Media, culture, and basically everything else tell a new parent that the birth of a baby is a joyous occasion, but the reality is that having a baby isn’t easy on your body– or on your mental health. New moms often have to grapple with major mental health changes after giving birth. Postpartum anxiety, a lesser-known but equally impactful condition as postpartum depression, is a type of anxiety disorder that affects new mothers in the period after childbirth.
It’s completely normal to experience a range of emotions as you adapt to life with the new baby, including anxiety. Postpartum anxiety, however, goes beyond the usual worries and anxieties associated with parenting. It can be a debilitating condition that demands recognition and support. But many medical practitioners miss it entirely. Why is this? Today, we’ll explore the signs of postpartum anxiety, why it’s so frequently overlooked, and what can be done to help you through it.
The Signs of Postpartum Anxiety
Postpartum anxiety shares many symptoms with other types of anxiety. One of the primary signs of postpartum anxiety is persistent and overwhelming worry. You may experience excessive fear and concern about the health and safety of your baby, yourself, or their ability to care for your child. These worries can become all-consuming and lead to a constant state of unease. This can escalate into hypervigilance, where parents with postpartum anxiety become hyper-alert and hypervigilant, constantly scanning their environment for potential threats. This heightened state of vigilance can be exhausting and contribute to their overall anxiety levels.
Postpartum anxiety can manifest with physical symptoms such as muscle tension, restlessness, headaches, and digestive issues. Some parents may experience panic attacks, which can include shortness of breath, racing heart, and trembling. Additional physical symptoms can include dizziness, hot flashes, or a feeling of impending doom. These symptoms can be debilitating and frightening.
Sleep disturbances are common in postpartum anxiety. Even when the baby is sleeping, mothers with anxiety may find it difficult to relax and rest, as their minds are filled with worry and racing thoughts. Sleep deprivation has numerous negative effects on physical and mental health, and can lead to further emotional instability. Mothers experiencing postpartum anxiety may become excessively irritable or agitated. They may have a reduced tolerance for stress and frustration, which can strain relationships with their partners, family, and friends.
There are other serious signs of postpartum anxiety. Some mothers with postpartum anxiety may start to avoid situations that trigger their anxiety. This can include avoiding leaving the house, refusing help from others, or even avoiding interactions with the baby out of fear that something bad might happen. Intrusive thoughts are another hallmark of postpartum anxiety. Mothers may experience distressing and unwanted thoughts of harm coming to their baby or themselves. These thoughts are distressing and frightening but are not indicative of a desire to harm anyone– but it can be hard for someone experiencing postpartum anxiety to rationalize these thoughts.
Why Is Postpartum Anxiety Missed?
Postpartum anxiety is a complex and often elusive condition to diagnose for several reasons, making it challenging for healthcare providers to identify and address promptly. This hidden struggle affects countless mothers, and understanding the obstacles to diagnosis is crucial for improving maternal mental health care.
The normalization of worry is a major influence in the underdiagnosis of postpartum anxiety. The transition to motherhood is inherently accompanied by heightened anxiety and worry, stemming from concerns about the newborn’s health, safety, and well-being. This natural anxiety can make it difficult to distinguish normal concerns from those indicative of postpartum anxiety. Many mothers and even healthcare providers may mistakenly perceive these worries as typical, potentially overlooking the presence of an anxiety disorder.
Additionally, postpartum anxiety often shares symptoms with other postpartum mood disorders, such as postpartum depression. Symptoms like irritability, sleep disturbances, and difficulty concentrating can be present in both conditions, leading to confusion in diagnosis. The co-occurrence of anxiety and depression in some cases further blurs the diagnostic lines. Combine this with a general lack of awareness and variability in presentation, and the challenges to establishing a standardized diagnostic framework become evident.
But not all of the factors are so clinical. One of the major reasons that postpartum anxiety is missed is the stigma and shame surrounding mental health issues. Mothers may fear judgment or the perception that they are not adequately coping with motherhood. This fear of stigma can discourage open communication with healthcare providers, making it less likely for mothers to seek help and discuss their symptoms honestly. Cultural norms and expectations surrounding motherhood can influence how postpartum anxiety is perceived and reported. Mothers often feel pressure and judgment, and admitting that things aren’t perfect can be terrifying.
Finally, postpartum anxiety doesn’t present the same way in every individual– and that also contributes to diagnostic challenges. Some parents may experience physical symptoms like panic attacks, while others may primarily have intrusive thoughts or obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Additionally, postpartum anxiety may not become apparent immediately after childbirth. Symptoms can develop gradually, sometimes several months postpartum, leading to delayed recognition and diagnosis. This delayed onset can further hinder access to timely treatment.
Treating Postpartum Anxiety
If you’re experiencing postpartum anxiety, you don’t have to go through it alone. Every person with postpartum anxiety is unique, so not all of these tips will work for everyone– but they’re a great place to start.
There are several therapy modalities that can help treat postpartum anxiety. Talk therapy is commonly used, as is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps mothers identify and challenge irrational or intrusive thoughts, manage stress, and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Therapy sessions provide a safe space for moms to explore their anxieties and develop strategies for emotional regulation.
Support groups for postpartum anxiety offer the opportunity to connect with others who share similar experiences. Sharing stories, challenges, and coping strategies in a supportive environment can help reduce feelings of isolation and provide valuable emotional support. These groups can be in-person or online, accommodating your needs and preferences.
Making positive lifestyle changes can also contribute to managing postpartum anxiety. These may include prioritizing self-care, ensuring adequate sleep, maintaining a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity, and reducing exposure to stressors. Partners and loved ones can play a crucial role in helping mothers implement these adjustments.
Breathing and Relaxation Techniques
Learning relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, and meditation, can be valuable tools in managing anxiety. These practices help mothers regain a sense of control over their thoughts and emotions, reducing the intensity of anxiety symptoms. A therapist can help guide you through these techniques, or you can look online for self-guided exercises.
Because postpartum anxiety isn’t as widely-known as postpartum depression, many mothers benefit from simply learning more about postpartum anxiety, its symptoms, and available treatment options. Online resources, books, and self-help materials can be highly empowering.
Partner and Family Support
The support and understanding of partners, family members, and close friends are integral to a mother’s recovery. A supportive environment can reduce stress and promote healing.
Whether you are currently experiencing feelings that you think may be postpartum anxiety, or your delivery date is coming up, and you are feeling anxious about how everything will be once you deliver, Love Heal Grow is here for you. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us to get in touch with one of our therapists today!