Did you know postpartum anxiety is more common than postpartum depression? Let’s shed some light on this important issue and answer questions, including what postpartum anxiety looks like, how often it takes place and how a new mom can seek help.
Postpartum anxiety disorders like panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are as common as postpartum depression and even coincide with depression. A study in Pediatrics characterizes anxiety as excessive worry lasting for at least six months. Anxiety is accompanied by restlessness, fatigue, poor concentration, muscle tension and poor sleep.
The physical symptoms like disturbed sleep, palpitations, body aches, fatigue, numbness and tingling, and other symptoms like poor concentration, inability to make decisions, self-blame, and even suicidal thoughts. Maternal worry is focused on topics of motherhood and the baby.
Elena Ali, a registered nurse and doctoral candidate on the faculty of nursing at University of Calgary, Canada, shares, “The postnatal period is a demanding life stage, where concerns about the new infant are combined with new responsibilities, roles, sleep deprivation, and physical demands of breastfeeding and recovery from childbirth. Thus, the postnatal period can be a time for the development of exacerbation of anxiety symptoms.”
Who is at risk of experiencing postpartum anxiety, and what does it look like?
Women who have a history of anxiety also are at a greater risk of developing postpartum anxiety. Mothers who have postpartum anxiety experience obsessive worry about their baby getting sick or how much food and sleep the baby is getting.
Mothers experiencing postpartum depression worry constantly about something bad happening to the baby and check in on the baby ceaselessly. They also fear hurting their child to the point of avoiding potentially dangerous items like sharp objects or stairs.
Postpartum anxiety manifests as an inability for mothers to focus, irritability, and feeling agitated and unable to relax. Other symptoms include trouble sleeping and eating from troubling thoughts and decreased appetite. Physical symptoms also may include increased heart rate, dizziness, hot flashes, nausea, stomach aches, tightness in the chest and throat, and difficulty breathing.
How common is postpartum anxiety?
It’s common for women to feel overwhelmed by new responsibilities, roles and multiple demands. Ali wrote an article in the International Journal of Women’s Health stating postpartum anxiety is far more common than postpartum depression amongst new mothers, especially in the first days after childbirth. One study found many mothers display anxiety symptoms, but their symptoms did not cause significant life interference or distress; therefore did not meet the requirements for diagnosis.
Postpartum depression occurs in about 11 percent of mothers. However, Ali’s paper “Women’s experiences with postpartum anxiety disorders: a narrative literature review” cited studies which estimate the incidence of postpartum anxiety in the first 6 months after birth can range from 6.1 percent to 27.9 percent. Postpartum anxiety is associated with increased use of health care resources, like visits to the pediatrician’s office.
Alyssa Butler, mother of a 6-year-old and 4-year-old, says, “After my first child was born in 2011, I experienced postpartum anxiety. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in 2001, so I wasn’t surprised how I felt after having my first child.”
Butler experienced worry “about the baby, about chores around the house, about too many visitors.
“I was missing important doctors appointments because of being exhausted and frazzled,” she says. “This stressed me out even more. The first time I went out to a big gathering with my baby, I struggled with being in a big crowd because I was used to being alone all day with my precious tiny human. The thought of being around and making conversation with over 50 people was overwhelming. Also, I would get very anxious if I went out alone without the baby.”
Treating postpartum anxiety
Postpartum anxiety can be treated in a number of ways. For mothers with less severe symptoms, talking to a trusted friend or family member could help relieve symptoms.
Mild to moderate anxiety is characterized as experiencing a few symptoms, but still being able to function. In this case, emotional and practical support is in order, preferably through professional counseling sessions or psychological treatments.
Butler shares, “Before giving birth to my second child, I met with a mental health therapist to express all of my concerns and anxieties with my first baby, and was able to make a plan for my second baby. I learned to advocate for myself. I really learned part of my responsibilities as a mother is not only taking care of my baby, but taking care of myself, too.”
Connecting with a licensed mental health professional is the best form of treatment. If talk therapy does not provide relief, adding medication is another option.
It is important to treat postpartum anxiety. Ali notes, “Preoccupation with worries and symptoms of tension may make it difficult for mothers to relax and enjoy time with their newborns, and may interfere with parenting. Sensitive and responsive parenting is necessary to ensure optimal early brain development, but anxious mothers often engage in fewer close, sensitive, and warm interactions with their infants as compared to mothers without anxiety symptoms.”
As every parent knows, trying to manage the demands of a new baby is stressful, but postpartum anxiety makes new motherhood unnecessarily and extraordinarily more difficult.
The faster a new mother seeks help for anxiety, the faster the mother recovers and can take better care of herself and her baby.