Postpartum Panic Disorder

The Basics of Postpartum Panic Disorder

Postpartum panic disorder is a condition that new mothers experience during the months following 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 cause serious symptoms that are detrimental to a woman’s health. There are several treatment options available to help women cope with their intense anxiety and panic attacks so that they can restore peace and wellbeing in their lives.

What is Postpartum Panic Disorder?

Postpartum panic disorder is one of the types of postpartum anxiety disorders. It is a serious mental health condition that can cause severe health issues and limitations in daily life. Unlike postpartum depression, postpartum panic disorder is characterized by primary symptoms that involve 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 they may happen sporadically. There are different triggers that cause the panic attacks to happen and these all center around thoughts and fears regarding the health and wellbeing of the baby.

Who Does Postpartum Panic Disorder Affect?

Different studies have put the recorded rate of postpartum panic disorder in new mothers at between 4% and 10%. However, like all forms of postpartum depression, postpartum panic disorder is potentially 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 nerves turn into panic and cause severe physiological, mental and emotional symptoms that affect the person’s quality of life, 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 a possible combination of different risk factors and biological causes.

Generally, any form of postpartum depression is believed to be partially triggered by a drastic drop in hormone levels. After childbirth, the female body is attempting to balance out hormones which can cause changes in moods and behaviors. If mood changes are significant enough it can cause emotional distress which creates intense symptoms of anxiety.

The body produces a natural physical response to fear and distress. When the fear and distress levels become too high, the body experiences a panic attack. When these panic attacks occur multiple times and impact daily life, it can reach a diagnosable level which results in becoming diagnosed with postpartum panic disorder.

Additionally, many new mothers worry extensively about their abilities as a mother and whether or not they can provide adequate care for their baby. If these feelings take hold, it can quickly turn into postpartum panic disorder with serious symptoms.

Postpartum Panic Disorder Risk Factors

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

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

Additionally, women who feel unsupported or who are struggling financially may also face higher levels of anxiety when it comes to 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 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 take over the majority of thoughts and become debilitating, 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 of 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
  • Stomach upset and nausea
  • Feeling disconnected or detached from the world
  • Constant sense of danger or impending death

Not all symptoms will be present during a panic attack as everyone tends to experience them a little differently. However, a minimum of 4 of these above symptoms will be present during a panic attack.

Postpartum Panic Disorder Treatment

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

Postpartum panic disorder can also be treated using medication such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) – a prescription antidepressant. These medications 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 in the form of benzodiazepines which help reduce anxiousness almost immediately.

With a combination of therapy and medication, women with postpartum panic disorder can reach recovery through both a short and long-term approach to treatment.