Written by Debra Alper
Ask any new mom to recall the first few weeks of motherhood, and her memories will likely be a mix of happiness and exhaustion, joy and tears. Much has been said about postpartum depression, and many moms know to expect that the early days after childbirth tend to be draining, both physically and emotionally. But what often goes undiscussed (and therefore undiagnosed) is postpartum anxiety. Though anxiety symptoms in the postpartum period have garnered less attention than their widely known counterpart, postpartum anxiety can be distressing and debilitating to the women who endure it. And there are many women who do – some studies have found as many as 17% of women experience postpartum anxiety, including obsessive-compulsive symptoms, in the first three months after giving birth.
So what does postpartum anxiety look like? Some moms report uncontrollable worries about their baby well being, and their own ability to be a good parent. Such worries may present themselves as distressing and intrusive thoughts, or the constant feeling that something bad is going to happen. Many also report feeling keyed up, edgy, and moody, and the experience of telltale physical symptoms of anxiety such as a racing heartbeat, muscle tension, stomach upset/nausea, and trouble sleeping. Some women also report obsessions (upsetting thoughts, images and impulses which cause distress), and start engaging in compulsions (rituatlistic behaviors to rid oneself of obsessions). While a modicum of increased anxious arousal may come from a natural and even healthy instinct to protect one’s new baby, post-partum anxiety disorders occur when worries and other symptoms are counter productive, irrational, and get in the way of one’s life.
Postpartum anxiety can strike any new mom, but those who have a personal or family history of anxiety or other mental health symptoms are particularly vulnerable to developing an anxiety disorder after giving birth. Researchers explain that the tremendous hormonal shift that occurs after birth, combined with the sleep deprivation and major lifestyle changes that accompany welcoming a new baby, contribute to the development of postpartum anxiety. While some may be inclined to ignore their symptoms, hoping they will pass on their own, help should be sought when one’s worries preclude normal routine functioning, and become a constant preoccupation. Left untreated, symptoms can worsen, making bonding with a new baby more difficult and one’s own self care terribly lacking.
Fortunately, treatment for postpartum anxiety disorder is often brief and very effective. Research supports CBT, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, as a first line defense. CBT is more than just calm reassurance or positive thinking. It involves psychoeducation about how anxiety symptoms develop, as well as learning to shift one’s thinking and behaviors to reduce the frequency and intensity of anxiety symptoms. Thus, when engaging in CBT with a trained therapist, patients learn to directly address the thoughts and behaviors that are contributing to, and perpetuating their anxiety. Using these newly learned skills, patients are able to quiet their worries and return to the important task of enjoying this wonderful time in their own, and their new family’s lives.