Sweaty, shaking, and crying, I pressed my face against a kitchen cabinet as I crouched on the floor, hungry and tired. Moments earlier, my toddler stomped his feet and screamed, “I wanted the purple jelly not the red jelly!” I honed in on a drop of red jelly seeping out of the sandwich and dripping onto the floor like a scene in a horror movie. We weren’t in a horror movie, but I felt like I was in my own version of one with my sudden panic attack, my cries matching my son’s. I could feel my temperature rising as I tried to convince him to just sit down and eat when my other son, my newborn, started fussing in the other room and I just lost it. Most parents would be annoyed in this situation, but I don’t know how many who’d have a panic attack over it. As I pressed my face against the cabinet, I thought, “Something is seriously off. Is this what postpartum anxiety and depression feel like? I don’t know what’s going on here!”
When you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), it may be difficult to tell the difference between characteristics of postpartum anxiety — such as being extremely sensitive to stimuli — and characteristics of a good old-fashioned panic attack — like suddenly being fearful of your environment. But as the weeks, then months, wore on, I realized it’s possible that both were at play: I’m an HSP with postpartum anxiety and depression, and the former condition seems to magnify the latter — and vice-versa.
The Challenge of Being a “Sensitive” Mom with Postpartum Anxiety or Depression
Here’s the real kicker though: I’m a licensed professional counselor. I thought I would be able to recognize the symptoms of postpartum anxiety and depression, but this wasn’t what I expected. I think it was because I didn’t have any of the “typical” risk factors, like a difficult pregnancy or delivery. My newborn was eating and sleeping fairly well for his age, so I couldn’t blame my being severely sleep-deprived for my increasing anxiety, anger, and bouts of depression either. Also, when things were calm, I felt totally fine — joyful, even.
But when things got chaotic — with a toddler and newborn, this wasn’t an infrequent occurrence — I’d totally lose it. I knew I was an HSP, but I hadn’t yet made the connection between the chronic overstimulation of early parenting and the tidal waves of emotional flooding that were slamming into me on a daily basis. However, from a counselor perspective, I knew about postpartum anxiety and depression and started to suspect I was suffering from them, too.
How I Recognized My Signs of Postpartum Anxiety and Depression
1. I panicked in response to everyday stressors.
Because I was living in a constant state of overstimulation, even a small spike in stress — the baby crying, trying to get my kids dressed for the doctor, preparing meals — sent me into a danger zone. I’d panic, thinking, “If I don’t get out of here right now, I’m going to totally lose it!” Often, my physical response was way out of proportion to my thoughts. I could cognitively recognize that what was happening wasn’t all too stressful, but my body was responding like it was in actual danger due to the stress hormones flooding my brain — but in this case, the “danger” was my toddler or baby. It was the typical fight-or-flight response and panicking became my survival mechanism.
2. I had extreme emotional reactions, like rage and irritability.
When I got triggered, but couldn’t take a break from my kids — which was often because, hello, parenthood — I would lash out in an explosion of anger. I’d yell, slam my hands on the counter, and throw toys into the kids’ bins as though I were my toddler having a temper tantrum. This would leave me feeling drained, shaky, and full of guilt once my adrenaline level dropped and I was in a more “normal” emotional state.
3. I had extreme physical reactions, like sweating profusely and shaking.
This emotional and mental overload was a very physical experience for me. My therapeutic approach tends to be cognitively focused, so I’m very aware of my thoughts and how they impact my emotional state. I couldn’t “think” my way out of this experience though: my body temperature would increase, I’d get shaky and sweaty, and I’d feel dizzy. These are common signs of anxiety; in my case, however, they were directly related to my nervous system being overwhelmed and exhausted.
4. I felt an increased need for control.
Like a typical HSP, I’m a planner who thrives on routine and order, and this tendency went into full overdrive in the months following my newborn’s birth. As my anxiety ratcheted up, the need to control my environment skyrocketed. This is a common defense mechanism to cope with anxious feelings, but as any parent knows, newborns scoff at routines and toddlers live to create messes. Something as simple as a skipped nap or seeing toys all over the floor were enough to send me into a tailspin. Even worse was the feeling that I had no control over my emotional response or what to do to prevent it.
5. I had feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Because I often felt overwhelmed and unable to cope, I’d start thinking things like, “What if I’m not cut out for this? Am I going to totally screw up my kids? I should be grateful for this time with them rather than feeling miserable!” I didn’t feel this way all the time, but the fact that I felt this way at all made me worry that I was doing a bad job and wasn’t a good mother. Other people talked about how stressful it was to add a second baby to the family, but no one else seemed to be having panic attacks or fits of rage every week because of it.
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4 Ways I Learned to Cope With My Postpartum Anxiety and Depression
Now, I’m in a healthier place and have started working with other HSP parents, as well. If you find yourself struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression, I’ve identified a few strategies that are really helpful for this phase of life.
1. Get help.
Even as a trained mental health professional, it was easy for me to confuse the symptoms of postpartum anxiety and depression with HSP-triggered anxiety. Thankfully, I found a therapist who helped me connect the dots to see how my panic attacks and angry outbursts followed periods of increased stress and stimulation. For me, loud noises, messes (i.e., visual clutter), and hunger pangs are the biggest culprits for sending me over the edge. When I feel myself hurtling toward that cliff, one or more of those factors are almost always at play. It was a major “Aha!” moment — and sobering to recognize how vulnerable I was when I wasn’t taking proper care of my highly sensitive system.
2. Set appropriate expectations (for both you and your children).
As an HSP, you’re naturally more attuned and empathetic to others’ emotional states and you can’t do extended periods of time with kids without getting overstimulated. Additionally, remember that you’re biologically wired to feel a sense of urgency when your child cries — but that doesn’t mean it’s always an emergency. If you can switch your response from, “I need to fix what’s wrong and stop this crying ASAP” to “My job is to validate their feelings and create a safe, calm space for this emotional release,” then it can take a lot of pressure off of you. Likewise, change “I can’t handle this!” to “This is uncomfortable and I don’t like it, but I’m okay and know what to do.”
3. Take breaks.
Plain and simple: You can’t function without adequate time to process all of the extra stimulation and reset your nervous system. If your stimulation level is at an “8” all day, it takes very little to push you past “10” and over your limit. When we take regular breaks to self-soothe and calm down, you move that gauge down (say, to a “3” or “4” out of “10”), which increases your tolerance and resilience during stressful times. So, practice creating space for yourself: This could be mental, imagining yourself enclosed in a protective bubble, or physical, stopping what you’re doing and walking away to calm down.
4. Establish a rhythm and slow things down.
Create a routine for your family so that you all know what to expect from your days — this will reduce the number of decisions you have to make, the number of unexpected issues that arise, and the amount of transitions your children have to navigate (which are always tough for kids). And slow things down — the kids will be fine if lunch is two minutes late. They might not be happy about it, but just see it as a great opportunity for them to learn how to be patient and tolerate a little discomfort.
Those of us who are highly sensitive parents have so many wonderful strengths, but we’re also more susceptible to anxiety and depression — especially if we aren’t practicing good self-care and honoring our own needs and limits.
If you need some extra support, check out Jessie’s course designed specifically for highly sensitive mothers: The Aligned Mama, an 8-week course with private coaching to help you find your balance and enjoy motherhood again.