Tag Archives: Postpartum

My Journey Through Postpartum Depression and Panic Disorder

Whenever I talk about the symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, I always include “unusual physical symptoms.” What does that mean? It means that any new physical symptoms that begin during pregnancy and postpartum can be related to mental health.

My own experience with postpartum depression and anxiety was quite atypical, and that was partly why I suffered for months before receiving the proper diagnosis and treatment.

I had lots of risk factors for postpartum depression: a previous bout of depression, the death of a loved one, a high-risk pregnancy, a traumatic childbirth, an unsupportive marriage, and breastfeeding difficulties. But even though I had suffered from depression before, after the death of my mother, my postpartum symptoms were not recognizable to me.

After my second child was born, my stress level was off the charts. My older son got kicked out of two preschools (he wouldn’t use the potty!) and I was scrambling to find a preschool that would take him. I never made enough milk for the new baby because he was so big and I was so stressed out, and he refused to nurse completely as soon as he started solid foods. I felt guilty about “failing” at breastfeeding and I was also afraid that I would not be able to go back to work after maternity leave because I couldn’t find full-time daycare that would take my challenging and potty-resistant older son.

In the meantime, I had difficulties in my marriage. My husband worked a lot, and when he was there he criticized my parenting style, my cooking, and my housekeeping. Even our challenging preschooler was my fault! I was trying my best to make everyone happy, but I was clearly failing.

During this time, I started to have odd physical symptoms. I started feeling that the room was tilting and that I was off-balance. I had to lie down and felt the room was spinning around me. My doctor thought it was either an inner-ear infection or possibly Multiple Sclerosis, and I was sent for neurological testing. The tests came back normal, although MS couldn’t be ruled out (a bonus for my anxiety, of course!).

My symptoms came and went, and then began to include nausea and vomiting along with the dizziness, a complete lack of appetite, and an inability to sleep. I had a low-grade fever on and off for a couple of months and my white blood-cell count was high. I lost 16 pounds beyond the baby weight, slept about three to four hours a night, and threw up regularly — out the door of the car, in the sink at the pediatrician’s office, etc. I felt that my body was swaying even when I was perfectly still, and my bed felt like it was shaking as I lay in it trying to sleep. My skin felt prickly, my chest burned and my hands tingled. The dizziness made watching TV or reading impossible, and walking or driving became difficult. I felt sure that I was dying.

My doctor considered an inner ear problem, hormones, diabetes, thyroid issues, and even encephalitis, but every test came back normal. I was living on Ensure and Gatorade, because I couldn’t keep any solid food down. The stress of caring for my children became unbearable, so we hired a babysitter and I spent most of every day lying in bed, praying to fall asleep for a couple of hours to get some rest. I was prescribed Ativan, but it just knocked me out for an hour or two and I would wake up feeling even worse than before.

After about four months, I fell apart completely and told my doctor that he had to hospitalize me because I was dying, and at that point I wanted to die if they couldn’t stop the misery I was living in. I was admitted to a psychiatric inpatient unit, but my doctor was still sending me around to specialists, trying to figure out what was physically wrong with me.

I stopped vomiting as soon as I was admitted to the hospital. That was when I realized that whatever was going on with me had to do with stress. I spent 12 days in the hospital, during which time I started taking antidepressants and was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication that allowed me to sleep. For a few days, all I did was sleep. When I was awake I was no longer nauseous, but I was filled with unbearable emotional pain. I was terrified that I would never be able to care for my children without getting sick. I felt like the worst mother in the world.

After I was released from the hospital I did a full-day partial hospitalization program for a month, which gave me time for the antidepressant to start working and allowed me to take care of myself for a change. I learned in group therapy about the ways in which I had prioritized my responsibility for others way above self-care, in unhealthy and unhelpful ways, and I began to heal. With the help of medication, therapy, and later couples counseling, I recovered. I still had anxiety at times, but I also had joy and passion for life. I became a lactation educator, started a small business helping other new moms, and led new parent support groups for several years. Eight years later I went back to school to become a Marriage and Family Therapist.

