What Do Postpartum Anxiety ‘Aftershocks’ Feel Like? This Mother Explains.

Today’s Warrior Mom guest post comes from Jen Bullett, who lives in Chicago.


By Jen Bullett

Hours, days or weeks after a major earthquake hits, the world braces itself for the impending lesser shock known as the aftershock. The tragic nature of the earthquake is drawn out. We wait to see if the aftershock is truly destructive or more of an inconvenience.

If you have experienced any number of challenges with trying to get pregnant, being pregnant, dealing with loss or postpartum issues, you probably know a thing or two about aftershocks. They come in so many different forms and appear at the most unlikely of times.

Like when you are filling out a form at a new doctor’s office and it asks you how many pregnancies you’ve had, followed by how many of those pregnancies resulted in live births. Then there’s the one that asks whether or not you’ve been hospitalized or had procedures. I don’t know whether a D & C is considered a noteworthy procedure. I put it down, just in case, and then cringe a little while a doctor glosses over it. “I see you had a D & C after a miscarriage.” Aftershock.

And then there are the times when marketers, having purchased your name from one of the many pregnancy apps, decide to send you formula in celebration of your soon-to-be-delivered baby. I guess their database didn’t inform them that there was no baby. I remember having to log into the pregnancy tracking site, and choose the setting that noted that my pregnancy was not successful. It was the only way I could stop receiving notices saying my baby was the size of a grape or a nectarine. Aftershock.

If you’ve experienced loss or complications with pregnancies, you may also be hyperaware of other people’s situations. Your heart aches when a friend, colleague or acquaintance has a loss, or complication, or postpartum struggle. When this happens, I remember exactly how I felt in those moments in my own life. I would give anything for this person not to have to feel this pain or sadness. Aftershock.

The author and her son.

Finally, there is the question, “Did you just love your maternity leave?” When someone asks that, the blood drains from my head to my toes. If by “love” you mean I felt like Sisyphus most days and I often felt so anxious I wanted to claw my way out of my own body, then yes. I love my son. He is literally the sweetest little boy ever and he makes me smile pretty much every second I am around him. It was all worth it and yet, I will never forget my lonely and scary maternity leave. Aftershock.

Over a year after the birth of my son, with the accumulation of aftershocks, combined with the normal stresses of life, I got hit with a real whammy. Turns out my postpartum anxiety decided it needed a sequel. In May, I found myself in the familiar spot of feeling panicked, struggling with insomnia, battling a racing mind, and coping with a constant physical buzzing through my body. How did I get back here? Only months earlier, I had cavalierly transitioned off medications. I was cured. But bad habits creep in when you are living your life. I forgot to take care of myself. I forgot to take time to be healthy. I tried to be tough through every aftershock and I never asked for help.

The thing about most aftershocks is that they aren’t as strong as the first shock. Yet it’s a double edged sword — you’ve already pulled yourself out of it once, so you know how to do it, but you also know how bad things can be. When you know what hell feels like, you are petrified of finding yourself back there. You will do anything to prevent that. You might be like me and begin a quest to find a quick fix.

But there isn’t a quick fix. The only path is to start again from the beginning. You make goals. You celebrate small accomplishments. You give yourself a break. You ask for help. You put yourself first. You climb up. You rebuild. You construct an even stronger foundation and reinforce supporting structures so you’ll be ready for the next aftershock.

Aftershocks are going to happen. This is a reality of life. Nobody means for them to happen. If you do find yourself in the middle of an aftershock, I hope that you have the good fortune, as I did, of being surrounded by a spouse or partner, family, colleagues, bosses and experts who are compassionate and supportive. And don’t forget: There is an end. As noted by Winston Churchill, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

Birth Matters: A Collaborative Research Project Exploring Birth Trauma

trauma; traumatic

Editor’s note: Since our original publication of this piece on November 29th, we’ve received a lot of feedback about survey participants only being eligible if they’re six months postpartum or less. We know that often trauma and a diagnosis of PTSD come long after the six month mark, however we have to limit our eligibility criteria. The information collected from this survey will give us the evidence to do more work with more moms – and expand our criteria in the future. The deadline to participate is January 31, 2017.

The most humbling part of being a staff member at Postpartum Progress is meeting moms and hearing their stories. Whether a mom is newly diagnosed, or is recovered from a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder there is something special about being entrusted with her story.

The more I listen the more I notice common themes; many women tell me about events during pregnancy or birth they consider to be traumatic. These often contribute to their later diagnosis of postpartum depression, anxiety or another mental health concern.

One of most common issues that comes up is birth trauma. So many of our moms experience something traumatic that leaves them feeling scared and alone. And trauma doesn’t look the same for everyone.

Trauma can occur if your wants and needs are ignored and you are treated without respect. Poor communication from your doctor that leaves you uncertain about your health or that of your baby can be traumatic. Protracted labor, poor pain management, medical interventions, emergency c-section, a baby in distress, a stay in the NICU; any of these can be traumatic and each of us responds differently.

