Postpartum and Breastfeeding

First 40 Days: How I Overcame Postpartum Anxiety With Dietitian Stephanie Gruenke

Paula James-Martinez

First 40 Days: How I Overcame Postpartum Anxiety With Dietitian Stephanie Gruenke

“The First 40 Days” is a term often used to describe the newly postpartum period, during which your body is healing, your hormones are shifting rapidly, and you are navigating the significant identity changes that accompany new motherhood or introducing a new sibling into the household. Full of tears, joy, struggles, and successes, no two postpartum experiences are alike. But just because postpartum is a unique experience for everyone, it doesn’t mean there isn’t inherent value in sharing, normalizing, and learning from each other. In the latest installment we sat down with Registered Nutritionist and Podcaster Stephanie Gruenke.

Steph is somewhat of an expert in all things motherhood and combating depletion. She is also a core member of team Needed, and often seamless seen to be wearing her many hats at once, so when she shared she's suffered from postpartum anxiety and was willing to share her story, to help reach out to other mothers we jumped at the chance.

Needed: Steph, tell me a little bit about yourself?

Steph: I'm a mom of two wonderful and energetic boys, ages 7 and 9, juggling the sometimes chaos of parenthood with my role as a registered dietitian specializing in women's health, postpartum nutrition, and behavioral psychology. My passion for supporting mothers extends beyond optimizing nutritional needs —I hold additional certifications in perinatal mental health and fitness, which allows me to address holistic well-being from a 360 perspective. This extends into my work at Needed, I lead as the Head of Practitioner Relationships, connecting with experts to champion accessible, evidence-based care. As well as on the "Doctor Mom" Podcast, which I co-host with a naturopathic doctor to dive deep into vital perinatal and pediatric health topics, bridging science and practical advice for our listeners.

Needed: How did you get into the nutrition space?

Steph: My journey into the nutrition world has its roots in a formative experience during my teenage years. One where I witnessed a family member conquer a medical challenge through nutrition, it showed me the power that it had to transform people's lives.

This passion led me to pursue formal education in nutrition during college, where I delved into the science behind food and health. This experience sparked my passion for understanding how food impacts our health and well-being. I took on additional trainings and expanded into the world of functional medicine and perinatal health. Through working with other perinatal practitioners and women in my practice, it's crystal clear how important nutrition is throughout your life, especially during the perinatal stages. It's been a fulfilling journey, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to make a positive impact through my work.

Needed: Let's talk about your postpartum story. Was there a huge shift from your first and second? What happened that you didn’t expect?

Steph: There was indeed a significant shift between my first and second postpartum experiences. As a military family, we moved during both pregnancies, which added unique challenges to each journey. With my first child, I was unprepared for the demands of postpartum care and lacked a strong support system. Something that I don’t think I realized would be so important before becoming a mother.

This led to overwhelming anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, which on reflection was the manifestation of suffering a postpartum anxiety disorder. Something that I also hadn’t factored into my experience ahead of motherhood even though in many ways on paper I had a much more robust understanding of, mind, body and soul than many through my training in space.

With my second child, I knew I had to do things differently. I learned from my previous experience and prioritized self-care, nutrition, and building a supportive community. This approach made a world of difference and resulted in a much more positive postpartum period.

Needed: You have bravely shared that you struggled with postpartum anxiety. How did that manifest for you? When did you realize something was wrong?

Postpartum anxiety manifested itself as intense fear, intrusive thoughts, and a general feeling of being overwhelmed. Obviously being a new mother does come with a certain amount of uncertainty and worries. But I noticed something was more seriously wrong when I found myself unable to leave the house due to fear and  that my personality had shifted from being extroverted to introverted. It was more than new motherhood, I wasn’t myself and I was struggling.

These changes in my behavior and mindset were outside of what I knew to be my normal and that prompted me to seek help and support.

Needed: How hard was it to find help?

Steph: Seeking support was crucial but challenging. Initially, my concerns were dismissed by friends and family as typical "new mom worries," delaying my access to proper care. It took connecting with another mom who shared similar experiences for me to realize the importance of professional help. Finding the right support, including therapists and healthcare providers specializing in perinatal mental health, was crucial for my recovery.

Needed: What would you do differently if you had another postpartum experience?

Steph: Looking back, I would prioritize building a strong support network and proactively seeking professional guidance from the beginning of my postpartum journey. I would also emphasize self-care practices and trust my instincts when it comes to recognizing and addressing mental health concerns.

Needed: Anything else that wished you knew beforehand?

Steph: I wish I had trusted my instincts earlier and not dismissed my concerns as normal. Seeking help and support is essential, and there's no shame in reaching out for professional guidance when needed.

Needed: Why do you think talking about postpartum mood disorders is so important?

Steph: Open conversations about postpartum mood disorders are crucial for reducing stigma and ensuring that women receive the support and care they need. By sharing our stories and experiences, we can create a supportive environment where women feel seen, heard, and empowered to seek help without hesitation.

Needed: What do you think people should do in preparation for postpartum recovery? From a mental health perspective what advice would you give?

Steph: Preparing for postpartum recovery involves prioritizing self-care, building a strong support network, and proactively seeking professional guidance. From a mental health perspective, I advise women to trust their instincts, and seek help early if they experience any concerning symptoms. Even if you are dismissed at first, keep going until you feel heard by your practitioner.

Building a team of supportive healthcare providers, therapists, and community resources before the need arises can greatly contribute to a smoother postpartum journey.

*If you are struggling with your mental health please seek urgent support from your provider. Or you can call the The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline. Call or text 1-833-TLC-MAMA (1-833-852-6262).

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Paula James-Martinez, Filmmaker and Editorial Director

Paula James Martinez is a creative producer, filmmaker, and former fashion editor. She is the director and producer of film company Semi-Retired Productions, and in 2018, started working on her directorial debut on the documentary Born Free, which investigates the truth about birth and maternity in America. She has since founded a non-profit organization The Mother Lovers to raise awareness of the US maternal health crisis.