I still have to be vigilant about managing stress and maintaining good self-care. I tell myself that this is the “gift” of being prone to depression and anxiety: I don’t have the luxury of tolerating a great deal of stress like some people seem to do, or living life in a way that generally makes me unhappy. I am obligated to do work that I love, to have a healthy relationship with my husband, and to prioritize joy, peace and comfort as well as caring for my family. I know that I always have to be mindful to avoid a recurrence of depression, but I also know that I am strong and resilient and will do whatever I have to do to be healthy and take good care of myself and my children.

My mental health issues began when my second child was seven months old, and yet no one ever considered a postpartum condition. My symptoms were fully consistent with panic disorder and depression, and yet my doctor and my therapist (yes, a trained therapist!) never considered these diagnoses. My hope is that in the future, mothers and their caregivers become better educated to recognize perinatal mood and anxiety disorders so that they can be treated early and mothers can return to enjoying their lives again.

  • If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • If you are looking for pregnancy or postpartum support and local resources, please call or email Postpartum Support International:

Call PSI Warmline (English & Spanish) 1-800-944-4PPD (4773)
Email support@postpartum.net

How Doulas Can Help With Postpartum Depression

family with babyOn Wednesday, I was invited to speak to a group of local doulas, the Mt. Diablo Doula Community, about prevention of Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs), as well as how to recognize the disorders and how to help their clients. I hope the presentation might be helpful for doulas who are wanting more information about these disorders and what role they can play in keeping moms healthy and happy. You can access the Presentation Here. Attachments to the presentation are the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale and an associated Suicide Screening Interview.

For New Moms: When You’re “Just Not Yourself”

By Meri Levy, MFT

canstockphoto14016122Being a new mother should be a joyous time in your life. But what if you’re not feeling like yourself after having a baby? About 10-15% or of new moms experience postpartum depression, which can begin any time during the first year after childbirth. Depression is a treatable illness that causes feelings of sadness, indifference, and/or anxiety.

Postpartum depression (PPD) is different from the “baby blues.” A majority of new mothers experience the “baby blues,” a period of sadness that isn’t debilitating and passes quickly. Symptoms of the “baby blues” include tearfulness, irritability, restlessness, and anxiety. But when symptoms of sadness, irritability or anxiety continue for more than two weeks or make it difficult to care for your baby, there is more going on and it’s time to reach out for help.

Symptoms of PPD include:

  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Feeling sad, hopeless, helpless, or worthless
  • Trouble sleeping/sleeping too much
  • Loss of appetite/increased appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating/confusion
  • Crying for no apparent reason
  • Lack of interest in the baby
  • Fear of harming the baby or oneself

Symptoms can vary in severity, but persistent depression often causes new moms feel isolated, guilty, or ashamed.

You should tell your doctor if you have several of these symptoms for more than two weeks; if you have thoughts of suicide or thoughts of harming your child; depressed feelings are getting worse; or you are having trouble caring for your baby or yourself.

Depression is an illness. It is not a sign of weakness or of being a bad mother. It can be treated successfully, and getting help is the best thing you can do for your baby.

Risk Factors for PPD

Any new mom can develop PPD. Its causes may include hormonal and other physical changes, sleep disturbance, emotional adjustments and chronic stress. However, women are at increased risk of depression if they have a personal or family history of depression, if they are have experienced particularly stressful life events such as significant losses, a high-risk pregnancy or traumatic birth, or if they don’t have adequate support from family and friends.

Other Postpartum Conditions:

Postpartum Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Many new moms experience anxiety rather than sadness after giving birth. Anxiety, panic attacks, irrational fears or intrusive thoughts, or images can be associated with Postpartum Anxiety or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Symptoms of a panic attack can include a racing heartbeat, unusual physical symptoms, a sense of impending doom, the feeling that you are dying, dizziness or nausea.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder after Childbirth
New mothers can also develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic childbirth experience. PTSD involves reexperiencing the trauma through flashbacks or nightmares, having difficulty sleeping, and feeling detached or estranged from friends and loved ones.

Postpartum Psychosis
Postpartum psychosis is extremely rare but also very serious. It affects only two out of every 1,000 new moms. The symptoms are severe and may include insomnia, agitation, hallucinations, and extreme paranoia or suspiciousness. Postpartum psychosis is a serious medical emergency and requires immediate attention.

