What Is Postpartum Anxiety?
Postpartum depression gets all the fame but lurking in the shadows is a (not so) little thing called postpartum anxiety. In this post, we talk about what postpartum anxiety is, the symptoms you may experience, and treatment options.
You’ve survived 9 months of an expanding bump, made it through an exhausting labor and delivery, soaked in all the baby snuggles (and pokes and prods) while in the hospital, and are finally home with your squish in your arms only to feel...worried and on edge. You know everything is fine and that you should be feeling happy, but you can’t seem to shake off that uneasy feeling that something is going to go wrong.
You don’t feel sad or overwhelmed, so you’re pretty sure it isn’t the baby blues or postpartum depression.
So what is it?
You might be experiencing postpartum anxiety.
In this article:
- What is postpartum anxiety?
- Risk Factors for PPA
- What causes PPA?
- Is it normal to have anxiety after having a baby?
- Postpartum anxiety symptoms
- Dealing with postpartum anxiety
- Remedies for postpartum anxiety
- How long does postpartum anxiety last?
- Recovering from postpartum anxiety
- How to help someone with postpartum anxiety
What is postpartum anxiety?
Postpartum anxiety (PPA) is an all-consuming fear or worry that something is wrong or going to go wrong. PPA is the lesser-known cousin to postpartum depression but is just as common with around 10% of mama’s developing it, according to the American Pregnancy Association.
Postpartum anxiety is called the “hidden disorder” because of how intensely it is upstaged by postpartum depression and baby blues. While knowledge of PPD and baby blues is important, it’s also important to understand your risk for PPA and the symptoms associated with it.
While PPA is just now starting to take the spotlight in the world of research, some studies suggest that postpartum anxiety is more prevalent than postpartum depression.
Related post: What is Postpartum Depression?
Risk Factors for PPA
Knowing your risk for PPA is the first step in understanding the disorder and planning ahead by taking preventative measures.
Risk factors include:
- Personal history with anxiety
- Family history with anxiety
- Lack of social support (aka your tribe)
- Previous pregnancy or infant loss
- Becoming a teen parent
- Low socioeconomic status
- Stressful life events: loss of job, financial problems, illness
You should note that even if none of these risk factors apply to you, you could still develop PPA.
What causes PPA?
Elizabeth Fitelson, M.D., director of the Women's Program at the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, explains “there's a huge hormonal shift—estrogen and progesterone levels increase 10- to 100-fold during pregnancy, then fall to essentially zero within 24 hours of delivery."
On top of an intense hormonal shift, you are experiencing a lack of sleep, trying to find a new routine, managing your relationship, having a milk monster (even if they are the cutest milk monster ever) that’s fully dependent on you, and balancing societal expectations that you should “bounce back” and be happier than ever. It’s no wonder that so many mamas struggle during their postpartum period.
Is it normal to have anxiety after having a baby?
Experiencing worry after having your baby is completely normal - until it isn’t.
Every mama out there checks on their sleeping babe somewhat obsessively to make sure they’re still breathing (you know you’ve done it).
Every mama wonders if their babe is warm enough, cool enough, comfortable enough, fed enough. It’s your mama instincts in high gear - just a mama bear protecting your cub.
When these thoughts start to consume you and they’re all you can think about? Not normal.
According to the Mayo Clinic, 89% of parents experience racing thoughts at some point during postpartum - “What if the baby suffocates?” “What if the baby puts something in their mouth and chokes?” “What if I drop the baby while I’m holding her?” - but most parents are able to dismiss those thoughts and ultimately stop experiencing them.
When your worries become irrational and start to impact your daily life is when it becomes a concern.
For one Georgia mom, Emily, postpartum anxiety manifested itself in her daily life. “My toddler, baby, and I go to my mom’s every Tuesday for dinner. I would have to drive over a bridge to get to her house and would have a panic attack every time we crossed it because I didn’t know how to save them both if the bridge collapsed. It got so bad that I would dread having to go to that part of town and eventually started asking my mom to come to my house so I wouldn’t have to leave.”
Postpartum anxiety symptoms
Symptoms for PPA are similar to those of general anxiety disorder, these symptoms just tend to be more baby and postpartum focused.
- Constant worry
- The feeling that something is going to go wrong.
- Intrusive thoughts
- Inability to focus or sit still
- Racing thoughts
- Insomnia or difficulty falling asleep
- Panic or anxiety attacks
- Hot flashes
If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, don’t just deal with them. Untreated postpartum anxiety can lead to postpartum depression, lessened ability to breastfeed, and increased likelihood of anxiety in children.
These three mamas stepped up to share their experience with postpartum anxiety:
- Jill Krause, the owner of Baby Rabies and JillKrause.com, shares “I had these obsessive thoughts that centered around death. Me dying, my kids dying. My thoughts were always racing ... and I had so much anger. I was mad all the time.”
- Katie Kavulla says, “My anxiety level was overwhelming. I'd get hot and sweaty and irritable, and I turned into a late-night worrier. It was like there was a scrolling list of concerns going through my mind, and I had trouble sleeping. That wasn't like me.”
