Treating postpartum anxiety with self-compassion and Paxil

When I realized I had postpartum anxiety and started taking medication, my daughter was already six or seven months old. Normally, postpartum hormonal issues that affect feelings should last a couple of weeks after birth. So why was I still feeling so much fear and anxiety six months in? Here is my story about postpartum anxiety medication and my treatment.

I read an article about postpartum anxiety symptoms that resonated with my soul. I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with me. In my mind, if I couldn’t identify what it was, I didn’t want to share about it.

My suffering lasted for months before I sought help. I was always anxious, irritable, and worried over seemingly trivial things. I rarely let my daughter out of my sight, lest something happen to her while in the care of someone else.

These thoughts and feelings were pervasive and I didn’t know what to do about it. Was I just an overprotective mom? Or was this what motherhood was all about? 

Now I know this behavior is not normal. If you’re having anxious and intrusive thoughts that you can’t quite explain, read this article and see if it resonates.

Postpartum anxiety, in general

Postpartum anxiety disorder is less talked about than postpartum depression. It is listed as a mood disorder under the Perinatal Mood Disorders umbrella, alongside postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis.

Perinatal Mood Disorders relate to anxiety and depression symptoms during pregnancy and up to one year postpartum1.

Symptoms may include:

  • Extreme worries and fears, especially about the safety of the baby
  • Panic attacks
  • Shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, tingling
  • Feelings of losing control
  • Emotional numbness

Often, symptoms vary by individual. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between normal worrying versus postpartum anxiety. 

It’s especially challenging for first time mothers. For me, as a first time mom, I didn’t know how I should be feeling. I ignored all of the anxious thoughts and resigned myself to the conclusion that ‘this is motherhood.’

Risk factors for postpartum anxiety

When I became pregnant, I knew that postpartum depression may be a reality for me due to my history with anxiety. Even though I consider my anxiety to be mild, it’s still a risk factor.

Risk factors for postpartum anxiety are very similar for postpartum depression. They include a history of anxiety, family history of anxiety, personal history of perinatal mental health issues, and thyroid disorder issues.

Social risk factors include socioeconomic status, lack of financial or emotional support, and pregnancy as a teen.

Even with the knowledge that I may be at risk for a perinatal mood disorder, I still wasn’t prepared for the experience I had. It’s an anxiety that differs from my prior history with anxious thoughts and moods.

Postpartum anxiety treatment

“Mood disorders are not something you can ‘snap out of.’ Depression and anxiety develop when chemical changes in the way your brain works begin to affect how you feel. It requires help from a doctor.”2

American Pregnancy Association

When I realized I had many symptoms of postpartum anxiety, I scheduled an appointment with my obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN) doctor. This was my doctor for pregnancy and childbirth. I later found out you can also receive postpartum care from your primary care physician.

After a discussion of my symptoms, the OB-GYN prescribed 10mg of Paxil, which is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI. These work by increasing levels of serotonin within the brain. It’s a common postpartum anxiety medication.

This was my first time taking an SSRI. I wanted to see if it would help with my postpartum anxiety. I was also apprehensive because I read about some scary side effects.

I did my research and found that some mothers felt that SSRIs lifted the anxiety brain fog. This was something I was experiencing at the time. No matter what I did, I felt like there was a veil covering my thoughts, decisions, and actions.

Taking an SSRI is only one medication and treatment path for postpartum anxiety. Since it’s the treatment path I took, it is the focus of this article. If you are against taking an antidepressant medication, there are a host of holistic treatment options available too.

Paxil for postpartum anxiety medication

After starting Paxil, I felt a positive difference within several days. It was a relief and felt like a weight off my shoulders. The only side effect I experienced in the first week was diarrhea, which lasted a few days.

I was amazed at how Paxil lifted the brain fog I was experiencing. In the beginning, taking the drug seems too good to be true.

Anxiety and worrying were no longer at the forefront of my life. The fears and worries were still there, but I wasn’t hyper-focused on them. I was able to relax and enjoy my daughter’s infancy.

Depending on your brain chemistry, SSRIs can become less effective over time. This phenomenon is known as the drug ‘pooping out.’ In addition, a sudden upheaval of new stress can change your brain chemistry enough to make the drug less effective.

After eight months on Paxil, with some added life stress, the drug stopped working for me. It was a very subtle change. The anxiety slowly moved to the forefront of my awareness and I had to take more action to confront it.

Weaning off Paxil

At this point, I had to make the choice to up my dosage or wean off the medication. I didn’t want to up the dosage. My fear was that I would have to consistently increase the dosage to obtain the desired effect. 

In my research, I read about horror stories related to long term Paxil usage and weaning off. From what I read, withdrawal from Paxil can be pretty severe. I asked myself if I wanted to be dependent on this drug for years to come. And the answer was a resounding ‘no.’

I figured that the drug had served its intended purpose. It got me through the first year postpartum and a couple of months after that. It works wonderfully before the effectiveness wears off.

So, I weaned off the medication in three weeks. For those three weeks, I took 5 mg everyday. After that, I completely stopped. Thankfully, I didn’t experience any withdrawal symptoms. This was most likely due to the low dosage and relative short time period I took the medication.

Overcoming postpartum anxiety, living with self-compassion

It’s difficult to relive the suffering as I write this article. I’ve learned a valuable lesson in grief because I’ve had to grieve what I thought my postpartum experience should be.  

I finally accept that postpartum anxiety kicked me in the butt and I don’t have to feel shame or guilt for that. It also doesn’t diminish the strength and resilience that I have and feel in myself. In fact, getting help is indicative of internal strength.

As I continue to embrace motherhood and watch my child grow, I’ve become more compassionate toward myself.

Whenever I’m going through difficulties as a mother, I have to stop and turn inward to see how I feel and how I’m doing. I can reassure myself that I’m doing a good job and everything is okay. That’s not always my natural instinct.

One of the best books on self-compassion is Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Before I read this book, I didn’t know about the power of self-compassion and its ability to heal. Self-compassion tools make the motherhood journey easier to bear.

Getting help

One in five moms who suffer from postpartum mental health issues do not tell anyone or seek treatment. My own experience has taught me that it’s never too late to seek treatment or learn about postpartum anxiety medication.

Initially, reaching out and asking for help was difficult for me. When I did, the results were immeasurable. I found that practitioners understand and they are more than willing to listen and help. So, if you are experiencing any symptoms of a perinatal mood disorder, reach out to someone.

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