Treatment for Postpartum Disorders is Effective

If you believe you are suffering from a postpartum disorder, the first step is to talk to your doctor or mental health provider.

You should be evaluated by your doctor to rule out a medical cause that can contribute to depression.

Psychotherapy, medication or a combination of the two may be needed to get you back to feeling like yourself. But you must continue treatment even after you begin to feel better, because discontinuing treatment too soon can cause symptoms to recur.

The support of family and friends is also instrumental to your recovery. In addition, joining a support group for postpartum disorders can help overcome feelings of isolation, increase coping skills and provide social support.

Getting help is the most important step you can take for yourself and your baby. Untreated maternal depression is associated with developmental delays in babies, as well as potentially serious emotional consequences for your growing child.

How Partners Can Help

New moms suffering from Pospartum Depression and Anxiety need the support of their partner, as well as friends and family. Help with baby care and household responsibilities, provide an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on, and be patient and understanding with her struggles. And make sure she gets help.

Partners also need to take care of themselves. Having a new baby is hard for partners too. And if the mother is depressed, you are dealing with two major stressors. Partners can also suffer from Postpartum Depression, a often undiagnosed problem.

How to help a partner suffering from a postpartum disorder:

  • Encourage her to talk about how she is feeling. Listen without judging her. Instead of trying to fix the problems, just be there for her to lean on.
  • Offer help around the house. Chip in with the housework and childcare responsibilities. Don’t wait for her to ask!
  • Make sure she takes time for herself. Rest and relaxation are important. Encourage her to take breaks, hire a babysitter, or schedule some date nights.
  • Be patient if she’s not ready for sex. Depression affects sex drive, so it may be a while before she’s in the mood. Offer her physical affection, but don’t push if she’s not ready for sex. She will recover in time!
  • Go for walks with her. Getting exercise and sunshine can make a big dent in depression, but it’s hard to get motivated when you’re depressed. Help her by making walks a daily ritual for the two of you.

If you’re not sure if you have PPD, complete the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. It is a fairly accurate way of determine if your symptoms are normal or may require treatment.

I offer a support group In my Lafayette Office for mothers suffering from perinatal anxiety and depression. You can download a flier for the group here.

Co-Parenting With a Partner

The First Year Can Be Rough, by Meri Levy, MFT

family twinsIf you’re like me, I really thought that, despite my decision to breastfeed, my husband was so gung ho about being a Dad that we would share the parenting responsibilities pretty equally once our first child was born. I was in for a rude awakening. Breastfeeding meant that much of the time I was literally attached to my new baby, and when I was not, I had an easier time calming him than my husband did. And even when I didn’t, I couldn’t stand to have my husband trying to comfort our fussy baby without stepping in and trying to help. Whether due to biology or psychology, I was so attached to my new baby that I couldn’t tear myself away long enough to really get a break. As a result, I became more comfortable in the baby care role, and he became less.

There are many reasons why fathers often take a backseat in the early days with a new baby. Whether because of a hormonally-afflicted “helicopter” Mom, an inexperienced Dad, a baby who is more easily calmed by the mother, or gender-related attitudes about who does what, newborn care often falls disproportionately to the mother. And since Mom is generally recovering from childbirth, likely adjusting to breastfeeding, undoubtedly sleep deprived, and in the throes of huge hormonal changes, this disproportionate share can become a BIG PROBLEM. You know that saying that “if Mom isn’t happy, nobody is happy?” I think the truth of that statement is widely underestimated.

So, we’ve got a Mom who can’t let go to allow her partner to care for the baby, a Dad who is either mildly incompetent or feels he is (or is being treated like he is), a baby who’s getting used to being cared for by Mom, and a Mom who is at the end of her rope and feels like she just can’t get a break (and is not sure she would take one if she could). Not a recipe for a happy family.

Negotiating who does what, recognizing the barriers to fairly allocating parenting and household responsibility and actually making and carrying out a plan to address those barriers and create a cooperative, supportive and fair allocation of workload is one of the major tasks of the first year of parenthood. Working out a plan for who does what, figuring out how to set goals for change if change is needed, and implementing those changes, can make a world of difference.

