While PPD has grabbed most the attention surrounding postpartum mental health issues, perinatal and postpartum anxiety are becoming a larger topic of discussion. In general, new moms are expected to have some sort of increased anxiety surrounding motherhood. With so many uncertain outcomes, changes, and new environments, it’s normal to experience a heightened sense of worry and fear, especially during pregnancy and immediately after birth. But what happens when that anxiety becomes so overwhelming, so intrusive, that it alters the way in which one functions on a day to day basis?
Perinatal and postpartum anxiety is experienced in up to 10% of women. And because anxiety and depression often go hand in hand it’s no wonder many women experience anxiety with bouts of depression or become depressed when feeling unable to get their anxiety under control. Living with constant fear, excessive intrusive thoughts, poor sleep, and an overwhelming feeling that something bad is going to happen is tiring, especially while taking care of a child. Even further, these symptoms can sometimes manifest in a very physical way and can cause nausea, shortness in breath, and panic attacks.
While there is no single test to determine if you will experience anxiety, according to Postpartum Support International, there are some risk factors for perinatal anxiety and panic that include a personal or family history of anxiety, previous perinatal depression or anxiety, or a thyroid imbalance. While there is no guarantee, understanding risk factors can help individuals identify symptoms quicker.
So how might undiagnosed postpartum anxiety interfere with an athlete’s season? I’ll share a bit of my own experience.
After I gave birth to my daughter in 2017, I was checked by my doctor for postpartum depression. I felt relieved that I wasn’t experiencing anything on the checklist, but I also felt an uneasiness I couldn’t pinpoint. Weeks went by and I noticed my anxiety was increasing. I felt very connected to my daughter, but I began to have an overwhelming dread that something outside of my control was going to harm her. It began with thoughts of a car rear-ending me and spiraled into elaborate and scary schemes that involved kidnappings, fires, and aneurysms. And at night, I became obsessed with thoughts that my she would stop breathing and I would find her in the morning and try to revive her. I was constantly burdened with these intrusive thoughts about harm coming to my child. It was all day, and everywhere. I was becoming hypersensitive to my surroundings, in a way that was exhausting and mentally terrorizing. At that time, I would have given anything to have made the images and thoughts stop.
As the weeks and months continued, I began to seek relief from these thoughts and images by trying to control my environment. What seemed like a basic sense of relief was the beginning of compulsions. It started with having to check that my daughter is breathing throughout the night. I wasn’t sleeping well at that time so I would check, constantly. Even that wasn’t enough, because I thought “I have to check multiple times each time, or something bad will happen”. I would check that she was breathing, wait 30 seconds, check again, wait 30 seconds, and check again. Then, I had to check all the windows, doors, stoves, sinks, etc…then check again. Then it started to permeate outside the house.
When I returned to playing, I traveled with my daughter to international games because I was still breastfeeding, and honestly, I wanted her to be around as much as possible. The first game I returned to playing with the Israel National Team, I had a babysitter at Ramat Gan Stadium to watch my daughter. I can’t even remember the score of the game or who we played, but I vividly remember having distracting intrusive thoughts that someone was going to kidnap and kill my daughter while I was playing. Of all the things I overcame to come back to playing, I never once anticipated this. After the game I felt embarrassed, disappointed with myself, and mentally exhausted. I needed help but I didn’t want to tell anyone at risk of feeling like a failed mom and a failed athlete.
When I returned home, I began work towards treating my postpartum anxiety. After seeing a therapist and implementing techniques to help deal with the intrusive thoughts, I started to see improvements in several areas of my life. As athletes, our jobs depend on performance, so learning to adjust and take care of our mental health is an integral part of success.
Anxiety felt like trying not to drown in waves not strong enough to take you under, but just strong enough to use all your energy staying afloat. While depression felt like a constant end, anxiety felt like a perpetual beginning, a constant expense of energy. Every day, wave after wave of intrusive thoughts, until I had to grab hold of someone.