Because responses to childbirth can vary from very positive to negative and traumatic, Postpartum Progress is teaming up with Dr. Sharon Dekel from Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital to collect information about emotional responses to childbirth. We want to learn about different reactions to childbirth, why they happen, and what their long-term impacts to mom and baby are.

We want to survey as many women as possible, with all kinds of childbirth experiences – to find out what is the emotional impact of childbirth on women.  Our goal is to know how we can help women overcome their negative experiences and improve positive ones. This information can help to develop assessment and prevention tools for traumatic childbirth reactions.

No matter your birth experience, if you are at least 18 years old and have had a baby in the past six months can take our survey. It is completely anonymous and will take about 20 minutes to finish.

Together we can start to better understand and treat traumatic birth experiences.  Click here to find out more about the survey and to participate!  The deadline to participate is January 31, 2017.

A Long History of Breastfeeding, Anxiety, and Forgiveness

I’ve never shared my entire journey with breastfeeding in one place, at one time. It’s a topic that makes my heart race a little, catches my breath in six different ways. It’s World Breastfeeding Week, and it feels like the right time to share how breastfeeding contributed to my postpartum depression and anxiety and, eventually, healed it.

A Long History of Breastfeeding, Anxiety, and Forgiveness
My mother did not breastfeed me. As I like to arrive early to events even now as an adult, I arrived nearly a month early. Preemies often have latch issues, and my mother also hemorrhaged after birth. In addition to our rocky start together, the year was 1981. Enough said.

To this day, my mother blames my immune deficiencies and even our struggle to bond and relate on her inability to breastfeed me. I tend to lean more toward a kidney birth defect no one knew about and strong personalities. However, when she apologized to me for not breastfeeding and how it might have related to our bond, something inside me stirred.

The nurses instructed me not to breastfeed my firstborn.

“It might create a bond.”

As if bonding was a bad thing. But it was if you were on the earlier fringes of the open adoption movement. Due to my kidney disorder, I’d been placed on Level III bed rest at 18 weeks. I experienced severe depression during that pregnancy and as a result, combined with a billion other reasons, chose to place my daughter for adoption at birth.

I wanted to breastfeed. I felt like because I failed her in so many ways, at least I could offer her the Liquid Gold of colostrum. I could offer her something. Anything.

Instead the nurses brought me a bottle, and I fed her quietly in the dim light of my empty hospital room.

A few years later, when my husband and I welcomed our first son into the world, I wrote breastfeeding in big bold letters in my birth plan. My kidney got the best of us again, and my doctor induced my labor when pre-ecclampsia reared its ugly head. In the last few minutes with fevers spiking and heart rates dropping, I consented to an episiotomy to get my son out safely.

The nurses whisked him away to make sure he could breathe okay. They tended to me to help get my blood pressure and temperature back in normal ranges.

There was no immediate baby-on-the-chest, searching and rooting, latch and wait moment for us like I planned. Immediately, the feelings of not being “enough,” the ones I experienced in that empty hospital room with my daughter, began to bubble to the surface. My postpartum depression and anxiety began before they even wheeled me to my room, my thoughts already racing and dodging into darker territory.

By the time everything seemed under control for both me and my son, I sat in the chair to feed him and experienced the worst panic attack of my life up until that point.

I couldn’t do it.

I couldn’t bring him to my breast.

I couldn’t do it with his sister. I failed her in so many ways. Who was I to think I wasn’t going to fail this child in many more ways? I sobbed silently over his little burrito wrapped body, accepted the bottle the nurse brought in, and started therapy approximately two months later.

When we decided to have one last child—approved by my team of doctors, but just one last one due to that kidney of mine—I resolved myself to breastfeed that baby. At that time, I didn’t know if I’d have a girl or a boy or twins or a litter of puppies. From the moment I saw that positive result, I steeled myself.

No one was going to take breastfeeding from us this time.

Our youngest son arrived without much fanfare. Two quick pushes and he slipped into the world with ease. He latched quickly.

But not very efficiently.

Two weeks later, we discovered our little dude rocked a pretty severe tongue tie. I literally went outside after we got home from that appointment and yelled at the sky. “Are you freaking kidding me?!”

Thankfully, we received quick referrals to Children’s Hospital. The procedure went quickly and without issue. He nursed immediately after, and it felt like I always dreamed it might: It felt like coming home.

I still experienced postpartum depression and anxiety with our youngest son. I live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, so I possess that risk factor going into any postpartum period. But breastfeeding our youngest son saved me.

I would sit in the rocking chair as the evening sun poured in through the slats in his blinds and nurse him to sleep. I’d trace the outline of his little feet, his little toes. I’d run my finger down the side of his cheek. And despite everything that went wrong that day, whether real or just in my mind, I’d give thanks for that tiny little moment.

