Things You Should Never Say To A Mom Suffering Post-Partum Anxiety

shutterstock_164013572Many people just do not know what to say when talking to a new mother who is going through a post-partum illness. That is not surprising since we cannot get into another person’s head to really understand what is happening, and most of us have a deep-seated fear of somehow making things worse.

Based on my own experience with post-partum anxiety, I recommend people not worry so much. Generally, anything you say that is nonjudgmental is just fine. If you can manage some kind of sympathetic yet supportive murmurings, even better. And if you have been there and done that, and can reassure the sufferer that she too will make it through…well, I wish I had met you a year and a half ago.

Notwithstanding all that, there are definitely some things you should not say to a woman going through a post-partum illness. Now, you may think the following things are self-evident, but I beg to differ. In fact, all but one of these things were said to me by healthcare professionals, or by people working in mental health support. So, if I may:

It’s just new mom jitters.

This was actually said to me more than once, and I cannot tell you how frustrating it was. True, I have been told that I am pretty poker-faced. However, the fact remains that each time this was told to me I was in the process of reaching out to a medical practitioner for help. More than that, I did not sugar-coat my symptoms. Yet, in the middle of my descriptions of the non-stop panic attacks, inability to sleep at all, constant nausea when I forced myself to eat, and distressing intrusive thoughts, I was dismissed as a case of an overly emotional new mom.

To put it mildly, this was not very useful to me. Not only did I not get any help for my PPA, but I also started to think that perhaps I could never be a mother to my little girl. After all, if what I was feeling was something that everyone went through, but that I somehow was unable to deal with, I must not be cut out to be a mom. Right?

    You need to get off that medication as soon as possible.

Medicated mommas + newborns always get the controversy juices going. My experience was no exception.

After I did manage to connect with some help, I was prescribed some medication to help with the sleep and panic-attack issues. For various reasons I subsequently went to a walk-in clinic to get my iron levels checked. When the, otherwise lovely, doctor heard about the medication I was on, I received a lengthy rant about how that medication was the equivalent of devil spawn, and I should, no must, stop taking it that very same day.

But you know what? I didn’t need to stop that medication right away. What I needed was to get better. That medication was an important tool to help me do that.

I am not saying people should not be informed of the negatives of medications or treatments. Of course they should. However, I had already been given the lowdown by the doctor who prescribed it, and we decided it was the right course to take.  All that walk-in clinic doctor, who was not treating my condition, accomplished was to make me worry. Because, you know, when you are going through crippling anxiety a little more worry can’t hurt now, can it!

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  • Kay_Sue

    “Come back if you are thinking of killing yourself or your baby.”

    This one has to be my “favorite”. Because I had already been under extensive treatment for my mental health prior to giving birth, I had a team supporting m3 psychologically post-partum. They kicked ass, and my OB worked with them beautifully. It was a Grade A scenario.

    But during that experience, I can say I wholeheartedly experienced the “there are a lot of steps between normal health and wanting to off yourself (or your baby)”. There are feelings of inadequacy, of the sudden hugeness of the world in relation to this tiny human you are responsible for, of fear for the future, of so many other things. I think it’s a huge mistake to tell women–especially after a diagnosis of PPA, wtf?–”Hey, none of your feelings are problematic unless they are suicidal/homicidal.” It’s simply not true, at least in my experience. I never reached the point of being suicidal–I have to say that my kids are a huge reason why I worked hard to learn coping strategies to deal with those thoughts that had plagued me for as long as I can remember–but I definitely was at the point, several times, where I needed help.

    • MaebykittyRN

      Exactly. Most people don’t go from 0 to suicidal suddenly. There are usually a host of other symptoms that, while not directly life threatening, may be very debilitating. It is important for doctors to recognize those early symptoms and “nip it in the bud.” Withholding help until the person is in a crisis is the wrong way to approach it. The goal should be preventing the crisis from ever happening in the first place.

    • Kay_Sue

      I agree with this so much. Hitting that bottom of actually feeling suicidal is an absolutely horrible place to be. It really is. The goal should always be to prevent people from getting there if we can.

  • Bethany Ramos

    This was a great article, thanks for sharing. I don’t know if I had clinical postpartum anxiety, but I still struggle with many new anxieties and obsessions after having babies because of the huge responsibility! I am in therapy right now, and it’s helping a lot. Best of luck to you. :-)

    • Valerie

      I hit up therapy after my first was born due to some anxiety issues. Therapy is the shiz. Hope it continues to help you!

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thanks! I love therapy – we are doing it over Skype. :)

    • Alexandra Quinlan

      Thanks Bethany! I am doing really well now, but I feel it is such an important topic to talk about. Glad to hear therapy is helping – it did amazing things for me too. Take care :)

  • Alicia Kiner

    It really frightens me that mental health professionals said these things to you. If they don’t know how to talk to people in need, how the hell are they/you/I/we supposed to get help?! What the bloody buggering hell?

