’ve pictured my baby boy, blue and lifeless, in his crib. I’ve seen myself smothering him with his swaddle, not intentionally but because I suck at swaddling. It is a skill I completely and totally lack. And I’ve imagined my bus crashing into the wall of the Lincoln Tunnel, causing the concrete to fracture and myself, and thousands of other commuters, to drown. And these visions incapacitated me. I stopped sleeping, stopped swaddling and stopped traveling. I was unable to go to my job. And while not all anxiety sufferers will endure “visions” or intrusive thoughts, Dr. Stephanie Mihalas tells SheKnows these are a common sign. “Fears such as getting into an elevator and being sure that you will never come out are not proportionate to reality. If the fear becomes overwhelming, disruptive and way out of proportion to the actual risk involved, it’s a telltale sign of phobia, a type of anxiety disorder.”

Feeling irritable, short-tempered or angry

Many do not associate anger with anxiety. I didn’t. But shortly after my son’s birth, I noticed a shift in my demeanor. I became irritable and short-tempered. I began yelling, which is not my M.O. And one evening, I held my daughter’s body against a wall because she was laughing and being goofy. Because my 6-year-old was acting like a kid. Shortly after, I called my physiatrist — I knew something was wrong — and that’s when I learned a short fuse can actually be a symptom of mental illness. “[Anger] is rooted in fear, and fear is just another word for anxiety,” therapist Kayce Hodos, LPC told Bustle. “When we feel threatened, we react with our natural stress response — fight or flight. Those of us who end up fighting often get angry when things don’t go our way. To figure out how to manage your anger, you need to be able to name your fear and learn to take control of what’s lying beneath: anxiety.”

Inability to eat and/or sleep

Insomnia and a decreased appetite can signal numerous health problems, but when coupled with any of the aforementioned symptoms, they could be a sign of anxiety and/or or another mental health condition.

Difficulty focusing or sitting still

Everyone has difficulty focusing — at least on occasion —  but if you find yourself disjointed, disorganized and scattered on a regular basis, it’s possible your dealing with something bigger than an everyday distraction or stressor. If anxiety “is disrupting your ability to function (e.g., at home, at work, in school or in relationships) or causing extreme distress or disability in your life for an extended period of time, then it may have moved into the category of a disorder, and it may be worth considering seeking help from a mental health professional,” Dr. Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, told SheKnows.

Physical symptoms

While worry may be the most well-known symptom of anxiety, physical manifestations of anxiety are also very common. I clench my jaw, grind my teeth and become extremely fidgety. My hands tremble, legs bounce and heart begins to race — and I am not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, many anxiety sufferers experience headaches, muscle aches, pain, nausea, fatigue, shallow breathing, rapid breathing, and/or express feeling overheated or flush. Some (like myself) begin to sweat.

The good news is that postpartum anxiety (and generalized anxiety) disorders are highly treatable. Cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective, as are support groups — like this one from Postpartum Support International. Meditation can help ease symptoms, and medication can manage them; however, in order to truly overcome anxiety, you must change your behavoirs. Marva Caldwell, MA, LMHC, NCC, told SheKnows moms should eat well, sleep well and ask for help from their friends, family and loved ones. “Look after yourself,” Caldwell says. “It is OK to ask for help and you need to let others help you.”

If you suspect you have a perinatal mood disorder, talk to your therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. If you do not have one, reach out to your gynecologist or general practitioner and visit Postpartum Support International. The nonprofit has a helpline, in-depth information about each condition and dedicated volunteers will help you find support in your area.

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