“Emma sits on the couch, fussing baby attached to her boob for the 3000th time that day. The clock reads 5:12pm, getting closer to 5:15pm, the time her partner said she would be home from work. Every fussing sound the 6 week old baby makes, Emma can feel her insides twisting up, turning into a hot fiery ball of anger. Now it’s 5:16pm, and Emma does not hear a car, she does not see the telltale shadow of her wife walking up to the front porch. The ball of anger is getting bigger, and stronger. She stands up because she feels like she has to, moves around, gently “shooshing” and bouncing the baby, but feeling like she wants to scream. Feeling like she cannot handle this for ONE MORE SECOND. She tells the baby to, “Please please stop fussing” in a strained, frustrated voice. It’s 5:20pm, still no wife. Her face feels hot, she’s using all of her resources to not yell. Finally, FINALLY, she hears her wife’s footsteps on the porch out front. It’s 5:24pm. Less than 10 minutes past when she said she would come home. But when her wife walks in, she is greeted by Emma’s hot, red face. Emma abruptly hands her wife the baby and shouts, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me you’d be late?!?!” She then stomps out of the room and up the stairs, goes and sits on the floor in her bathroom, fists in her hair, crying uncontrollably. Trying to get that ball of hot rage to disappear.”
Postpartum rage is a rarely discussed symptom of postpartum depression and anxiety, but it is a very real symptom. The rage can be directed at self, baby, or other loved ones around us. It can feel all consuming, overwhelming. Many new parents are surprised by the feelings of rage and irritability that can be part of the postpartum illness. Many new parents may feel alone in this emotion, thinking that feeling anger makes them a bad parent, or means that they don’t like their baby. When in fact, it’s a fairly common experience.
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 at Porch Light Counseling specializing in infertility and perinatal mental health.