As a mother of four children—and as a psychotherapist who specializes in treating women with postpartum depression—this disease hits close to home. I struggled with PPD with all four pregnancies. My struggles with anxiety and panic (mood disorders associated with PPD) began as early as when I was still pregnant and lasted until each child was about 6 months old. To be fair, my journey to motherhood was anything but simple. I once got pregnant while using an IUD birth control. I also suffered from gestational diabetes, which was managed with insulin and diet restrictions. I experienced nerve-racking subchorionic bleeding. I delivered a 10.2-lb baby and withstood the medically traumatic recovery. Several C-sections, a bout of colic, and the usual difficulties of pregnancy and early motherhood such as nursing, sleepless nights, concerns about childcare, and then—oh yeah—returning to work. Let's just say that being a mother has been the most challenging but also the most amazing experience of my life.
And I know I'm not alone.
In fact, one in five women will experience some form of PPD. I encourage women to never be afraid to ask for help. You cannot make it through something like PPD on your own. But because of the stigma or ignorance surrounding PPD, many women ignore or hide PPD symptoms. Frequently, there's an expectation put on women (by friends, family, media, society, or themselves) that pregnancy and motherhood are supposed to be the best experience of your life, and you might feel ashamed or embarrassed if that's not your reality.
What PPD Looks Like
Let's make one thing clear: You do not need to have thoughts about killing your baby to be struggling with PPD. (If you are having thoughts of harming your baby, yourself, or anyone else, seek expert help immediately.) That is an extreme manifestation of the disease. More often symptoms will appear more like anxiety and panic, OCD with or without intrusive thoughts, major depressive disorder, or even psychosis (loss of contact with reality). While symptoms of postpartum depression look and feel different for everyone, familiar symptoms can include:
- Sleep disturbances (trouble sleeping despite being exhausted, or sleeping too much)
- Physical symptoms like headaches, heart palpitations, poor concentration or confusion
- Trouble motivating yourself to get through daily tasks (showering, performing chores, running errands, or simply getting out of bed)
- Low energy
- Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
- Racing thoughts
- Excessive crying
Symptoms can occur as early as two weeks post-birth, but can also take as long as one year after a baby is born to surface.
Having a baby is a major life transition that can bring on a variety of emotions for anyone. You may feel overwhelmed, anxious, worried, tired, or scared. A lot of women who have recently given birth have "baby blues" due to strong shifts in hormones. But to qualify for a true PPD diagnosis, you'd need to experience symptoms for more than two weeks, or they would need to prevent you from being able to function on a daily basis.
Parenting is often a trial by fire. Doubt about the decisions you make every day can easily turn motherhood into a daunting, losing game. Add that to sleepless nights, disconnect in your relationship, body image issues, financial stress, and internal pressures of what a mom is "supposed to be/feel," and it becomes a bit easier to see how PPD can sneak up on you. (Watch out for these five signs your hormones are out of balance.)
Real Talk from Real Moms
What postpartum depression felt like for them
"I immediately started to feel trapped. A couple days after we arrived home from the hospital I found myself becoming paranoid about whether or not my son was breathing. He was so tiny and vulnerable and every baby item was covered in warning labels, preparing me for possible terrible scenarios. I started to look around the house and saw everyday items as dangerous objects that could harm him in some way—a heavy coffee mug, the edge of a coffee table, hot liquids like tea and coffee. I couldn't look at, hold, or go near a knife. I was panicky at times, anxious, exhausted and extremely worried about whether he was going to survive in what seemed like a very dangerous world." —Christine, Washington, DC
"I had to have C-sections with all three of my children. There was no music and no birth plan. I struggled a lot with producing milk, so breastfeeding was a miserable experience for me and for my babies. You would have thought I would have learned from the first child and gone straight to formula, but I felt that I was somehow cheating the baby of this milk and more so the experience of nursing. When in reality, the babies and I always ended up crying. I envied the moms who pop the baby on and have conversations and look comfortable and at ease. That was not my experience. I now know that is OK. But it took me a while to get here." —Anonymous
What moms who have recovered from PPD want you to know
"It's OK to talk about it and seek assistance. You'll be amazed at the bonds you'll form from sharing both the good aspects and the challenging parts of motherhood." —Christine, Washington, DC
"Be kind to yourself. It's hard, but it's vital. Listen to your tears, your tantrums, your nightmares, and fears, and remember you're not the only one. Call someone and ask for help...and a hug." —Anonymous
(Hear from more women on their experiences with pregnancy. One mom's story: What Pregnancy Taught Me About Exercise.)
Treatment Options for PPD
Postpartum depression is often under-reported or undiagnosed, but the good news is that it's treatable. Moms have a few options at their disposal, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This identifies automatic negative thoughts and patterns and then replaces them with more realistic and optimistic thoughts. Perhaps surprisingly, there are prescription medications that are safer for women to take during pregnancy or while nursing. New moms can find solace in support groups as well. These gatherings, led by a professional, can provide structured time to discuss PPD with other moms who may better understand what they are going through. This makes for a more inviting and supportive environment. Last but not least? Exercise. Getting up and out and just walking can completely change your perspective. (This 15-minute de-stress workout can get you started.)