I once read a study (and I don’t have a citation, but I like to believe that it is true) that claimed that of all the factors that might predict the well-being of children as they grow up (e.g. praise, affection, discipline, structure, etc.), the one variable that is most predictive of a child’s future well-being is the degree to which his or her parents have a cooperative relationship around parenting. So, if that is true, it matters less who does what (or if it is done correctly), and it matters more that parents are supportive of each other as parents and partners.

Becoming a Parent to Your Newborn

By Meri Levy, MFT

Regardless of your expectations, the arrival of a first baby is, first and foremost, a radical role adjustment for the new mother and father. As you grow from being a child to an adult and into a partner in an adult relationship, most of us experience shifts in our relationships as daughters or sons, sisters or brothers, and friends or lovers.

But the birth of a baby changes everything! Now perhaps your most significant role in life is as a parent. This is an altogether new role, and babysitting experience aside, there is no real preparation for it. But it is truly amazing to see how our babies foster and nourish our growth as parents, almost from the beginning.

While you adapt and grow to fill your new role, it can be difficult at times to hold onto formerly cherished roles, as a professional, a friend or lover, and an independent person in your own right. You may find that you are redefining yourself in ways that make these roles change (e.g. leaving behind a career, changing roles in your marriage, etc.)

Ultimately, however, we are ourselves. While we adapt to our role as parents, we also must adapt our view of parenting to include who we are as individuals — to allow ourselves to fit into our vision of a good parent.

Some mothers plan to stay at home full-time, but must still figure out if staying at home with their new baby is what makes them a happy mom. Or conversely, working mothers may find that they cannot leave their baby in another’s care. For fathers, you may have expected yourself to be the provider, but you still must figure out if spending the weekend satisfying that picky client at home is how you want to be a father — or if your partner is even the better choice as the bread-winner! And parents must weigh all sorts of other priorities, to friends, yourself, and the world, in figuring out how you will incorporate being a parent into your life.

No one can do this for you, because you are as unique a person as your new baby, and uniquely qualified to create the best family for your child.

If the process of evolving into the parent you want to be is more challenging that you thought, working with a therapist who specializes in this transition is a good way to work through your competing goals and figure out the path that is right for you.

Good Grief! Adjusting to Parenthood

Letting Go of What We Give Up When We Become Parents, by Meri Levy, MFT

In becoming parents, along with the love and joy that a baby brings, we often face issues that arise relating to our own childhood experiences. For many people, the unmet needs and wants from our childhood simmer below the surface, and the arrival of a baby and the transition to becoming a parent can bring them to the forefront.

It is important to allow ourselves to grieve the losses that are a part of becoming a parent — the loss of nurturing we feel as the focus shifts to nurturing our child, the loss of independence, and our diminished ability to focus on our own needs — and work on letting go of unmet expectations regarding our own childhood.

The phases of grieving have long been studied and are well understood, although their duration, order and intensity can vary greatly, and each individual’s experience is unique.

The first phase is denial: in this case we deny feelings of loss because they seem inappropriate or are too uncomfortable to deal with.

The second phase is anger, and this can take many forms: anger at our partner for their lack of support, anger at our parents for perceived flaws, anger at friends for their lack of understanding of the changes we are experiencing. And even sometimes anger at our child, for the endless demands or because our baby differs from our expectations.

The third phase of grief is bargaining: attempting to avoid or undo our uncomfortable feelings. “If only I had a more supportive husband…, or an easier baby,” etc. These are ways we avoid dealing with the fact that parenting is incredibly hard work, and that our unmet needs from childhood have not and most likely will not be met.

The fourth phase of grief is depression. This can include intense sadness, feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in life, and a feeling of numbness. Depression is a normal phase of grieving, but when it becomes severe (i.e. thoughts of harming oneself or others) or persistent (more than two weeks), it is crucial to get help.

The fifth and final phase of grief is acceptance. We feel comfortable in our new role as parents. We accept, and can even joke about, how our life has changed and how our child has become the center of our world. And importantly, we do what we can to nurture ourselves, without blaming others, without feeling guilty, knowing that we deserve taking care of, even if the only one who can do it is ourself.