As a new mother, it's normal to feel overwhelmed with feelings — like tons of feelings. We're talking a 60-foot-tall-rogue-wave-roller-coaster of emotions that include everything from love and joy to fatigue and moodiness.
Combine the hormonal fluctuations that happen during the postpartum period with the stress of having a new child, and there's just no way around it — new moms are bound to be anxious.
However, severe and persistent anxiety may go beyond normal parental worry. If you're feeling drained by constant high anxiety levels without any relief, you could be suffering from a condition known as postpartum anxiety. If left unaddressed, your mental health and relationships could suffer.
Don't panic, though — by educating yourself about the problem, you can work with your health provider and loved ones to regain control of your life.
What is postpartum anxiety?
Postpartum anxiety (PPA) is characterized by an acute sense of dread, anxiety, and worry following childbirth. It can be debilitating for women and new families, though it often goes undiagnosed and untreated.
Postpartum anxiety is more intense and longer-lasting than the baby blues — common feelings of sadness, worry, and exhaustion that many women experience after having a baby.
It's also different from postpartum depression, a condition characterized by intense bouts of sadness, low energy, and intrusive thoughts. While postpartum anxiety shares some of the same symptoms as postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety is specifically characterized by feelings of nervousness or edginess rather than sadness or hopelessness. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for women to experience both simultaneously.
Some women are at a higher risk for postpartum anxiety than others. Women who suffered from anxiety before pregnancy are at increased risk for postpartum anxiety. Women with a history of an eating disorder, a mood disorder, or miscarriage are also at a higher risk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, postpartum anxiety occurs in up to 20% of postpartum women in the United States. It can cause physical symptoms and mental and emotional symptoms that negatively affect you and your relationships.
Physical Symptoms of Postpartum Anxiety
Anxiety often manifests itself through your body's physical response to stress. Symptoms can include —
Shortness of breath
Chest pain or racing heart
If you begin to experience physical symptoms of postpartum anxiety, it's a good indication that you should consider medical intervention.
Mental and Emotional Symptoms of Postpartum Anxiety
It can be harder to differentiate between the "normal" anxiety that you may feel as a new parent from the heightened state of fear that accompanies postpartum anxiety. Many women with postpartum anxiety experience some or all of the following symptoms —
Constant worry that doesn't go away
Feelings of dread
Intense fear of death (for you or your baby)
Inability to enjoy motherhood or your baby
Loss of interest in hobbies, activities, and people you used to enjoy
Postpartum anxiety becomes a problem when it's severe and persistent and interferes with your ability to function in daily life. If you're struggling to take care of yourself or your family, if you're not able to work or complete other essential tasks, it may be time to seek help from your mental health provider to feel like yourself again.
What kinds of postpartum anxiety are there?
Postpartum anxiety may manifest in varying degrees of severity. For some people, the symptoms align more closely with generalized anxiety disorder. Others may experience a different or more extreme form of PPA.
Postpartum Panic Disorder
Postpartum panic disorder is a more severe form of postpartum anxiety. In postpartum panic disorder, feelings of anxiousness and worry become so overwhelming that they trigger panic attacks.
Panic attacks are short episodes of severe anxiety and are often accompanied by a profound fear of death or the sense of having "lost control." Postpartum panic disorder can make it hard to care for your baby and yourself.
Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Postpartum OCD is another form of PPA in which intrusive, unwanted, and often disturbing thoughts (obsessions) lead to compulsions. These repetitive behaviors are done to ease the anxiety caused by obsessive thoughts.
For example, a new mother with Postpartum OCD might have frequent intrusive thoughts about harming her baby, even though she wouldn't act on these thoughts. In response, she may compulsively wash her hands or avoid being around sharp objects. Postpartum OCD can be extremely distressing, especially since many mothers worry that others will judge them for their uncontrollable thoughts.
Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
While Postpartum PTSD is less common than other forms of PPA, it does occur in about 9% of postpartum women. Postpartum PTSD can develop after a traumatic birth experience or in response to a previous trauma triggered by the stress of new motherhood. Symptoms of Postpartum PTSD can include —
Difficulty bonding with your baby
Exaggerated startle response
Postpartum PTSD can be incredibly isolating, so it's vital to seek professional help if you think you might be struggling with this form of PPA.
How does postpartum anxiety affect your relationships?
Postpartum anxiety can strain all your relationships — with your partner, family, friends, and even your relationship with your baby. Even mild forms of postpartum anxiety can place undue stress on a relationship.
Bonding with your baby
The relationship between mother and child exists in a delicate feedback loop. For example, if mom experiences a heightened state of anxiety, baby likely feels the effects of that anxiety, too.
Even newborn babies are attuned to our moods and states of mind. This is especially true for nursing babies, as stress produces elevated cortisol levels and other stress-related hormones.
Connecting with your partner
Your partner is also likely to feel the effects of your postpartum anxiety. Unfortunately, postpartum anxiety can strain even the strongest of relationships. The demands of new parenthood are immense, and when you're struggling with anxiety, it's easy to withdraw from your partner both physically and emotionally.
It's essential to communicate with your partner about how postpartum anxiety affects you and your relationship. Postpartum anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of, and seeking help is a strength, not a weakness.
How do you overcome postpartum anxiety?
If you're struggling with postpartum anxiety, know that you're not alone — and that there is hope. The good news is that postpartum anxiety is temporary and typically responds well to treatment. In addition, some of your stress will likely subside as your hormone levels balance out as you begin to settle into your new routine.
However, you shouldn't wait to take control of your postpartum anxiety. Here are the ways to overcome PPA fast.
Seek Professional Help
Your first step should be to speak with your doctor about what you're experiencing. Only professionals can help you determine if the issue is baby blues, postpartum depression, or postpartum anxiety.
Your doctor can also help you find the resources and support you need.
Your doctor may recommend things like acupuncture, medication, or supplements to help ease your anxiety. In addition, your doctor might refer you to a psychiatrist for cognitive behavioral therapy for more severe cases. CBT can help you develop healthier thought patterns and overcome anxious or obsessive thoughts.
You may also pursue acceptance and commitment therapy, a practice rooted in the idea that your feelings are valid but don't have to dictate your behavior or prevent you from thriving.
Adopt Healthy Habits
Though it can be challenging to entertain the idea of exercise when you're sleep-deprived and recovering from childbirth, exercise is an integral part of perinatal care. Even a short daily walk can boost your mood, calm your nerves, and improve your sleep patterns.
Adopting a mindfulness practice is another way to ease postpartum anxiety. Mindfulness practices like mediation can help you learn to focus your thoughts and be more present in the moment. Meditation isn't as easy as it looks, but research has found meditation highly effective in managing stress, anxiety, and insomnia.
Journaling can help, too. Those first few months of your baby's life will someday seem like a blur, so keeping a journal can be a nice keepsake for a new parent. More importantly, journaling is a great way to spill your thoughts and channel your emotions. When you write your feelings out, you can often recognize your thought patterns as helpful or hurtful. Keeping a journal is an excellent way to track your mood and progress throughout your postpartum journey.
Postpartum anxiety often goes undiagnosed, and it can have severe and lasting effects on new families. Always be transparent with your partner, healthcare provider, and support system about what you're experiencing.
Remember that you are not alone. If you feel that postpartum anxiety has placed a tremendous strain on your mental health or relationship, you may benefit from therapy. Great Lakes Counseling Group works with individuals and couples experiencing significant life events, such as childbirth, to help you reclaim control over your happiness and wellbeing.
Call 833-934-3573 for your free, no-obligation consultation. Or, click below to schedule your first appointment.