Postpartum Panic Disorder

The Basics of Postpartum Panic Disorder

Postpartum panic disorder is a condition that new mothers may experience during the months after giving birth. Unlike postpartum depression, postpartum panic disorder is a triggered condition that results in excessive worry, fear, and anxiety as opposed to depression and sadness.

Postpartum panic disorder can be crippling and detrimental to a woman’s health. Several treatment options are available to help women cope with their intense anxiety and panic attacks to restore peace and well-being in their lives.

What is Postpartum Panic Disorder?

Postpartum panic disorder is a type of postpartum anxiety disorder. It is a serious mental health condition that can damage your health and limit your daily functions. Unlike postpartum depression, postpartum panic disorder is characterized by symptoms of intense fear and worry that prevent the person from functioning. These anxious thoughts cause physical responses in the form of panic attacks.

Panic attacks may happen frequently or sporadically. Different triggers cause panic attacks to happen, but they center on thoughts and fears regarding the health or well-being of the baby.

Who Does Postpartum Panic Disorder Affect?

Studies reveal that between 4 and 10 percent of new mothers may develop postpartum panic disorder. However, like all forms of postpartum depression, postpartum panic disorder may be severely underdiagnosed and underreported.

Many women ignore or avoid their symptoms and therefore do not seek help or treatment. Additionally, many women who share their symptoms with loved ones are told that mothers are naturally nervous and not to worry. However, when panic attacks cause disruptive physiological, mental, and emotional distress, it is more than just nerves.

Postpartum Panic Disorder Causes and Risk Factors

There is no one specific cause of postpartum panic disorder. Instead, it is likely brought on by combinations of different risk factors and biological issues.

Typically, any form of postpartum depression is believed to be partially triggered by a drop in hormone levels. Hormone levels increase during pregnancy and after childbirth, the female body wants to decrease these levels. This can cause changes in moods and behaviors. If these mood changes are strong enough, they can cause emotional distress and anxiety.

The body produces natural responses to fear and distress. When fear and distress levels become too high, the body experiences a panic attack. If panic attacks happen frequently and impact your daily life, you may have undiagnosed postpartum panic disorder. Only a doctor or licensed mental health professional can diagnose you with any sort of postpartum condition.

Additionally, many new mothers worry extensively about their abilities and whether they can provide good care for their babies. If these feelings take hold, you may develop postpartum panic disorder.

Postpartum Panic Disorder Risk Factors

In addition to hormonal changes, women with the following history may be at risk of developing postpartum panic disorder:

  • Past experiences with anxiety
  • Previous panic disorder diagnosis
  • Thyroid dysfunction
  • A traumatic childbirth
  • Negative experiences during childbirth
  • Fatigue, lack of sleep and poor nutrition

Additionally, women who feel unsupported or struggling financially may also face higher anxiety levels when caring for a newborn.

Postpartum Panic Disorder Symptoms

Postpartum panic disorder symptoms typically begin within the first few days after childbirth. They may come on suddenly or they may gradually worsen over the first 12 months after giving birth.

Here are the main signs and symptoms of suffering from postpartum panic disorder:

  • Difficulty concentrating and remembering things
  • Trouble completing tasks fully
  • Being easily distracted
  • Indecisiveness
  • Inability to relax
  • Insomnia and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling uneasy for extended periods of time
  • Overwhelming and excessive anxiety, worry and fear
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Avoiding things out of fear or worry that something bad will happen
  • Agoraphobia – fear of being in open and public spaces
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Panic attacks

There are three distinct and common fears that women with postpartum panic disorder face:

  • Fear of death
  • Fear of having lost control
  • Fear of going crazy

When these fears consume your mind and debilitate you, they can trigger panic attacks which can occur more and more frequently.

Panic Attack Symptoms

Experiencing panic attacks is one of the main symptoms of postpartum panic disorder. Panic attacks come on suddenly and can last between 20 and 30 minutes. The intensity of a panic attack peaks after about 10 minutes with symptoms rarely lasting longer than an hour.

Here are the symptoms of a panic attack:

  • Inability to breathe or shortness of breath
  • Chest pain and tightening
  • Feeling like you’re being smothered or choked
  • Increased heart rate and palpitations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Hot flashes and chills
  • Shaking hands and body trembling
  • Numbness or tingling sensation in the extremities
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Feeling unsteady or like you will faint
  • Upset stomach and nausea
  • Feeling disconnected or detached from the world
  • A constant sense of danger or impending death

Not all symptoms will be present during a panic attack, as everyone tends to experience them differently. However, a minimum of four of these above symptoms will be present during a panic attack.

Postpartum Panic Disorder Treatment

There are different ways to treat postpartum panic disorder. Women must first address and acknowledge their symptoms, especially the ones causing physical health issues. Women experiencing intense anxiety and panic attacks should seek help from a mental health professional who can help explain the condition and teach coping skills through therapy sessions. By learning to manage the condition, women can understand what triggers their panic attacks and control them.

Postpartum panic disorder can also be treated by using prescription medications like Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). These antidepressants can take several weeks to begin working. In the meantime, if symptoms are severe enough, a physician or a psychiatrist may also prescribe anxiety relief medications like benzodiazepines to reduce anxiousness almost immediately.

With a combination of therapy and medication, women with postpartum panic disorder can recover through short-term and long-term approaches to treatment. Team
Reviewed by:Kimberly Langdon M.D.

Medical Editor

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kimberly Langdon is a Doctor of Medicine and graduated from The Ohio State University in 1991. She completed her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at The Ohio State University Hospitals, Department of OB/GYN. Board-Certified in 1997, she is now retired from clinical practice after a long and successful career. Currently, she is the Founder and Chief Medical Officer of a Medical Device Company that is introducing patented products to treat vaginal microbial infections without the need for drugs. She is an expert in Vaginal Infections, Menstrual disorders, Menopause, and Contraception.

Written by:

Jenna Carberg was diagnosed with postpartum depression following the birth of her daughter in 2016. It was a healthy birth but in the following days, Jenna's mood changed quickly. Doctors suggested that it might be the "baby blues", but her husband Chris suggested she seek a second opinion. Jenna was diagnosed with postpartum depression and began a journey that lasted 9 long months with significant ups and downs. Jenna's mental health care and her experiences became a passion for her to share with the world. She and her husband Chris founded as a support website designed to help women suffering in silence and their loved ones.

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