Updated: Mar 6, 2021
I have a history of anxiety.
I can remember as a kid, dealing with constant tummy aches when we would travel or when I would be in a new situation. In my mid 20’s panic came into the picture in a more concrete way. I would need to talk walks outside while at work, and always experienced it when traveling. It never impaired my daily functioning, but it was always present. And it is still present with me now.
Anxiety is a strange life partner -always there reminding me of the danger, and ready to freak out without a moment’s notice behind the scenes.
When I became a mother ten years ago, I was not prepared mentally for how I would emotionally react. I had a very hard labor (5 hours of pushing without an ep, unmedicated forceps delivery). I was left feeling like I had been hit by a truck. I could not sit for a few days. Anxiety infiltrates a worn-down body.
I was also panicking inside about being a mom. I had no idea what I was doing. I was an only child. I never gushed over babies or was a babysitter.
I remember my first intrusive thought.
We had just gotten home with the baby and my family from out of town was in my bedroom talking with me (remember that I could not really sit up). My face must have washed cold when the thought popped into my head, because my aunt asked me if I was ok.
I am not going to share my intrusive thoughts because they are triggers for me and also could be for readers who experience them, but just know this: they are a common anxiety symptom.
They are like a little mini horror movie that pops into your head. Often for moms they involve harm to the baby. They cause extreme distress and anxiety, and a person who experiences them is often working a full-time job to manage the distress they are feeling.
Thankfully for me, that was the only one I had with my first pregnancy. As my body recovered, so did my emotions. I had a good tribe around me, and I was able to concentrate on my healing and self-care.
I went through my second pregnancy without a hitch. We were really excited to be pregnant again so quickly after trying for a couple years with our first. Labor and Delivery with number 2 was a dream. I got to the birth center around 8am, gave birth around 1pm and was in my own bed with the baby on my chest at 7pm. It was like a good day’s work. My body felt great, and I felt great emotionally.
My real bout with a perinatal anxiety disorder began mid-way through my third pregnancy.
The intrusive thoughts started popping in around the beginning part of my third trimester. (remember that these things don’t just strike in the postpartum.)
The first thought that popped in on my was like a sudden burst of fear. I remember we were watching the kids under the Christmas tree, and taking pictures. I just had this washing-over fearful thought - “What if something happens to them?” Over the next trimester and throughout the first year of my third child’s life, those thoughts turned more distressing, and I was in a pit.
I was in a constant battle with my thoughts, dealing with multiple intrusive thoughts each day. I felt like I was inside a glass building watching my life happen but not really living in it.
Although I had worked in the field of mental health for a while at this point, I could not understand what was happening to me. I was in despair, constantly in fear that I would not be strong enough to make it through this rough season.
I found some small glimmers of hope though.
I started to find community.
At that time, it was hard for me to find a therapist who specialized in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. I found community online. I read stories of other moms who had dealt with intrusive thoughts. Postpartum Progress was a lifesaver for me.
I found out that what I was dealing with has a name (perinatal OCD) and although it is not as common as perinatal anxiety or depression, it does happen.
These intrusive thoughts were obsessions, which you can have with or without the compulsions. My therapist mind dove into OCD and how to treat it.
I learned how to understand that a thought is just a thought, and that an intrusive thought is an anxiety symptom not so different from a sneeze from a cold. It is a brain sneeze.
I applied some mindfulness techniques that helped me to reframe these thoughts, I went from worrying that I was an unfit mother to understanding that I was stressed and having symptoms of stress (I was not to blame).
The thoughts began to lose power over me. I was able to learn to treat the thoughts as birds flying across the sky – not attempting to pull them down and build a nest for them; or like trash on a conveyer belt that needs to roll right into the waste basket. I learned to not allow for subtle compulsions, which gave my OCD fuel to grow. Essentially, I learned how to fight back.
At the same time, I did a deep dive into understanding how nutrition and mental health go hand in hand.
I began to understand how things like sugar and gluten and toxins in the environment have an effect on over-all health. I learned how important sunlight is and how important sleep and hydration are.
I also learned how important it
is to learn through labs what is going on under the surface. I learned through testing that I have an MTHFR gene mutation (learn about what that is here) which effects the way that my body is able to detox and absorb certain vitamins.
All of these things inform the practice that I run now. I partner with a nurse practitioner to run labs with our patients, and the treatment plan always includes nutritional coaching as well as therapy. Learn More about Functional Psychology Here
I do this work because this is the type of help I needed during my hardest season.
I knew that I was starting to get to the other side of the raging river that I felt like I was crossing when I would make it through a good portion of the day and not have an intrusive thought.
The next step for me was that my intrusive thoughts started to be about the fear of having another thought and not about my kids.
By that time, I had learned to call these thoughts by name, “that’s just my OCD” and move on with the task at hand.
We went on to have two more children after this time, and I did not deal with these symptoms to this degree again.
I still will have the occasional thought that pops into my head when I am in a stressful situation. Remember that anxiety is always there, waiting in the wings for me. But the thoughts don’t have power to completely wreck me like they used to.
I am honored to get to do the work I do to help moms who may be dealing with anxiety and depression. If you are reading this and you feel like you are doing your best to tread water, remember, there is hope. I am proof of that. With help, you can be on the other side of the river, too.
If you need a hand and you are in South Carolina, I would love to help. If you are outside of the state, call 1-800-944-4773 or visit Postpartum Support International to get connected with a specialist in your area.
You are not alone. You are not to blame. With help, you will be well.
If you are up for sharing, I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments. I think it is important that we share our stories so that we can break the stigma that surrounds mental health.