I remained in therapy during the postpartum period with our youngest son, but breastfeeding wasn’t a topic of discussion for us. I often nursed him during sessions. Instead we talked about learning to forgive myself for my perceived failures with my older children.

Perceived, because all three of my children, those under my roof and those not, are alive, healthy, fed, and well cared for; they are loved beyond comprehension.

I’m still getting there, that forgiveness thing. Maybe someday, like my mom, I’ll have a conversation with each of my older children about my inabilities to breastfeed. Maybe I’ll have already forgiven myself—wholly, completely—by then.

But I know this: I did the best I could for each of those babies, and I am proud of myself. I hope you are, too, dear mama.

Worst Case Scenario Thoughts

[Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from a therapist and mom who experienced intrusive thoughts, which she likes to call worst case scenario thoughts. It’s really a great way of explaining what intrusive thoughts look and feel like! -Jenna]

Worst Case Scenario Thoughts

Its 3:44. My husband called at 3:06 to tell me he was walking home from the office. I asked him to pick up some bananas. It’s only a ten minute walk and the grocery store is right outside of our apartment building. I feel my breathing start to quicken and before I know it I see it in my head. The worst case scenario. He was hit by a car while he crossed the street. The grocery store was robbed by a guy with a gun. I push it away and tell myself I won’t call him until 4:00, and that is when I will start to allow myself to panic. At 3:56 he walks in the door explaining he got a work call and wanted to finish it before coming in the door.

These are what I like to call my worst case scenario thoughts. As a person who has struggled with anxiety for most of my life, they’ve always seemed to linger in the recesses of my mind. For years if I received a call from my parents after nine o’clock at night, I was convinced that something terrible had happened to them. I had to take a deep breath before I answer the phone and hurriedly say, “What’s wrong?”

These thoughts aren’t always about safety but can be worst case scenarios in other ways. A ‘C’ on a paper in graduate school launched me into a panic attack because I was convinced it would lead to me flunking out somehow. A small part of me is motivated by these thoughts. Sometimes I feel as if as long as I imagine the worst case scenario I somehow have control over it from happening. They are automatic and although I feel that I can gently push them away and find a positive distraction I am still fighting the shame I feel about having them in the first place.

After becoming a mother they started happening more frequently and the toll they took on me became heavier. Many times they were surrounding my son’s safety, health, and whether or not I would make a mistake that would somehow cause him harm. At times they caused a deeper fear that seemed almost paralyzing to me.

I would describe these intrusive thoughts in detail but I have learned that when you do those that are exposed to them may adopt them as well. Intrusive thoughts can almost be contagious. If you suffer from them and hear other examples it starts to play out in your mind. Our thought catalogues of worst case scenarios must stay as small as possible. But even as I have worked on them and started to find positive ways of coping with them with distraction, deep breathing, and rational thinking these worst case scenario thoughts sometimes affect the way I see myself as a mother. I don’t want to be the mother that holds her son back because she imagines the worst case scenario in every situation. But sometimes I am that mother.

Even as a therapist who is passionate about fighting the stigma placed on mental health issues, these are thoughts I never wanted others to know I had. I really believed for a long time that I was the only one that experienced them. And I judged myself over and over for having them. Who thinks these kinds of horrible things? What kind of mother could possibly visualize horrific things happening to her child? I feel selfish for having them because I still have the luxury of only experiencing them in my mind. Others have not been so lucky and have experienced these worst case scenarios in real life. Why can’t I count myself as lucky and just enjoy that things are okay in the moment?

As I’ve come to understand anxiety from a personal perspective and from a therapist’s point of view, I have realized I am not unique in experiencing these types of thoughts. There are many others out there that feel invaded by these thoughts and have even more difficulties than me in bouncing back from them. When I lead support groups or read other moms’ struggles with anxiety, I know I am not alone. We are not alone. None of us are truly alone in this experience. If we normalize that we all have these dark thoughts then we are fighting the stigma and shame and allowing ourselves to start letting them go.

So I remind myself that I am not my thoughts. I may have dark thoughts, judgmental thoughts, irrational thoughts, ridiculously bizarre ones but they are just thoughts. I never judge my clients, my family, or friends for the thoughts they share with me. I find them to be brave for being vulnerable enough to say them out loud. So I deserve the same acceptance and compassion. These thoughts do not represent me. I am so much more. I am the supportive words I give to friends, the acts of love I show my family, and the values I try to live by every day. I am the getting out of bed despite the thoughts that want to tell me not to, the taking a deep breath before telling my son ‘no’ for the 33rd time despite the thoughts that tell me to scream at him, and the waiting til 4:00 before I start to call the police to report my husband missing.

You are not alone. You are not crazy. You are not your thoughts.

Rachel Bowers is a mom, social worker, maternal mental health advocate, and writer. She blogs on emotional wellness at Full Motherhood. She is also the co-founder of a free online mentoring program for moms focused on personal development called Mentoring 4 Moms. She currently lives in Melbourne, Australia with her partner and 2 year old son.