  • Emily A.

    My husband suggested more exercise. Because taking someone who is already on edge 100% of the time and saying, “Hey, why don’t you add another thing into your day?” is so super helpful.

  • Zorbs

    I was dying to exercise and barely survived 3 days PP before I broke out the kettlebell for a workout. Lasted 10 days before I went running.

    • Guest

      Overachiever :)

    • Kelly

      I started exercising as much as my doctor would allow the day after my c-section and I still got PPD so what’s your point?

    • Zorbs

      I never said exercise prevented PPD. It did get me out of the house though.

  • jane

    See, this is where I think that this kind of thing is really individual. I didn’t have postpartum anxiety, but I do have an anxiety disorder in general. First of all, and I know that you mean it in a caring way, but I want to punch in the face anyone who just tells me not to worry so much. Like, “oh, don’t worry? Why didn’t I think of that!?” It’s a disorder – I know it’s not healthy to worry so much, but I have a very very hard time controlling it. That’s why I’m on medication and seeing a therapist.

    As for getting off the medication and the “call me if you’re going to kill yourself!”, I agree that there’s a better way to handle the conversation, but ultimately that’s the doc’s way of making sure that she’s protecting both the baby and herself. I’m sure she knows that 99.9% of people aren’t suicidal when they’re suffering from PPD or PPA, but nevertheless, you don’t want the .01% to be the one time you don’t say anything. Same thing with the risks from the meds; docs walk a very fine line between scaring people out of their options and educating people about their options.

    Finally, the exercise thing. I get it. I really really do. It is super hard to get moving around when you’ve just had a baby and/or have young kids and maybe a job and all kinds of other stress. I have been there. I am there. And I will tell you that I started running last year and it has really made WORLDS of difference in my anxiety. Even on top of my anti-anxiety medication. I really _need_ to go for a run at least every three days at this point. Although I’m sure I would have resisted hard against it, and probably not done it, I wish that my primary care doc and my OB had really insisted on exercise a bit more. It really really does help.

    TL;DR: my overall point is just to be aware that the things that really rub you the wrong way about PPA/PPD aren’t necessarily the things that bother everyone. We all need to be gentle with each other and remember that we’ve all got stuff going on and to try to give each other benefit of the doubt.

    • Catherine Horrocks

      Yes telling someone not to worry when that is their symptom is really like telling an asthmatic not to wheeze or an epileptic not to have seizures.

  • Crusty Socks

    Is a constant state of pregnancy a good cure?

  • Catherine Horrocks

    Exercise as in just a short walk around the block to breathe some fresh air not such a bad idea. The others are appalling. I hope you went back and saw your original doctor after that. Take care.

  • JLH1986

    Please tell me you found a new dr. or counselor if they said any of the above. Medication plus therapy can be extremely helpful and you need to stay on the medication as long as you, your doctor and therapist (working collaboratively) think it’s necessary. And “come back if you think of hurting yourself or the baby.” My head wants to explode. A clinician should be asking you directly “do you want to hurt yourself or the baby?” “Do you have a plan?” “how would you go about making the plan happen” and a million other questions. you should NOT be told “come back.”

  • Maria T.

    I also had PPA. With my second, not my first. I have anxiety/panic disorder in general, so knew what it was immediately. As did my mother and husband. I was medicated to the gills right away – and that’s what I needed. Took a couple of weeks to get back on track. All those suggestions about exercise are so unhelpful. Yes, it’s true that exercise, eating well, yoga, all that crap helps when you’re anxious, but when you’re full-on panicking anything added to your plate is just too much. Best advice to me was from myself – it gets better. This feeling doesn’t last forever. And take the drugs! Baby will do just fine on formula.

  • MaebykittyRN

    I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and I have heard lot of similar things. Haven’t slept in days? Sounds like you just need a nice, warm bath at bedtime! Racing thoughts? You need to start exercising more. Nausea making it difficult to eat? Just try and find foods you can keep down.
    Don’t get me wrong, all of those things can help to a certain extent, but what I really need is medication and understanding. And I will never regret stopping breastfeeding so I could take a higher dose of my meds. Having a functioning mother is more important than breastmilk.

    • Maria T.

      Oh sister, yes, yes, yes to all that.

  • radicalhw

    I would add “eat a more balanced diet,” because it’s obviously the fault of the Life cereal I ate at every meal.

  • EX

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I didn’t have PPA but I did have some pretty bad pregnancy induced anxiety (in my first pregnancy). I have a list of what not to say to an anxious pregnant lady. It starts and ends with “don’t worry, it’s bad for the baby.” Because THAT helps!

