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Anxiety Awareness Month

Anxiety is nothing new to me; I have dealt with it for as long as I can remember. It got worse with age. As my responsibilities in life increased, I felt the weight of it grow stronger on my shoulders. But nothing compared to the anxiety I dealt with in the early months of 2023.

In February of 2023, I had my son, Lucas, five weeks early. In the weeks leading up to that, I began developing the pregnancy condition “preeclampsia,” which is serious and can even be life-threatening. Then, my water spontaneously broke the night before Lucas was born. When I got to the hospital, there were concerns about his lungs due to his prematurity. The doctors wanted to give me a set of two shots to help his little lungs outside the womb, but Lucas just wouldn’t wait and he came before I was able to get the second shot.

I was relieved hearing him cry and get agitated when they fitted an oxygen mask on him. Hearing him fuss meant not only was he breathing well enough but that he was a fighter. I was relieved that he was okay, happy that our delivery went well, and encouraged by the health report I was given by the nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). My doctor, who visited me the next day, remarked on how upbeat I was about the whole situation but warned me that postpartum issues can hit hard, especially for NICU moms, and that if they did, I should feel free to reach out for help.

As the next week or so progressed, I spent most of my day in my son’s NICU room, nursing him or pumping, holding him, changing him, and speaking with medical staff about his progress. I sat there with little to occupy my mind, the only sounds in the room coming from the monitors strapped to my tiny baby boy. The worries, the sadness, and the intrusive thoughts began creeping in, aided by the endless time I had to Google.

For some reason, two main fears began to overtake me with an intense sense of anxiety: that my baby boy would be a victim of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and that I wouldn’t wash the parts of the breast pump thoroughly enough, causing him to get a bacterial infection called cronobacter sakazakii. I wish I could accurately explain why my brain latched on to these two things so strongly, but I cannot. All I can say as an explanation is that, in the case of SIDS, I read that there was an increased risk with premature babies, and that there was an element of it that was not fully understood by science, which scared me. In the case of the bacterial infection, I had read that a premature baby boy had died a year earlier from this very thing. Although it is very rare, I fixated on it.

The anxiety came on slowly, but within a few weeks, it was debilitating. And really, it felt as though it was accompanied by some postpartum depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I cried multiple times a day every single day and described it to others as feeling like I was in a hole I could not come out from. I meticulously washed the pump parts and if someone so much as breathed near them when they were cleaned and sanitized, I would start all over again. I had to pump in the middle of the night and would set an alarm to get up around 1 a.m. to do this. My husband offered to help by getting up to wash the parts afterward, allowing me a little more sleep, but I couldn’t relinquish control over the process, so I did it myself instead of sleeping. I spent every waking moment researching and worrying about SIDS, trying to figure out how high my baby’s risk was and how I could prevent it.

A few (somewhat) good things came out of this. While I’m sure that some of the cleaning I did for my baby’s bottles and pump parts was overkill, I learned the correct method of cleaning them (which was not the way the nurses taught me in the hospital), and this ensured my baby did not get sick in his first months. I also learned a lot about safe sleep and how it can drastically reduce infant death. Some of the practices that can cut down the risk include:

  • Placing an infant on their back to sleep during naps and at night.
  • Using a firm, flat sleep surface with a fitted sheet.
  • Sharing a room with your infant, but not a bed.
  • Keeping objects out of the baby’s sleep area.
  • Preventing the room from getting too hot.

Even with all the precautions in place, I still did not feel fully comfortable that my baby would be okay. I knew that what I was experiencing was not healthy. People would say things to me such as, “All new moms worry” or “It’s normal to feel stressed with a new baby.” But I knew that this was not just normal new mom anxiety, it had become an all-consuming, all-day intense set of fears that included breakdowns, obsessive actions and worries, and visions of terrible things playing through my head throughout each day. I knew I needed help. I was lucky to have a coworker and my cousin who truly helped me understand what was going on, the way my husband (who was very supportive but had never given birth) really couldn’t.

I had heard many warnings about postpartum depression, but I had heard little about postpartum anxiety and was not prepared for it to hit me so hard. Now I recognize how important it is to talk about this condition, as well as to recognize the symptoms. Studies have shown between 11% and 21% of people designated female at birth experience postpartum anxiety. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Disrupted sleep
  • Inability to relax
  • Racing thoughts, especially of worst-case scenarios
  • Being afraid to leave your baby, even for a second
  • Difficulty focusing

Postpartum anxiety can be brought on by the sharp change in hormones that occurs after giving birth, but also by lack of sleep, the intense feeling of responsibility that comes with having an infant, or a stressful event in your baby’s life.

I began searching for what would work for me to deal with my intense postpartum anxiety. I started by increasing my therapy sessions to every week. I joined a few online support groups for mothers experiencing postpartum mental health issues; this allowed me to share with others experiencing the same problems. I answered honestly at the doctor’s office when I was given a new mother’s mental health questionnaire. And eventually, I was even prescribed medicine to help deal with my high levels of anxiety. It took a lot of work and effort on my part, to get past what I was going through and begin living my life again, but I was able to do it. One of my biggest fears was that my baby’s entire first year would go by and I would enjoy none of it because I would be too focused on my fears. I am happy to say that while the first several months were rough, I thoroughly enjoyed watching my little boy grow into a toddler.

If you’re struggling with anxiety or postpartum anxiety, some of these options could be ones to explore, but different things work for each person. For some prioritizing sleep is the solution, for others it’s increasing physical activity. Groups like Postpartum Support International offer a number of online support group options, for those who want to try that option. But, my advice would be that talking to your doctor is an important first step in figuring out how to treat your anxiety.