Everyone told me that it should have been the happiest time of my life, but I could not stop crying. I was pushing my baby in the stroller on a beautiful sunny day. Beneath my sunglasses, my eyes reddened with tears. Nothing provoked my crying; I was feeling low for no particular reason and had no control over my mood.
When you think of postpartum depression, you do not realize what it actually is like to experience it. Postpartum depression/Postpartum anxiety (PPD/PPA) is more than just the “baby blues.” Postpartum depression and anxiety include intrusive thoughts, loss of interest in activities, a depressed mood, anger and irritability, high levels of anxiety and fear, insomnia, and struggling to bond with your baby. While studies estimate that PPA/PPD affects 10-20% of postpartum women, many experts believe that this number is underreported. PPD/PPA can be deadly, as it accounts for 20% of postpartum deaths.
Several factors can increase one’s risk of postpartum depression and anxiety. These factors include a previous pregnancy loss, lack of social support, family history of mood disorders, and a stressful or traumatic labor and delivery experience. I checked the box for a couple of those. My pregnancy had been preceded by an early miscarriage. I had a scary combination of a breech baby and rapid labor. My baby showed signs of distress as they checked me into the hospital and I was quickly rushed off to an emergency C-section.
How postpartum depression manifested
Postpartum depression manifested as both anxiety and depressed mood for me. I was never formally diagnosed, but my daughter’s pediatrician caught the symptoms when she administered the Edinburgh survey (a questionnaire used for PPD/PPA) at a regular wellness visit.
I experienced intrusive thoughts that further agitated my anxiety. Intrusive thoughts are scary because they push awful images into your brain, but you do not want to be thinking them. Each intrusive thought triggered a new fear. I became afraid to drive with my daughter in the car or to even run outside near traffic.
When my daughter had poor weight gain, my PPD/PPA hit a peak. I felt like a failure of a mom for not recognizing it sooner. I felt like a failure for having to supplement formula in addition to nursing her several times per day. For a few days, I struggled to get out of bed. I recall one day where, when I finally got out of bed to care for my daughter, I sat there, just tears streaming down my face. I did not want to be crying and I did not want to be sad, especially as she giggled those sweet five-month-old laughs.
Running played a key part in my recovery process
Thankfully, I have a supportive partner and family who helped me through those dark, hard days. I also had running and in retrospect, running was a key part of my recovery from postpartum depression and anxiety.
For many individuals, the appropriate treatment for PPD/PPA involves medication and therapy. These should always be addressed with a medical professional, as medication does enter breastmilk and can affect breastfeeding. However, some can treat postpartum mood disorders through non-medication approaches, including exercise, getting more sleep, and seeking outside help with household tasks and childcare.
Running offered me several things I needed to treat and manage my postpartum anxiety and depression. Exercise is shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. One of the causes of PPD/PPA is a chemical imbalance in the brain; the neurochemical effects of running helped smooth out this imbalance. Each run provided a short-term mood boost. The more consistent I was, the more of a long-term mood boost I experienced as well. Running also granted me some ‘me time’, doing something I enjoyed before becoming a mom. For those 30 to 60 minutes, I was not caring for an infant; I was taking care of me and just me. For a new mom, it is all too easy to lose yourself in the late nights and frequent nursing sessions. Running reminded me that I was still my own person and that I still had things I enjoyed, and that alone began to pull me out of PPD/PPA.
I increased my mileage gradually
The combination of my anxiety, the time demands of being the primary childcare provider, and the dark and cold Indiana winters made the treadmill my only option on most days. I had been running consistently since two months postpartum, but I had not been doing close to my previous training. So, I focused on gradually building up my mileage. Each incremental jump–from 20 miles per week to 25, from 25 to 30, etc.–helped me feel more like myself again. I added a sixth day of running and that additional day of movement made a tremendous difference. I still struggled with anxiety, particularly when the COVID-19 pandemic hit when my baby was just six months old. However, I had the tools in my toolbox to control the anxiety, thanks to running.
Please note: This blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Payne, J. L., & Maguire, J. (2019). Pathophysiological mechanisms implicated in postpartum depression. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology, 52, 165–180. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yfrne.2018.12.001
Collier, S. (2021). Postpartum anxiety is invisible but common and treatable. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/postpartum-anxiety-an-invisible-disorder-that-can-affect-new-mothers-202107302558