  • SmrtGrl86

    It’s saddens me that until today I didn’t realize PPA was an actual thing. Would have been nice to know five months ago when I was so anxious about the responsibility of caring for a brand new person that I could not sleep even though I was exhausted for the fear of something happening to him. So unless my husband was awake to watch the baby I stayed awake even when the baby was sleeping.

    I was told by a doctor that I was basically starving my baby to death by breastfeeding when my milk hadn’t come in by the third day. I ended up completely giving up breastfeeding out of fear. It took me 2 months to stop checking to make sure my baby was breathing every half hour. I lost 37 pounds in two weeks PP because I simply could not relax enough to bring myself to eat. Would have been nice if someone had told me that the irrational, pulse pounding fear I was feeling was abnormal and not just hormones.

    It’s like the author said, unless you are feeling suicidal or homicidal the doctors don’t really seem to care to much. Since I wasn’t wishing harm on my baby just worried and anxious I was branded a “nervous first timer” instead of getting help. My anxiety and fear were so strong it makes me afraid to have another baby and experience that helpless fear ever again.

  • SA

    I agree with it all except the exercise. I think exercise is a great suggestion. It is the only thing that keeps my panic attacks at bay. It is hard when you are a new mom, but just getting out in the sunshine with a stroller for a walk around the block can help give you confidence and lighten your mood, it doesn’t have to be an hour of cardio. I wouldn’t ever suggest that someone should do that in lieu of medication or going to the doctor, but it does help.

    • SusannahJoy

      I think it depends a lot on how it’s presented. Being told “hey you just need to go work out, then you’ll feel all better!” is so not helpful. Being told “I know it feels like the last thing in the world you want to do right now, but going for a walk really can help, and you don’t have to do much. Just, try to do whatever you can.” actually is good advice.

  • C.J.

    All of these thing people say are basically telling people to suck it up and get over it, even if they are said kindly. My mother suffers from anxiety and has heard all these things and more. Her doctor once told her she was being illogical. She tried to get help and my dad tried to help her but he didn’t know what was wrong with her either. This was 25 years ago when anxiety wasn’t really recognized yet. I was a teenager when it all exploded and it was very scary. She got no treatment until she had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t function anymore. She will be on medication for the rest of her life and went through hell. Thankfully she is able to manage it now with the help of the meds now. She does well as long as she talks about what is bothering her. My best friend suffers from depression. She had a nervous breakdown in her early 20′s. She went for therapy and was on meds for about a year. After her 2nd child I could tell she was having difficulties and was concerned she had PPD. I told her I was concerned about her and asked her to please talk to me. I reassured her that she could tell me anything no matter what it was. I reminded her that I would never judge her for her thoughts and feelings. I encouraged her to go back to the doctor and get back in to therapy. After she started talking about it and realized what was happening to her she was able to handle it much better. Even know, 17 years after her nervous breakdown she still has times where the depression will start affecting her life. We have been friends for 30 years are close enough that I can just tell her what I am noticing or she will tell me on her own and we talk it through. She had a wonderful doctor and therapist that gave her enough tools to deal with the depression that talking it through usually works. Dismissing someone’s mental health issues is the worst thing you can do.

  • Kelly

    The exercise shit infuriates me. I want to smack people when that crap pours out of their mouths.

    I’ve been kind of a health nut since my teens and I workout a lot. It always blows my mind when I’m having a health problem and some jackass says, “You should try exercising, it’ll fix that.”

    No, obviously it fucking won’t. I exercise all the goddamn time as a hobby. If exercise fixed all problems, I’d never have another fucking problem in my life.

  • Nina_Lim

    Thank thank thank you for this article. I was diagnosed with PPA after the birth of my daughter. l thought my obsession with how much she ate and not wanting anyone to take care of her (including her father) was all new-mom jitters until I began to have actual panic attacks. I didn’t really have anxiety before though I stressed a lot. The medicine showed me differently. Once I was medicated I realized how much it had been affecting me and my relationships. It wasn’t normal to not be able to concentrate on work and it wasn’t normal to stay up into the middle of the night because the baby wouldn’t drink her bottle. The fact that medical professionals out there don’t take it seriously makes me sad.

  • Shannon

    Thank you for talking so openly about PPA. I had horrible PPD with terrifying intrusive thoughts and finally got help when my son was 3 months old. I am very open about my past, because I hope that the more postpartum mood disorders get talked about, the less stigmatized they’ll be. I heard all these things when I was getting help, from my family, and fortunately not my OB. I have sat with patients in the early stages of PPA/PPD, when it’s all so confusing and scary and all you can do is blame yourself. All I ever wanted to hear is that I was sick and it wasn’t my fault, so I tell them that, and that it can get better with help. We deserve to feel “normal” and to enjoy being moms. I wish mental health was taken as seriously as any other problem.

