I’m a Mom with Anxiety and Depression and Here’s How I Manage Both
Anxiety and depression carry with them a lot of stigma and shame. Before I had my son I struggled with both but rarely admitted this anyone, even my doctor. I had a few failed attempts when I tried antidepressants and took up long distance running to balance my mood. It seemed to work and I was convinced that both my anxiety and depression were under control. I hid my struggles from friends and family and tried to keep a smile on my face as I waded through the murky waters of poor mental health.
But life has a funny way of showing up and kicking you in the ass when you least expect it. When I was 34 weeks pregnant my anxiety and depression roared back and took over, leaving me virtually incapacitated for the rest of my pregnancy. Postpartum I found myself hospitalized for severe panic disorder. That experience together with a traumatic birth left me with post traumatic stress disorder. As much as I wanted to hide and pretend that this wasn’t happening, I knew that the only way to get better and make it out alive was to bear my soul and leave nothing hiding in the shadows any longer.
I Had to Get Better
So that’s what I did. I pushed shame and stigma aside and over the next few years (yes, years) I gradually got better. Now I need to be really clear about something here. I currently consider myself “recovered” from my postpartum anxiety and depression. But my recovery isn’t what some would consider full or complete because I’m still medicated. I also still struggle with anxiety and depression, but neither of these things keep me from living a life that I’m grateful for.
If you were to take a look at me now and focus only on what I do (full time job, consulting gigs, advocate, mom to a busy 4 year old and wife) you’d have no idea that I have major depressive disorder. You also wouldn’t know that anxiety still lingers and I have occasional flashbacks to my birth experience when I close my eyes. I also developed a chronic pain condition called fibromyalgia several years ago that is in part thanks to the constant stress state I was in for over a year while I sorted out medication during my postpartum experience.
My Life with Anxiety and Depression
I don’t hold myself up as an example of what you should do or aspire to. My experience and life are both unique and individual to me. What I do hope they allow for you to see is that mental illness doesn’t have to serve as a roadblock for you to find your way back to a life that you can call your own. These illnesses don’t have to define you and when you manage them appropriately, their power quickly diminishes.
You’re probably wondering what I do to manage my anxiety and depression, and the answer is – a lot. Neither of these are illnesses that can be passively pushed to the side and left unattended. If I don’t make my health a priority, things start to fall apart really quickly. It took my a long time to come to terms with this and move from “oh, why me!!” to “okay, this is my life and we’re still kicking”. Here’s what I do to keep things together.
I already mentioned that I’m still on medication and I accept that I will be for the rest of my life. My medication cocktail allows me to live my life in a way that leaves me happy and fulfilled. I’m actually grateful that my postpartum experience forced me to take medication because it has vastly improved my quality of life. My only regret is that I’d had more compassion for myself when I was younger and explored medication more fully before the shit hit the fan while I was pregnant.
You likely hear this all the time, but exercise is one of the best tools you have at your disposal that can vastly improve your mood in a matter of minutes. It’s not a magic fix and is likely best when combined with other treatments, but don’t underestimate it’s power. While my fibromyalgia does limit what I can do, I have a spin bike and treadmill in my basement use these all the time. I also try to get out for a walk as often as I can. Grounding myself in nature brings immense mental and physical health benefits and can often turn a crappy day completely around.
There’s an increasingly large body of evidence that supports mindfulness and meditation as incredibly powerful tools to improve mental health. I’ll be the first to admit that I was skeptical and struggled like crazy to sit still and focus on my breath. My mind is typically like a little hamster, spinning on a wheel, but now that I’ve been practicing regularly for about a year and a half, I’m seeing the benefits. The days that I don’t meditate are always more scattered than those where I do. My view of myself and the world is also shifting as I more fully embrace the psychology of mindfulness.
Community and Connection
Depression is isolating and often pushes us to deep states of loneliness and disconnection. Ironically, this is when we need to be around others the most. Resiliency and the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences are strongly influenced by our social connections.
While trying to recover I was alone all day long and stayed away from other moms with kids the same age. This was partly because I was embarrassed of my thoughts and feelings about motherhood. Now I’ve learned that finding friends and making time for social connection is vital to staying mentally well. This is hard for me because I’m naturally an introvert, but if I don’t push myself to get out with friends I quickly find my anxiety and depression clawing at my feet.
Hobbies and Passions
This is easier said than done, but reconnecting with hobbies and passions is essential for continued positive mental health. Most of the time I’m too tired to even think about trying to do anything other than get my son to bed and then pour myself into my own bed, but I have carved out time for a few things that are now just part of my regular routine.
I always read for 10-15 minutes before I turn out my lights at bedtime. I spend time baking on the weekends so I have food ready to go for the upcoming week. Another example is that I use my phone to pursue my love of photography. Whatever you choose to do, find a way to make it work in whatever space and time you can carve out.
Anxiety and depression can leave you feeling like garbage, day in and day out. They can rob you of your joy, vitality and keep you stuck in an endless loop of pain. What I had to do is shift the story playing in my head from one of being a victim, living in the past, to one where I’m present for the here and now. Medication and meditation allow me to do this. This isn’t a case of me trying to will myself out of depression or an anxious state. It’s about shifting the thinking patterns that I know lead me down the rabbit hole towards a major depressive cycle.
I’ve switched up my diet, cut sugar and carbs and I also supplement with a bunch of different vitamins and minerals. All these changes have resulted in a vast improvement in my physical and mental health. The old adage that “you are what you eat” couldn’t be more true in my case. I’ve discovered a direct connection between my carbohydrate intake and the pain I experience from my fibromyalgia. Eating too many carbs also results in brain fog, anxiety, and a feeling of being hung over the next day.
While there is no one “right way” to recover or manage anxiety and depression, the tools I use to manage my illnesses are universal. Working with a health care provider to come up with a plan that works for you and your own unique circumstances is important. The bottom line is that you can be a mom with anxiety and depression and still lead a life filled with joy, vitality and an equal mix of the unpleasant and messy stuff thrown in. Mental illness is not a death sentence and it doesn’t make you less than others who don’t struggle with it.
Shannon Hennig is the Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.