I recently wrote about my experience with postpartum PTSD, and it brought to the surface a lot of emotions I’d forgotten about. One specific area that I struggled the most with after giving birth was losing weight. It’s been a lifelong struggle for me.
Losing weight has never come easy for me. When I was 26, I lost 45 pounds in less than three months. I restricted my calories to 1,200 to 1,500 a day, worked out a minimum of two hours for six days a week, and cut out all alcohol. For the first time in my life, I felt good about my size.
When I was 27, I got pregnant and put back on around 10 to 15 pounds. I managed to gain very little during the majority of my pregnancy. Even though I felt good about myself, doctors have always said I am overweight (and by their standards, I am). My doctor preferred I keep my weight gain to 20 to 25 pounds. By week 32, I had only gained 6 pounds.
All of that changed when I started swelling and my blood pressure elevated. I rapidly put on 25 to 30 pounds through the end of my pregnancy. I was cautiously optimistic that most of that weight was baby and water weight.
Unfortunately, I did not lose as much weight as I thought I would in the first few weeks. I was sitting with all the weight I originally lost back on at eight weeks postpartum. This was on top of never reaching my goal weight the first time.
At the time, I was still unable to process the emotions I was feeling postpartum, and I tried to convince myself that what I was going through internally was normal for everyone. There are many symptoms of postpartum PTSD. But if you don’t know what you’re looking for, they can easily be attributed to other conditions, such as “the baby/postpartum blues.”
What are the symptoms of postpartum PTSD?
Rosie Falls, a licensed clinical social worker in Boulder, Colorado, explains some of the symptoms to watch for:
- persistently increased arousal (irritability, hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, and exaggerated startle response)
- avoidance of reminders of the birth trauma
- panic attacks
She goes on to say that “mamas who experience postpartum PTSD may see danger or threat to their babies everywhere.”
I was actively experiencing most of the symptoms of postpartum PTSD, but it would take 15 months before I was diagnosed.
In today’s world, we’re bombarded by images of celebrities who “bounce back” after having babies within weeks. We don’t talk about how they had personal chefs and trainers, tummy tucks, and nighttime nurses tending to their newborns.
I lost weight so quickly the first time because it was the only responsibility I had outside of my job. I didn’t have a house, husband, or newborn to take care of. I certainly didn’t have the ramifications of postpartum PTSD looming like a dark cloud over my head.
Unfortunately, the expectations to get back to work within 12 weeks and wear the same clothes I wore 12 months prior compounded the confusing and negative feelings I was experiencing. Instead of realizing that there could be a bigger problem, I blamed myself for being overweight and lazy. I believed I was a failure for not “bouncing back” like everyone else.
“Like any mental health struggle, postpartum PTSD drastically impacts a woman’s capacity to function on many levels, including her ability to return to normal activities like exercise,” says Emily Horowitz, a licensed professional counselor in Boulder, Colorado. “This new mother’s already interrupted circadian rhythms may be further disturbed by PTSD symptoms, and she is likely to be doubly exhausted.”
Instead of allowing myself to heal from my traumatic birth experience, I started putting more pressure on myself to live up to societal expectations. As Horowitz explains, "It’s quite taxing on the body and the brain to be in a frequent state of hyperarousal. Getting effective treatment for postpartum PTSD, and developing appropriately gentle and kind expectations of oneself, is very important.”
In order to make up for the lack of time I had to go to the gym, I started to crash diet six months postpartum. In less than two months, I lost 25 pounds by restricting my calories to under 1,000 on most days. I wasn’t nursing, but the calorie restriction was unhealthy and not something that I could maintain. This made me feel like an even bigger failure when the weight crept back on.
As I continued to cycle through unhealthy ways to lose weight while trying to appear put together in all the other aspects of my life, I felt like I was falling apart internally.
Diagnosis and healing
At 15 months postpartum, I started seeing a new OB-GYN in preparation for another baby. At this point, I knew that I didn’t want another baby, but my husband did. That made me feel guilty. I also had a lingering sense that something was wrong with me because I loved my daughter and thought she was wonderful, but wanted nothing to do with pregnancy or birth ever again.
As I began to tell my new doctor my birth story, I broke down into uncontrollable hysterics. She informed me I was experiencing symptoms of postpartum PTSD due to birth trauma. Instantly, everything started making sense.
I believe that knowledge is power. Once I was properly diagnosed, I could finally start the process of healing.
Claire Stramrood, M.D., Ph.D., and OB-GYN resident at the University Medical Center Utrecht and maternal mental health specialist, explains, “Many women find a ‘birth review’ with their obstetrician or midwife helpful. This should not be considered a treatment for PTSD, but rather an opportunity to clarify possible questions and uncertainties related to the delivery, and to express potential concerns or complaints.”
She notes that, similar to what I experienced, “It can sometimes greatly help to know what happened and why.” This is not always offered, or a possibility. Especially in those cases, women may find it helpful to put their story on paper.
I ended up documenting my birth story on my blog and the entire experience was extremely cathartic.
All three of the medical professionals I spoke with recommend eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
EMDR is a therapy that combines thoughts about the trauma with bilateral eye movements. “This taxes the working memory to such an extent that the emotional loading of the event decreases,” explains Dr. Stramrood. “Your memory doesn’t disappear, but the negative emotions do, and it usually works after only a few sessions.”
I’m grateful for medical professionals who are continually educating on how to cope with mental health struggles that have been silently impacting women for centuries. Since learning of my diagnosis, I’ve successfully completed therapy and I am currently trying for baby number two. My hope is that other women will read my story and find comfort in knowing that there are people who can help you through this difficult time.
Monica Froese is a mom, wife, blogger, and entrepreneur. She has an MBA degree in finance and marketing, and blogs at Redefining Mom, a site for empowering working moms. In 2015, she traveled to the White House to discuss family-friendly workplace policies with the president’s senior advisors and has been featured on several media outlets including Fox News, Scary Mommy, Healthline, and Mom Talk Radio. Her passion is to help other moms find their version of balance through time management tips, flexible work options, and helping women build online businesses to escape the 9-5.