I had my first panic attack seven weeks after giving birth, standing on top of a 7,000-foot mountain in the Chugach Range in Alaska.
Amid the scree and wind, I completely lost my sense of direction, bursting into tears and finding my heart racing so fast it felt as if it would explode.
This was a hike that I had completed multiple times before, and since I had stayed fit and active during my pregnancy, I did not question the logic of bagging this peak so soon after giving birth.
After all, I had passed the six-week time frame and was “cleared” to exercise. We even brought our seven-week-old infant with us.
Little did I know that this would be the first of a year-long battle with similar panic attacks: Moments that would catch me off guard, without rhyme or reason, and would leave me paralyzed with fear over the most irrational of thoughts. I was eventually diagnosed with postpartum anxiety and began taking anti-depressants.
As an athlete, I felt in-tune with my body. While I physically felt fine (excellent in fact), I was most definitely NOT okay.
What I did not know, was that my usual pre-pregnancy exercise routine was causing extreme spikes in cortisol (the stress hormone), putting me in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight.
The pressure to return to “normal” after delivering a baby can be overwhelming. Women are praised for getting their “pre-baby” body back, resuming physical activity soon after delivery, and getting out and about.
So listen up mommas, after you have a baby, sit THE HELL DOWN!
And if you don’t take my word for it, let’s take a look at the science:
When you exercise, cortisol levels naturally spike then return to normal. In the postpartum momma who exercises, cortisol levels will spike up to THREE TIMES HIGHER than average, and take twice as long to return to baseline. Therefore, it can take twice as long to recover physiologically and hormonally from basic exercises.
It can take up to a FULL YEAR for your pelvic floor to return to normal after pregnancy. If you participate in activities that put stress on that pelvic floor (jumping, running, or anything that causes impact), you increase the risk of incontinence (leaking urine or poop) and prolapse (where your pelvic organs descend downwards and can protrude out of your vagina). Both of those options suck and can be entirely avoidable just by choosing low-impact exercises.
Other hormones that influence exercise performance, recovery and health include estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone (to name a few). These hormones are at an all-time low following birth and will leave you feeling wired-but-tired, achy, and nervous. Listen to your body, because this is NOT the time to resume a regimented exercise routine.
Just because you’ve received clearance to exercise from your doctor (that six-week rule is a generic benchmark and NOT a guarantee of full recovery), does not mean you should immediately resume pre-pregnancy exercise.
It may be helpful to think about childbirth as major surgery, or trauma to the body (which, literally speaking, it is). If you had been in a car accident, would you do this exercise 6-weeks or even four months later?
I know you’re a badass woman, with a fierce and gritty drive.
But while your body may feel fine, it has not resumed it’s normal functioning.
Learn from my mistakes!
Get some sleep, drink water, and snuggle your baby.
And that’s an order.