Recognizing signs of postpartum anxiety


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What exactly is postpartum anxiety?

If you recently gave birth, postpartum anxiety can occur alongside depression or distinctly from it. For many women, the abrupt decrease in estrogen and progesterone at the time of delivery can lead to a greater sensitivity to stress, causing some to feel overwhelmed, fearful or panicky. Sleep deprivation from newborn care can also contribute to these feelings. In addition, especially for first-time mothers, the responsibility of caring for a newborn and the feelings of wanting to protect and keep the baby safe can be incredibly overwhelming.

What are the common signs to look for?

Women will often feel as if they can’t relax, or might feel distracted by a constant sense of worry or dread that something bad will happen. Worries might get in the way of sleep, or could cause a decreased appetite. Some mothers might have trouble sitting still, or will experience symptoms such as dizziness or nausea.

Oftentimes, postpartum anxiety can take the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Obsessions can present as persistent, intrusive thoughts bringing along repetitive references or mental images related to the baby. These can be incredibly upsetting. Compulsions are actions performed over and over again to reduce fears. These could involve constant cleaning, checking things, counting and reordering objects. Postpartum OCD usually brings a feeling of horror about the obsessions, fears of being alone with the baby and a strong desire to protect the infant. New mothers with postpartum OCD recognize their thoughts are bizarre and would never act on them, but might feel shame or discomfort when it comes to sharing these experiences with their doctor or loved ones.

What do treatment options look like?

Treatment for women experiencing postpartum anxiety usually starts with increasing support and amount of sleep. Often, handing off the baby to a partner or family member for a break from feeding can be a big help, even if it’s only for 30 minutes or an hour. In addition, new mothers groups are usually helpful in decreasing isolation and providing relevant support. Once mothers recover physically from childbirth, exercise and outdoor activity can be helpful in decreasing anxiety. To start, try a daily walk outside or yoga class. Individual psychotherapy can be used to help target and challenge the anxious thoughts and cycles women can get into.

There are many meditation apps available for self-guided relaxation and meditation exercises. I often recommend Headspace to my patients.

If anxiety continues to worsen, causes a lot of distress, impacts relationships or halts your ability to enjoy life with your baby, medication can be a safe option. These medications are usually prescribed for a particular time period and tapered off as recovery progresses.

What services are available at The Women’s Place?

The Women’s Place at Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women offers psychiatric consultation and treatment plans to help you and your family deal with a variety of disorders at any phase of the reproductive cycle. We’re one of only a handful of programs in the nation dedicated to the care and treatment of women’s reproductive mental health.

Mood and anxiety disorders after pregnancy are the most common complications following delivery, more than infection and hemorrhage. We’re able to offer evaluations, individual psychotherapy, medication management, a new mother’s group and much more.

If you’re interested in learning more about The Women’s Place at Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women, click here