    • C.J.

      This!! “I wish mental health was taken as seriously as any other problem.” Mental health problems are a medical condition just like diabetes or any other health problem. They should be looked no differently than any other health problem.

  • Katherine Handcock

    Wow, I can’t believe a health professional would say something like this – I was expecting these to be said by acquaintances, not the actual people who are supposed to help you.

    I’ve known a few people dealing with severe anxiety after having a child. What I’ve said to them was, “Seek out the help you need – whatever that is – but I know that you can get through this.” Do you feel that’s appropriate coming from a casual friend/acquaintance? I always wrestle with how to balance saying, “If you feel you need help, you should get it” while still communicating that it’s something you can overcome.

  • SDM14

    I’ve been diagnosed with PPD and PPA just recently (I suffered for a month or so before I figured out what I was going through was not normal). This is my second baby, and he’s now 4 months old. I heard all sorts of unhelpful things. When I told people I could no longer fall asleep, people told me to “just nap.” If I said I couldn’t nap either, they told me to just “have a glass of wine.” I know most people want to be helpful, but a lot of people were downright dismissive. A lot of times, when describing my symptoms, I was told “well, what did you expect?” or “you’ll sleep again, in a few years.” Thank goodness I have a compassionate doctor.

  • Williwaw

    That advice from the doctor to “come back if you are thinking about harming yourself or the baby” is horrible. Some women with postpartum anxiety are tormented by intrusive thoughts about bad things happening to the baby, or of themselves harming the baby. All the reading I’ve done suggests that women who have these intrusive thoughts don’t harm their babies – this is not the same thing as postpartum psychosis. Mothers with these intrusive thoughts are terrified by the thoughts – and terrified by the possibility that if they even hint at what they’re thinking to someone else, their child may be taken away from them. A doctor bringing the subject up in such a casual way is not exactly going to help a woman having these thoughts, or all the other misery associated with postpartum anxiety.

  • neighbor57

    Another issue NEVER addressed is PAD/A — post adoption depression/anxiety. Adoptive moms don’t even have hormones to blame it on, and god forbid you mention to anyone that you think you made a mistake, or that you’re having crazy, irrational thoughts! Keep being open about all this; the more people talk, the more other people will be willing to.

  • Liz

    While I don’t have the same issue, I relate to these struggles. I have a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder and I’ve gotten some pretty awful comments about it. Mostly comments about how I’m just a little down (in high school I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed and I ended up flunking out and I have experienced suicidal feelings), about how I should just sleep when I am supposed to, and how my anti-depressants (which have probably saved my life) are horrible for me and I shouldn’t have to medicate. Hearing this type of comment is so so hurtful for me because it doesn’t help at all and often encourages me to do things that will hurt more than help. Fortunately my current doctor has been absolutely great. I don’t need to be medicated all the time, and she has flat out said that whenever I want them, the prescription will be given without hesitation–I’ve even gotten a month and a half of free samples. I’ve also gotten advice that doesn’t relate to medication to help me along, which is great because I DON’T like taking pills (which makes the “stop your meds” comments so much worse).

    It sounds like you’ve had some douchey doctors that have lacked understanding, which I am really sorry to hear. It can be hard enough dealing with this kind of thing without having a doctor telling you not to come back unless you’re at risk of committing suicide or homicide. I hope that your PPA improves and that people show more understanding in the future.

  • Lackadaisical

    Sorry to hear about the bad reactions you are getting at the very time when you need support and empathy. Suffering from severe PPA, or any other disorder that requires medication or any other form of help, does not in any way reflect badly on your parenting abilities or your relationship with your child. Obviously you know that but from the sounds of all the insensitive things people are saying to you it sounds like you need to hear more that other people know that too. Best wishes to you, your family, and anyone else struggling to cope with a cocktail of truly difficult emotions made harder by the hormones of birth and parenting.

  • gothicgaelicgirl

    I’ve never had Post partum anxiety, but I have struggled with depression for years.
    My favourites were- “You just need to get over it”
    “You don’t know how good you have it”
    “O you’re a Goth (I am) so you’re like, expected to be depressed”
    “I didn’t think you really tried to kill yourself, but you even cut the right way!”

    or the worst, from a teacher- “Pretending you want to kill yourself is not gonna make me want to help you” (after I had broken down in class and confessed to self-harm, bulimia and told her I was scared at what I might do. I had been planning my suicide for weeks

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  • LYW

    I can’t believe you were told it was just new Mum jitters when you had all those symptoms!! I had the opposite experience, my GP ran through all of those symptoms with me and had to convince me I had ost-partum anxiety/depression. Terrible to think of how many other people may have fallen through the net because of this.

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