My postpartum anxiety made me exhausted, irritable, and had me shouting at my daughters on a daily basis. I tried to change on my own, but couldn't. I knew therapy was my only solution.

By Carla Naumburg, Ph.D.
September 19, 2019
Illustration by Emma Darvick

I knew the statistics. I knew that as many as 20 percent of new mothers suffer from one or more types of postpartum anxiety. I knew the symptoms, including constant worry, irritability, sleep disturbances, and a relentless fear that something terrible might happen to one of my daughters.

I knew how helpful therapy could be. I knew because I’d been in and out of therapists’ offices since I was a young child and the judge presiding over my parents’ highly contentious divorce mandated that I talk to someone.

Oh, and I knew it all because I’m a clinical social worker. I’ve spent years of my professional life on the other side of the therapy room—asking questions, making connections, and offering insights in hopes of facilitating change and healing.

I knew it all, and yet I didn’t have a clue.

In the fall of 2008, I came home from the hospital with a newborn baby and a hefty case of postpartum anxiety. Although I had treated anxiety in children and adults in the past, I didn’t pick up on my own symptoms. My perspective was so clouded by the fatigue, confusion, and overwhelm of new motherhood that if I ever sat down long enough to consider my situation, I’d be snoring within seconds.

And so, I ignored it all. I barreled through life and work and parenting. My anxiety exploded over the following years, through the birth of my second daughter and the girls’ transition to daycare, and then preschool.

I became increasingly irritable and reactive. I wasn’t sleeping, and the relentless, debilitating exhaustion made everything—my mood, my perspective, my problem-solving skills, and everything else—worse. I was barely functioning.

But it wasn’t my fatigue or frustration that sent me back to therapy. It was my temper. I was exploding at my daughters far more often than I felt comfortable with. I was yelling and snapping at the girls on a regular basis, and it was starting to impact our relationship and my sense of myself as a parent.

I was embarrassed, ashamed, and confused. I felt like a terrible mother. And I knew I couldn’t change things on my own (I can’t tell you how many times I tried), so I got back into therapy.

My weekly meetings with my therapist helped me become a more patient, present parent in a number of ways. It gave me a place to lose it without feeling like I was losing it all over the place. I have found few experiences to be more liberating than going into a room with someone you trust and laying bare the worst sides of yourself, all the while knowing that the other person is really listening and isn’t judging you even one bit. My therapist also gave me clarity and insight into my parenting challenges. We talked about my childhood, which helped me understand how my buttons developed the way they did, and which situations were most likely to push them now.

I also learned skills and strategies for managing my triggers and tough moments. These were often small changes that made a big difference. For example, I stopped taking stressful phone calls from work or friends when I was with the girls. I also started moving my body every day and I cut back on my social media use.

At my therapist's recommendation, I met with a sleep specialist who helped me get back on track with my sleep. But when my therapist later suggested I try medication for my anxiety, I hesitated. Even though I’d seen the life-changing benefits my clients experienced, I worried about possible side effects. But I trusted my therapist, so I made an appointment with a psychiatric nurse practitioner. She recommended a low dose of an antidepressant commonly prescribed for anxiety. It helped and I noticed a significant improvement within a week: The scary thoughts appeared far less frequently, I slept better at night, and my physical tension eased up.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my therapist is that my temper wasn’t a personal failing or a matter of willpower, and it wasn’t something I could control on my own. Rather, it was a symptom of my ongoing anxiety. Once I learned how to manage it—with the help of my therapist—I was able to be more present and patient with girls, even in the midst of kid chaos.

Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker and the author of How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids (Workman, 2019).

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