More than a vessel: take care of your postpartum health

Gasping for air, I jumped out of bed at 3 a.m. during my seventh month of pregnancy with my firstborn. Before this jolt, I had been sleeping. Now fully awake, I forced myself to sit on the edge of my bed. Breathing was difficult, my heart was racing, and I felt an overwhelming urge to escape my house. I nudged my husband, and said, “I think I’m having a heart attack.” My husband had never seen me like this, and he agreed we should seek medical attention. We rushed to the ER as I reclined in the front seat, filled with panic.

When we arrived at the hospital, the staff immediately treated me, connecting me to various medical devices and asking me questions. The ER doctor soon approached my bedside, laid a hand on my arm and said, “You’re going to be just fine. While the symptoms are similar to those associated with a heart attack, that’s not what happened tonight. You suffered a severe panic attack.”

I instantly felt ashamed. I apologized for wasting the doctor’s time, and he said, “The heart racing, the shortness of breath—all of those symptoms are very real. You suffered tonight. Don’t apologize.” I asked him how I could suffer a panic attack while asleep. After all, I was asleep, so what could have scared me? He explained that pregnancy hormones—mixed with a predisposition to anxiety—never sleep. I experienced several more panic attacks during that pregnancy, once while happily watching my guilty pleasure, Dawson’s Creek. While I was preoccupied with my television, my subconscious was cooking up a different kind of episode.

Fortunately, I delivered a happy, healthy baby boy. I assumed the anxiety would dissipate after delivery, but it did not. I remember trying to take solace in the fact that I didn’t have postpartum depression (PPD), which is marked by feelings of despair, inability to bond with the baby, and feeling disconnected from reality. Nope, none of those descriptors fit. What did I feel? My heart was constantly racing, my mind was always scanning for possible dangers to the baby, and I felt like I had to be constantly busy—cleaning bottles, sanitizing pacifiers, washing clothes, and checking to ensure the sleeping baby was breathing.

While rocking my son at midnight, I googled my symptoms. Once again, almost none of the symptoms associated with PPD fit. Then I came across the term, postpartum anxiety (PPA). I wanted to hug my computer. I read that 25-35 percent of postpartum anxiety cases begin during pregnancy, and usually continue after the baby is born. I soon sought treatment and was given the best advice from my general practitioner: “Taking care of yourself IS taking caring of your baby.”

I delayed having my second child for several years due to the terrifying panic attacks associated with my first pregnancy. During my second pregnancy, I was determined to feel good both for my health and the health of my baby. After conducting exhaustive research and consulting with an excellent psychiatrist, I decided to take a low dosage of anti-anxiety medicine. Even though I was five years older, the second pregnancy was much easier because I was able to remain mostly calm throughout my pregnancy.

Learn from my experiences:

– Consult with a physician. If you need to take medicine during your pregnancy, do not feel guilty. It’s easy to succumb to the guilt and occasional judgment of others, but have faith knowing you are doing the right thing for you and your baby.

– If you experience a panic attack, do jumping jacks. You might feel silly, but a person doing jumping jacks isn’t dying. Then, take deep breaths.

– Confide in a friend. I consulted with a dear girlfriend throughout my second pregnancy. She made me feel immensely better each time we spoke; she made me feel less alone.

Advances in both PPA and PPD are being made, but awareness needs to increase. My first pregnancy was in 2014, and I am just now writing about the experience. We fight the stigma by starting discussions. When I told my mother I wished I could just “get over” the anxiety, she said, “If you had a broken leg, we would treat that. This is no different.”

We cannot change how our bodies respond to pregnancy or life in general. But, we can treat ourselves better by seeking medical guidance, finding comfort in friends, and letting go of the guilt.

Originally Published in Bayou Life Magazine.

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