So what causes postpartum rage and irritability? No one knows for sure, but my guess is that it’s a combination of things. Sleep deprivation? Check. Baby needing constant attention and parent not getting breaks? Check. Hormone fluctuations? Check. The sound of a crying baby (which, by the way, is used as a torture device because of the adverse effect it has on us as humans)? CHECK CHECK CHECK. If we have a history of depression or anxiety, we’re more at risk for experiencing this symptom. Anxiety in particular seems to have a link. Many people manage their mild/moderate symptoms of anxiety by trying to remain in control of as many things as possible. As anyone who has children knows, control is not always hardly ever a possibility, which can amp up that anxiety and subsequent irritability and anger.
It may be best explained by thinking of ourselves as batteries. When those batteries are constantly drawn on and depleted, without being “recharged”, our energy to handle stress is completed gone. We have fallen out of what we call our “resiliency zone”. There is no space for handling that dirty floor, the partner who comes home late, the baby who is crying YET AGAIN.
So what do we do?
Anger in and of itself is not a “bad” emotion. It’s simply an emotion. Sometimes it’s good to be angry, and that emotion can serve us well. For example, when you’re being treated unfairly. But sometimes those angry feelings can overwhelm us, make us feel out of control, and prevent us from functioning.
Thankfully, there are a lot of coping methods that can decrease, or at least help us manage those feelings of irritability and rage.
– Mindfulness practice – mindfulness is a practice of focusing one’s state on the present moment and sensations. There are SO many amazing resources out there. But here is one quick exercise to use when feeling that anger (and throughout the day).
o Do a body scan- Focus on the sensation going through the body. Focus on the heart beating faster, your breathing rate, and areas that feel tense or clenched.
o Breathe into the physical feelings. Take deep breaths if possible, or what we call diaphragm or belly breathing (in through the nose, out slowly through the mouth, with your belly rising).
o Watch your thoughts – just notice them, don’t judge them. Sometimes it helps to picture them on the side of a train, slowly passing through your field of vision.
o If you’re able, become the “observer of self”- pull yourself “out” of your body and imagine yourself floating above, looking down on yourself in the situation. What do you observe?
o Rescan your body- notice any differences?
– Scheduling in breaks– No one can do a job 24 hours a day, so why should we do that with our children? We need breaks to nurture the other parts of ourselves that existed before the baby. These breaks are vital to that “recharging the battery” that I talk about above. Without them, we become a recipe for burnout. Sometimes breaks can be in the moment, for example, if we’re having thoughts about hurting baby, actually putting baby down, even if she’s crying, in a safe spot and leaving the room to calm down. Sometimes breaks mean giving the baby to your partner, or to a trusted support and leaving for a few hours- even if that just means going to the grocery store without a child attached to you.
– Increase self-care– This can look like so many things, but can include
o exercise, even just a short walk or a yoga class,
o grabbing coffee with a friend, or going on a date with your partner while grandparents babysit.
o This can also mean taking a relaxing bath at the end of the day while partner is with baby,
o making space for a mindfulness or relaxation technique– these techniques will be most effective if you practice them throughout the day, not just when you’re feeling angry
o making sure to eat healthy (and eat regularly so that your blood sugar doesn’t drop), and drink lots of water
o making your doctor’s appointments, getting a massage, getting acupuncture, or going to your therapist
– Asking for help- Sometimes the symptoms are bad enough that you need professional help. This can include seeing a therapist who specializes in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and/or talking to a psychiatrist or your doctor about starting a medication, like an SSRI such as Zoloft.
Have you experienced these symptoms before? Did anything help that I didn’t cover here? If so, tell us in the comments below!
Ariel Shumaker-Hammond is a therapist specializing in infertility and perinatal mental health.