I am no stranger to anxiety. I’ve been going to therapy regularly for the past 5 years to manage it. Despite this — and years of experience working with postpartum patients as a pelvic floor physical therapist at Origin — I was completely unprepared for how out of control I would feel after having my baby.
A few weeks after she was born, I started having horrible thoughts and images in my head about her being hurt. I would sometimes have trouble getting to sleep because these images would keep playing over and over in my head. What if we were going for a walk and a car ran off the road and hit her stroller? What if she stopped breathing during the night and I didn’t wake up in time?
I started changing my behavior because of the thoughts. I stopped lifting my baby out of the bathtub because I was afraid I would drop her. I checked the mirror we had in the car every minute to make sure she was still breathing. I didn’t want anyone else to buckle her into her car seat and I certainly did not want anyone else to drive her.
I stopped lifting my baby out of the bathtub because I was afraid I would drop her.
I was fortunate enough to already have a therapist so I could address these thoughts right away. She reassured me that many new mothers experience these types of thoughts. She told me that it was most likely a combination of postpartum anxiety and mild postpartum OCD and that it can be treated with a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and often, medication. She referred me to a psychiatrist specializing in perinatal mood disorders who recommended I start taking anti-anxiety medication.
I was nervous to be on medication. Would I have to be on it forever? Would it affect my ability to breastfeed and pump? Did I, as a new mom with an already very low sex drive, want to sign myself up for the most common side effect of these meds — low libido and difficulty achieving orgasm? Even though I was hesitant, I tried not to think about it too much and just did it. I am so glad I did.
The medication doesn’t make the thoughts go away, but it makes them less “sticky.”
The medication doesn’t make the thoughts go away, but it makes them less “sticky.” The CBT helps me logically work through my fears and anxieties. For example, when I get the thought about a car running off the road and hitting the stroller, I think about the probability of that actually happening (very low) and how I would respond if that situation did actually occur (I would probably see or hear a car driving erratically and be able to move us out of the way to safety).
Exposure therapy helps me break down the things I’m scared to do into bite-sized steps that I try to master and build upon each week until eventually, I’m able to do that thing without fear. Just this week I was able to finally lift my baby girl out of the bathtub without being afraid of dropping her.
Dealing with all of this is a lot. On top of having a new baby, physically recovering from delivery, feeding my baby, feeding myself, returning to work, trying to exercise, remembering to shower, and still tending to my relationship with my husband.
But I feel better. Astoundingly better.
And yet, I realize my immense privilege. I already had a therapist. I was able to get an appointment with a psychiatrist right away. I was able to afford to pay her enormous fee. Not everyone has the same access to care and that makes me very sad.
The more people talk about this, the more likely we can bring about greater systemic change.
I wanted to write about my experience to try to normalize postpartum anxiety and postpartum OCD and to validate anyone else who might be feeling the same way. I also have to believe that the more people talk about this, the more likely we can bring about greater systemic change.
If you are experiencing intrusive thoughts and are open to working with a therapist, this directory can help you find one. You can also call or text the National Maternal Health Mental Health Hotline at 1-833-9-HELP4MOMS (1-833-943-5746) to get support 24 hours/day.