May is Maternal Mental Health Month, so HuffPost Parenting and Wellness are shining a light on postpartum well-being. From how new moms handle those early days as parents while struggling with their own mental health to how to be there for friends and family, we’ve created a space for moms and their loved ones to feel seen and heard in those first trying months of parenthood. See the full series here.
After Jamie Zahlaway Belsito welcomed her second child, she didn’t experience the deep sadness or anxiety many new mothers feel. Instead, she often found herself seething with rage.
“I was incredibly angry with my spouse,” Belsito, policy director at the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance, told HuffPost. “I needed to be there for my 3-year-old, for my baby and my husband, who was working and traveling full-time.”
“I had to suck it up, and I was falling apart at the seams,” she said. “I could not control my anger. I threw the toys that were all over the floor when it was time to clean up. I slammed the dishes that were piling up in the sink.”
She tried a number of tactics to get the rage out ― dancing, long walks on the beach, prayer, smelling fresh flowers, and, at the suggestion of her therapist, punching the mattress on her bed.
“That never satisfied me because there was nothing to show of my anger at the end,” Belsito said. “Nothing worked to take away the anger that would flare up, and I didn’t know why.”
What Belsito experienced is a common but often-overlooked element of perinatal mood disorders: postpartum rage.
What is postpartum rage?
“Postpartum rage is a symptom of postpartum depression that many people are unfamiliar with,” said Becky Stuempfig, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Encinitas, California. “Postpartum depression is very common ― 1 in 7 women develop postpartum depression after childbirth. For some women with postpartum depression, rage or anger is the dominant symptom; for some, it is intermittent, and others do not experience rage at all.”
While postpartum rage is not a stand-alone clinical diagnosis, it is a symptom that falls within the scope and spectrum of postpartum depression or anxiety.
“It’s an extra ingredient that typically isn’t seen in generalized depression outside of the perinatal period,” said Paige Bellenbaum, chief external relations officer for the New York-based mental health clinic The Motherhood Center. “It can be brought on and exacerbated by the exhaustion, overwhelming emotion and lack of sleep that is synonymous with new motherhood.”
The Signs Of Postpartum Rage
“Rage can include struggling to control temper, increased screaming or swearing, punching or throwing things, violent thoughts or urges potentially directed toward family members, difficulty calming down and experiencing a flood of emotions immediately afterwards,” Stuempfig said. “It’s unclear whether depression or anger comes first, but many moms feel like they cannot express their feelings of anger without being judged, which leads to further depression.”
“Postpartum rage is scary. It’s dark, it’s loud, it’s the opposite behavior of what a mother should be. … It made me afraid that someone would take my children away and that I would be arrested.”
– Jamie Zahlaway Belsito
Irritability, frustration over things that never previously bothered them, and overwhelming anger toward specific situations or people are other potential signs of postpartum rage, as are acting impulsively or saying regretful things. The anger may manifest verbally or physically, with yelling, slamming doors, or throwing objects.
“It may include bodily symptoms like a rapid heart rate or feeling flushed or hot. Or going from 0 to 100 in a split second on the anger speedometer,” Bellenbaum noted.
“Many mothers refer to this experience as ‘seeing red,’ or feeling as though they are going to explode,” she explained. “A new mom could feel postpartum rage after trying to soothe a colicky baby nonstop for three hours, or after her husband tells her she looks nice in a dress that she hasn’t worn since before she got pregnant – it does not discriminate!”
Why Postpartum Rage Can Be Particularly Difficult
For Belsito, postpartum rage was a particularly tough experience because it is not widely discussed, so she felt isolated, ashamed and guilty.
“Depression and anxiety have other traits that are easier to diagnose,” she explained. “Sadness, crying, insomnia, ‘baby blues’ ― these are the accepted diagnoses of what most people identify as ‘postpartum depression.’ Postpartum rage is scary. It’s dark, it’s loud, it’s the opposite behavior of what a mother should be. People question the safety of the baby, the mental stability of the mother. It opens up Pandora’s box. It made me afraid that someone would take my children away and that I would be arrested.”
Indeed, postpartum rage is often overlooked or misunderstood, said Desreen N. Dudley, a licensed clinical psychologist with the virtual care platform Teladoc.
“New mothers can feel blame for their displays of anger and feelings, further increasing their sense of guilt,” she said. “New mothers should recognize that they do not have to struggle alone during this time period.”
What To Do If You Suspect You Have Postpartum Rage
“If you are experiencing postpartum rage, you are not alone,” Bellenbaum noted. “Postpartum rage as a symptom of postpartum depression is very common and totally treatable. A variety of interventions can help minimize postpartum rage and depression ranging from support groups, individual therapy, and/or medication.”
Seeking professional counseling can help a new mom understand her anger and the other emotions that may exist behind it, whether it’s grief, loneliness or anxiety. Postpartum mental health complications can also stem from particular triggers or unaddressed trauma.
Catherine Athans, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Altos, California, pointed out that certain risk factors may provide insight into a parent’s experience with postpartum rage. These include “insufficient support or lack of help after birth; a stressful, complicated, or traumatic delivery; parenting a child with medical or developmental challenges; or previous episodes of mental illness or postpartum mood disorders.”
It is particularly important for a mother to seek emergency mental health care for postpartum rage if she’s feeling concerned that she may act on violent impulses toward others.
As Dudley explained, “A mental health professional can accurately assess symptoms of postpartum depression, anxiety or another condition, and help mothers learn how to get additional support, understand their own feelings and identify ways to cope with a challenging period in life.”