The Secret No One Is Talking About—Postpartum Anxiety
It’s more common than you think.
After so many months of anticipation, your little one finally enters this world, and with them can come a flood of emotions—a level of intense joy, love, and relief like you’ve never experienced. Yet, as you both settle into your day-to-day, another feeling may unexpectedly arise: anxiety. If you’ve been gripped by postpartum anxiety soon after your baby’s birth, know that you’re far from alone. Although there’s a lack of dialogue about postpartum anxiety—with postpartum depression being the more familiar perinatal mood disorder—it’s a common condition. Slightly more women experience postpartum anxiety (one in seven) as opposed to postpartum depression (one in eight). And, for some, it can be debilitating.
If you are, were, or worry you will struggle with postpartum anxiety symptoms, read on. We’re discussing what postpartum anxiety is, what puts you at risk for it, and, most importantly, how you can help ease the tension.
What Is Postpartum Anxiety?
Postpartum anxiety is a perinatal mood disorder (meaning it can happen before or after childbirth) characterized by persistent, excessive worrying, fear, stress, and an inability to calm down. Like any anxiety disorder, it can be all-encompassing, rattling all aspects of your daily life. Frequently, your agonizing concerns will revolve around your new baby and their health and safety. And your thoughts may continually spiral into worst-case scenarios, elevating you to prolonged periods of being on high alert throughout the day and night.
For many women, these constant feelings of doom and general unease are compounded even further by obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms—intrusive obsessive thoughts and, oftentimes, being afraid to even think those thoughts, especially when they involve any harm coming to their babies. While it can be a challenge to control your thoughts on a good day, with postpartum anxiety, it becomes near impossible. And many wouldn’t wish this torturous mental prison on their worst enemies.
The good news is that postpartum anxiety isn’t a lifelong affliction—it is highly treatable and will fade with time. Plus, there’s specific postpartum anxiety treatment out there, as well as postpartum anxiety medications, which we’ll explain a bit later.
What Is The Difference Between Postpartum Depression & Postpartum Anxiety?
You may have noticed your OB/GYN specifically asking about your mood in the weeks following delivery. This is likely to gauge whether you have symptoms of postpartum depression and/or postpartum anxiety, as well as any other potential postnatal issues. While there are a lot of symptoms that overlap the two conditions, such as irritability, agitation, and poor sleep, there are also distinct differences. It’s common for women experiencing postpartum depression to also have anxiety—but it’s not a two-way street. Not all moms with postpartum anxiety are depressed. It’s important for you to get a correct diagnosis in order to identify your best treatment options.
When Does Postpartum Anxiety Start?
Although, in your mind, you’re no longer pregnant once your baby is born, it takes your body a little while longer to agree that it’s over. During this time, your pregnancy hormones are slowly returning to their pre-pregnant levels. This process can really do a number on your emotions, leading you to feel overwhelmed, sad, and weepy for a few weeks. If you continue to feel this way, you may be dealing with a perinatal mood disorder like postpartum anxiety, which tends to rear its awful head around four to six weeks after childbirth.
We should note, however, that the name postpartum anxiety is somewhat misleading. New science reveals that it is possible to experience premature postpartum anxiety while you’re still pregnant. So, if you have anxiety when you’re approaching your due date, know that what you’re experiencing is common.
What Causes Postpartum Anxiety?
The exact triggers of postpartum anxiety are not known. But, as mentioned, postpartum anxiety is thought to be the result of pregnancy hormones, specifically increased estrogen and progesterone while you’re pregnant, and the subsequent reduction of them after childbirth. In general, this can make you more vulnerable to stress, which, in turn, can make you feel panicky, fearful, or overwhelmed—or all of the above. The lack of sleep you experience when caring for your newborn can then amplify these feelings. Plus, the huge weight of responsibility that comes with caring for your new baby, especially for first-time moms, can be ridden with anxiety.
Other potential postpartum anxiety causes are medical problems affecting your or your baby, feelings of isolation, or a perceived loss of freedom. If you had a difficult pregnancy or childbirth, that can also contribute to the disorder. Stressors in other areas of your life, such as financial issues or illness in the family are also possible postpartum anxiety causes. Ditto if you’ve experienced postpartum anxiety or other perinatal mood disorders before, or have a personal or family history of anxiety. Even the shock of a new daily routine can be a culprit.
