Understanding Postpartum Anxiety
Postpartum anxiety is a serious type of postpartum depression that can affect many new mothers. Often, mothers with postpartum depression will report symptoms of anxiety. However, postpartum anxiety itself is a different condition from depression though they are often confused, interchanged and even experienced together in the same case.
What is Postpartum Anxiety?
Postpartum anxiety is a mood disorder that affects women after giving birth. It is a clinically diagnosable level of anxiety. As opposed to postpartum depression which is primarily a depressive mood disorder, the primary symptoms of postpartum anxiety are characterized by intense worry, fear and anxiousness that severely disrupts daily life.
These fearful symptoms are produced by the body’s natural reaction to feeling unsafe or threatened whether real or perceived. For new mothers, anxiety is their physiological, mental and emotional reactions to concerns, fears and worries about being a new mother and the responsibilities this entails.
Interestingly, it is believed that in up to 50% of cases, postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety will occur together. This demonstrates just how broad the symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety are for many women after giving birth.
Who Does Postpartum Anxiety Affect?
Postpartum anxiety affects almost exclusively new mothers. Because it is lumped into postpartum depression reports, it is difficult to determine the exact rate of postpartum anxiety. Some medical professionals feel that it may be similar to rates of PPD – at about 10% of new mothers.
Postpartum Anxiety Causes and Risk Factors
Like postpartum depression in general, there is no one known cause of postpartum anxiety. Causes can stem from drastic hormonal changes to sleep deprivation to overwhelm with life-altering responsibilities that come with having a new baby.
Though it is very common for women to feel postpartum baby blues, it is not as common for these sad feelings to turn into full blown anxiety. When baby blues becomes an anxiety disorder there are a number of potential contributing risk factors.
Medical and Family History Risk Factors
A woman’s own personal health history, as well as the medical history of her family, can contribute to the possibility of developing postpartum anxiety. Here are some possible medical history risk factors:
- Past personal history of anxiety, postpartum anxiety or postpartum depression
- Having been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in the past
- A family history of anxiety, depression and postpartum anxiety or depression
- Other pre-existing medical conditions
Life Stressor Risk Factors
Chronic stress can cause people to develop anxiety disorders and this is no different for new moms. Here are some of the life stressors that can cause women to develop postpartum anxiety:
- Not having adequate social and family support
- Divorce or marriage problems
- Financial hardship
- Stressful life events over the last year such as job loss, grief, a health emergency or an accident
Other Risk Factors
In addition to medical history and stressful life events, there are also other demographic factors that can lead to a mother developing postpartum anxiety:
- Being unwed or single
- Being under 20
- An unplanned or unwanted pregnancy
- Low socioeconomic status
Postpartum Anxiety Symptoms
Not unlike anxiety faced at any other point in life, postpartum anxiety creates similar symptoms and signs in women. These symptoms manifest themselves physically, mentally and emotionally.
Here are the most common postpartum anxiety symptoms:
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Inability to sleep
- Muscle tension in the back, neck and shoulders
- Stomach ache
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Nervous thoughts that control your brain
- Recurring negative thoughts of worry and worst case scenarios, particularly involving the baby’s health
- Thoughts that you aren’t a good enough mother
- Deliberately avoiding situations and interactions out of fear that something bad will happen
- Feeling constant “nervous energy”
- Feeling on edge
- Guilt and shame that you are not doing things right
- Irritability and frustration
- Restlessness and tension
There are other behavioral symptoms of postpartum anxiety such as constantly seeking reassurance and approval from others. Mothers with postpartum anxiety may also be inclined to constantly double and triple check things out of fear of having missed something. This is usually out of irrational fears that the baby will be harmed or killed when there is no logical reason to think this.
Postpartum anxiety symptoms typically start for most women within 2-3 weeks after giving birth. Symptoms may start slowly and then gradually intensify several weeks after giving birth. Without treatment, symptoms of anxiety may never go away. Instead, they can transform and deepen into worse symptoms that lead to developing other anxiety disorders. These may include postpartum panic disorder, postpartum OCD, or even in some cases postpartum psychosis.
Often times we think of postpartum anxiety and depression symptoms starting after the mother has given birth. In reality, many women with postpartum anxiety experienced anxiousness and intense fear during pregnancy. This can go on for months before giving birth, however, it is often overlooked as nerves or anticipation.
It is important to know that if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms they shouldn’t be dismissed or diminished as simply being a “nervous mother”. You don’t have to suffer from these symptoms. Instead, you can overcome these symptoms through medication and therapy.
Postpartum Anxiety Treatment
There are different postpartum anxiety treatment options available. The choice of treatment depends on how mild or severe the anxiety symptoms are. If your quality of life is being affected by anxiety symptoms but you are still able to function in daily life then you may benefit from group therapy or support counseling.
If your postpartum anxiety symptoms are impacting your daily life such as feeling as though you can’t leave the house or drive your car, then individual psychotherapy is important to pursue. Psychotherapy can teach anxiety management skills as well as how to deal with any possible panic attacks that may arise.
In addition to therapy, medication is also an important treatment for managing anxiety symptoms. Medications such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines can work together to treat postpartum anxiety disorders both from a short and long-term approach.