(NEW YORK) — In Camilla Luddington’s role as Dr. Jo Wilson on Grey’s Anatomy, the actress was tasked with portraying a character who experienced mental health struggles, including a stay in a psychiatric facility.
Offscreen, Luddington is opening up about the mental health struggles she has experienced herself, including a battle with postpartum anxiety.
Luddington, a mom of two, said in a new interview with Wondermind , the Selena Gomez-backed mental fitness ecosystem, that she started therapy for the first time.
“I never felt like I needed to [undergo therapy], and then my daughter was born,” Luddington said. “I now look back and realize I had postpartum anxiety, which I didn’t know was a thing. I knew about postpartum depression, and I knew I didn’t have that, but I had so much anxiety.”
Luddington and her husband, actor Matt Alan, announced the birth of their daughter Hayden in April 2017. The couple announced the birth of their second child, a son named Lucas, in August 2020.
While some level of worrying is normal with a newborn, worries that turn irrational and incessant are signs of postpartum anxiety. Around 10% of postpartum women develop anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Despite its prevalence, there is no category for it in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Postpartum anxiety is most often grouped under postpartum depression, which affects about 1 in 7 women, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Luddington said that for her, anxiety manifests in physical conditions. She said that by working with a therapist, she has learned tools to help her cope.
“I can feel myself physically getting anxious, which is a vicious circle [because] it gives me more anxiety to feel the anxiety,” Luddington said. “I feel anxiety, for example, in my feet. My feet start to tingle — that’s how I know I’m starting to get anxious. There are different parts of my body that I then start honing in on, like my heart racing.”
“[My therapist] tells me to find a place in my body that feels neutral, and, the funny thing is, I always think of my butt. My butt is never racing like my heart or tingling like my feet or hands,” she continued, laughing. “And actually honing in on that part of my body, or any part of [my] body that is not feeling the anxiety, is something that, in the moment, can kind of cool me down. … I know it [might] sound funny to some people, but figuring out an area of my body that is not manifesting that physical anxiety really helps me.”
After the birth of her second child in 2020, Luddington said she experienced another condition, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which she said she did not know about before it happened to her.
“I never really had PMS growing up. … I hadn’t suffered from depression before [either], so I didn’t really understand what was going on. I just felt like there were times when, for a few days, I was just sad. Just depressed,” Luddington said. “My son was born during COVID in August 2020, so I kind of chalked it up to, ‘This is hard, this year’s hard, there are a lot of sad things happening in the world, and I’m just having one of those days."”
Luddington said she began to notice that her bouts of irritability and depression coincided with the start of her menstrual cycle, which prompted her to go her doctor for help.
“When I went to go see my [doctor], I said, ‘I’m kind of noticing this happening every month,"” Luddington recalled. “I described my symptoms, and she said, ‘Well, that’s PMDD.’ And I had never even heard of that before.”
What to know about PMDD
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder affects as many as 5% of women of childbearing age, according to the Office on Women’s Health.
It is described as a condition similar to PMS but more severe in the symptoms it brings, including depression, thoughts of suicide, irritability, fatigue, anxiety and tension. Physical symptoms may include headaches, cramps, bloating, joint and muscle pain, insomnia and binge eating or food cravings.
PMDD happens in the week or two before a woman’s period starts, according to the Office on Women’s Health.
Exactly why PMDD occurs is not yet known, though it is suspected to have to do with hormonal changes. Serotonin levels, which also change during the menstrual cycle, may also play a role.
People who have a family history of depression, postpartum depression or other mood disorders may be more at risk for PMDD, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
When diagnosing PMDD, health care providers look for five or more PMDD symptoms, including a mood-related symptom, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
PMDD can be treated, which is why it is important to seek medical help.
Treatments can include everything from antidepressants and hormonal birth control to lifestyle changes like diet, exercise and stress-management tools, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Luddington said that for her, starting on a prescription antidepressant was helpful, after meeting with a psychiatrist.
“I went on Zoloft for the first time this year, which I think is important to talk about because I feel like there’s still a stigma about medication,” Luddington said. “I was nervous about going on it because I was like, I’m an actress. Can I still be in touch with my feelings? Will I be able to cry on camera? Will I feel different? Will I seem out of it? [But] honestly, it has been super amazing for me, and this is the first time I’m talking about it.”
She added, “It definitely took away my PMDD, so I don’t have that dip every month. But then, also, it just helped any general anxiety I have. I feel like I’m a lot less anxious.”
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, substance use or other mental health crises, please call or text the new three digit code at 988. You will reach a trained crisis counselor for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also go to 988lifeline.org.
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