- Kate Daley writes, “For the first three weeks of my daughter’s life, I was scared of pretty much everything. The task of taking care of this small person completely overwhelmed me. How could I possibly keep her happy and healthy—and safe? I imagined all the countless things that could happen to her, the ones I could control and the far too many I couldn’t.”
Dealing with postpartum anxiety
Do you think you may be struggling with postpartum anxiety? You aren’t alone. Studies are showing that postpartum is way more common than we think - even more so than postpartum depression.
Being a mom is stressful, so managing your anxiety can seem exhausting and impossible. Keep in mind that these are temporary feelings. It may not seem like it now, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
So, what are some ways that you can manage your anxiety right now?
Glad you asked!
- Get off your phone.
When the world (and all of its answers) are at the end of your fingertips, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Looking up every symptom and possible outcome increases anxiety - not decreases it. So while you may think that looking up why your babe's nose is runny will help you feel better, the answers you get probably won’t.
Meditation has been scientifically proven to help manage symptoms of anxiety, tension headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep problems, high blood pressure, and so many more.
It also helps increase self-awareness, focus on the present (instead of the future), reduce negative emotions, and increase patience and tolerance.
Don’t know how to meditate? Check out this video for step-by-step instructions.
- Go for a walk.
Walking is a cure-all.
Overwhelmed? Frustrated? Stressed? Sad? Go for a walk.
30 minutes of walking increases your heart rate, releases tension, boosts your metabolism, decreases stress, helps you sleep better, and boosts your mood.
- Practice self-care
Taking some time to yourself to run errands, read a book, or get a massage can help tremendously. It’s easy to get lost in your role as a mother and forget who you were before, so practicing something you find relaxing can help relieve tension and stress you’ve been holding on to.
Remedies for postpartum anxiety
If you feel like you are struggling with postpartum anxiety, it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor and tell him your symptoms. He (or she) will ask you a few questions before your diagnosed, but once you are you will be able to come up with a treatment plan. Depending on the severity, you have a few options.
- Support group
Sometimes, talking to other moms about your struggles can be enough. Having someone who really gets what you’re going through and is going through it too provides comfort and helps that you can feel like you’re being understood and sympathized with.
- MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) is a community support group for women with infants, toddler, and older kids to connect. You can see if there is a group in your city
Or you can go grab a coffee or have a girl’s night with some mom friends and catch up and catch a break. You’d be surprised how far a little bit of connection with another mom can go.
Sometimes, turning to friends isn’t enough. Seeking professional help with someone who can help you manage your symptoms rather than sympathize with them might be the way to go.
Therapists can also help guide you in practicing mindfulness, relaxation exercises, and meditation.
If none of the above are helping, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications. If you’re breastfeeding, make sure to talk to your doctor about safe medications for you and your milk.
How long does postpartum anxiety last?
The time frame of having postpartum anxiety is different for everyone. For untreated PPA, it can last indefinitely.
The good news? Once you seek help to manage your symptoms, you can expect to feel better in (about) two weeks.
Recovering from postpartum anxiety
You did it. You gathered your courage and called your doctor, manage to get to your appointment, and got a diagnosis. You’ve discussed treatment options...now what?
The key to recovery is consistency.
If you choose to seek out support from friends or a support group, keep going to your coffee dates or meetings. Having that outlet and connection helps, even once you make it past your anxiety.
If you choose therapy, keep your appointments and make every effort to practice your management techniques daily.
If you choose medication, take it consistently. When you think you’re ready to wean from the medication, do so under the supervision of your doctor.
How to help someone with postpartum anxiety
Is someone you know suffering from postpartum anxiety? There are a few ways you can help.
- Be patient.
Being impatient with someone who suffers from anxiety will only make matters worse. Being patient and reassuring through their attacks will help them recover quicker.
- Tell them they’re doing a good job.
Every mama needs to hear they’re doing a good job. Mama’s with PPA usually feel like they’re failing or are a “bad mom”, so telling them they’re doing a good job may be the little bit of encouragement they need to make it through the day.
- Educate yourself.
Know the symptoms of postpartum anxiety, and learn meditation or yoga poses you can encourage them to do when they are having an attack.
- Help them help themselves.
If you think someone you love is suffering from PPA, encourage them to call their doctor and set up a treatment plan. This is the most effective way to help and you won’t regret it. Pinky swear.
Although postpartum anxiety is less talked about, that doesn’t mean it’s less common. It’s important to know you’re not alone in this struggle, and that there are people out there who want to help. Seeking help for your anxiety is the first step in being able to really enjoy your new role as a mom and really soak up all those sweet baby snuggles.
Mayo Clinic, Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress, September 2019.
National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, Women’s experiences with postpartum anxiety disorders: a narrative literature review, May 2018.
American Pregnancy Association, Do I Have A Form Of Postpartum Depression?, August 2015.
- Emily Rader