I Had Panic Attacks And Anxiety Following My Daughter's Birth, And I Know I'm Not Alone

by Christina Attardo Jordan
A woman in white holding her newborn daughter looking to the side while experiencing anxiety
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

It’s been a long time since I saw Look Who’s Talking, but I distinctly remember a scene with Kirstie Alley sitting on a park bench reading about mothers who experience postpartum depression. She looks up from her book and defiantly says, “Well, I’m not gonna!” Fast-forward to her at home on the couch, sobbing uncontrollably at a random commercial on television. That was about the extent of my knowledge regarding postpartum depression before I had a baby.

No matter how much I tried to plan out every aspect of my pregnancy, I realized I had no way of controlling whether or not I would be affected by postpartum depression. The best I could do was educate myself on warning signs and possible causes, just in case.

Nowhere in my reading did I see mention of the words postpartum anxiety. Nowhere did I learn that approximately 80% of mothers experience some degree of postpartum depression or anxiety, yet somehow it remains a condition most won’t even know about until they go through it. Some will go through it and not even realize that’s what it is. Nowhere did I find information to prepare me for what I was about to dive into headfirst.

After 46 very long hours in the hospital, my daughter arrived via C-section in November 2015. She was absolutely perfect, and my world was absolutely complete. As night settled in on our first 24 hours as a family, I had no reason to believe that I would feel anything other than really tired.

Then, as if someone had flipped a switch right there in my hospital room, I felt a wave of panic crash over me. Nothing in particular triggered it — I just suddenly felt like I had tunnel vision and all I wanted, so desperately, was fresh air. I had been in the hospital for three days at this point and was convinced that if I could just step outside and get some air, I would be okay.

Only I wasn’t okay. The waves of panic got worse and all the cool night air in the world wasn’t going to take it away. It was a full-on panic attack, and with no history of anxiety prior to giving birth, I had no idea how to handle it.

I don’t remember how I finally calmed down and got to sleep. I don’t remember much at all of the hours that followed. But I do remember a hospital psychiatrist coming to see me the next day. He was so kind and so comforting, and assured me that everything I was feeling was completely normal. I believed him, even though I felt anything but normal. He gave me the name of a postpartum therapist, should I want to follow up, and promised me that I would be fine.

His words made sense, but they weren’t ringing true for me. I had gone from blissed-out to downright terrified in what felt like a heartbeat, and I couldn’t figure out how or why. I was shocked by my own reaction and felt incredibly vulnerable, not knowing what to expect from myself.

I tried being logical about the whole thing. The events leading up to my panic attack had included two failed inductions, a failed epidural, and a whole host of painful contractions, topped off with an unplanned C-section. I was in pain, and of course, a bit freaked out. I told myself that it was all totally normal and once we were released from the hospital and I was back in my own home, I would be okay.

Only, once again, I wasn’t okay. I looked around my familiar living room, now with a very unfamiliar little 6-pound person sleeping in a rock ‘n’ play at the center of it, and the panic washed over me again. I was overwhelmed by a barrage of feelings — all of them unknown to a brand new mother whose hormone levels were off the charts. I felt like I was coming out of my skin, and I knew that this feeling wasn’t going to miraculously disappear. Right then and there, I called the therapist and made an appointment for the following day.

Words can do no justice to the positive experience that postpartum therapy was for me. I felt like a shell of my pre-baby self at those early appointments — yet, with each visit, my therapist reinforced not that I would be fine but that I already was. And more than anything, that’s what I needed to hear. My husband and my mother were an amazing support system, but I needed someone whose stock-and-trade was postpartum therapy to tell me she had seen this before and it was really okay that some days I wanted to run away screaming. I needed to know what I was experiencing was not unique to me and that it would get better. And little by little, it did.

As the weeks passed, my body healed, my psyche calmed, and my world took on a sense of familiarity again. My husband and I developed a routine with our baby, and she mercifully let us sleep for 6-t0-7-hour stretches at night. I made other new mom friends who were just as scared as I was, and we bounced absolutely everything off each other. I went back to work after maternity leave and saw my old life starting to blend with my new life, and it felt right. The surreal haze that had been surrounding me had lifted without my even noticing.

My last session of postpartum therapy took place during the summer of 2016, roughly seven months after I gave birth. I am now the proud momma of a beautiful 15-month-old little girl who is outgoing, sassy, full of spirit, and devoid of fear. I still have moments of unease, of course, but they are fleeting in comparison and no longer make me feel like the walls are closing in. I am also very open with my mom friends — both old and new — about my experience with postpartum anxiety. And I’m still surprised by how many of them immediately respond with “I felt the same exact way!” It’s nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to fear. I wear it like a badge of courage, because to me, it is no different from my C-section scar. It was part of my journey bringing my daughter into this world.

Being a first-time mom is equal parts amazing and scary; if you are willing to share the amazing moments, don’t be hesitant to share the scary moments too. And not only is it okay to ask for help, it’s truly the best thing you can do for yourself and your precious new baby if help is what you need.