What Are Common Risk Factors For Postpartum Anxiety?
Just like postpartum depression, certain things can predispose you to developing postpartum anxiety. However, just because you have one or more risk factors, it doesn’t seal your fate, only your vulnerability to it.
First and foremost, if you’ve had mood disturbances from hormonal changes before, such as during puberty, your cycle, or while on birth control, you may be at risk of developing postpartum anxiety. Same if you’ve experienced premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) or have a history of endocrine dysfunction. If you had a teenage pregnancy, miscarriage, or lost a baby in the past, those experiences can put you at risk too. Issues with your finances, job, or housing, as well as having no emotional support, can also lay your emotions bare.
If any of these circumstances ring a bell with you, if you can, before or while you’re pregnant, reach out to a qualified counselor to develop a plan of action to follow in the event you experience postpartum anxiety. They can also teach or remind you of coping mechanisms you can use.
What Are The Symptoms of Postpartum Anxiety?
We already discussed that some—but not all—postpartum anxiety symptoms are also present in postpartum depression, like incessant dread, worrying, or panic. This uneasiness can then negatively impact other parts of your life, like sleeping and eating. Other postpartum anxiety signs include feeling nauseous, dizzy, or restless. Then, there are those who experience hallmarks of the aforementioned OCD. These may include extremely upsetting, excessive internal chatter—is my baby eating enough, why are they crying so much, is there something wrong with them?—or mental images regarding your baby’s health and safety. They may be accompanied by a compulsive need to repeat certain actions based on the belief that they will protect you and your baby from harm. You may feel the urge to repeatedly check to be sure the stove and other appliances are off, constantly clean and sanitize things, or reorder and count items.
Even worse, you’ll likely recognize that you’re not thinking right and be horrified by it, or feel uncomfortable when you’re alone with your infant, while still having an outsized protective mommy instinct. Despite the fact that moms with postpartum OCD wouldn’t harm their babies, it’s common to feel uncomfortable or ashamed to the point you avoid discussing these issues with your loved ones or doctor—when, in fact, that’s exactly what you should do.
How Long Does Postpartum Anxiety Last?
We know, postpartum anxiety can truly feel like a waking nightmare that will never end. And even being concerned about how long you’ll have to suffer with it can add to your fears and anxiety. Fortunately, however, rest assured, this too shall pass. While there’s no magic number or day on the calendar when you can expect it to vanish, there are some things that can affect its duration.
How long you wait to get help, your history of anxiety, the strength of your support system, and health of your home environment all contribute to the duration and intensity of your postpartum anxiety. As does the level of dedication to your treatment.
How Do You Treat Postpartum Anxiety?
The most important thing you can do to relieve your postpartum anxiety is to seek help as soon as you notice any symptoms. The faster you can get postpartum anxiety treatment and support, the less you’ll have to suffer alone. After that, the key to effectively treating it is getting the correct diagnosis, since it’s often confused with postpartum depression. (Your anxiety may not respond to standard treatments for the latter, such as antidepressants or psychotherapy.)
We sacrifice a lot for our children, especially when they’re newborns. But try your best to make sure your needs aren’t being neglected. If they are, it will only intensify and prolong your postpartum anxiety. Try to sleep or at least lay down when your baby does. And enlist the help of loved ones, family, or another babysitter to give yourself a break for some “me” time. This leads us to our next piece of advice: identifying or developing your support system. There are also support groups you can join where women share their struggles with postpartum anxiety, as well as tips to help. If nothing else, putting your fears and worries out there in front of the right people can be cathartic.
It may also help to turn a negative into a positive by viewing this difficult period of intense transformation and change as a time for self-exploration and -examination. Remind yourself as often as you can that it will end and there will be a light at the end of this dark and disturbing tunnel. We know it's hard. However, this can actually be a truly positive experience in the end. For some, dealing with postpartum anxiety has made them stronger by allowing them to become more deeply in touch with their own needs, values, and desires. It may not seem like it when you’re in the midst of it. But, trust us, it’s possible to turn this sour lemon into some pretty sweet lemonade.
Next: Take one less worry off your plate by being prepared. Never forget a thing with our diaper bag checklist. And, if one of your concerns is the amount your baby cries, sometimes the simplest answer is the right one. Learn how to tell the difference between colic and gas.