Postpartum anxiety disorder can feel overwhelming and disorienting. It may be misunderstood as a form of “baby blues” or a general feeling of confusion due to the hormonal fluctuations surrounding birth. However, science suggests that this can be a disorder of its own that anyone may experience. The symptoms and duration of postpartum anxiety disorder can vary widely between individuals. Often, cognitive behavioral therapy is helpful as a form of treatment, and sessions can be attended in person or online. Other forms of support can include meditation, mindfulness, quality sleep, and progressive muscle relaxation.
What Is Postpartum Anxiety?
Postpartum anxiety disorder is not typically the same thing as the general nervousness that can accompany pregnancy and birth. Rather, it is usually classified as a psychological disorder that can manifest with both mental and physical symptoms. It may disrupt the lives of those who live with it if left unresolved or unacknowledged.
We do want to note that postpartum anxiety disorder may occur in either partner and may not be exclusive to any type of gender or identity.
Postpartum anxiety disorder can manifest after the birth of any child, whether that child is the parent’s first or one of many. It may occur separately or concurrently with postpartum depression.
Postpartum diagnoses usually have a unique presentation across every individual who lives with them. They can present with similar symptoms as one might expect to see with generalized anxiety disorder or PTSD, as well as other conditions like major depressive disorder and OCD.
Symptoms Of Postpartum Anxiety Disorder
Many may experience feelings of nervousness after the birth of a child. This is considered to be a significant life change for many and may require you to alter key regulatory processes, such as your sleep schedule and self-care routines.
As you navigate these changes, you may consider self-screening for symptoms of postpartum anxiety disorder. We do want to note that PPA symptoms can range on an individual basis, which can mean that you may have an experience that’s unique to you or unrelated to the symptoms on this list.
- Increased heart rate
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
- Tightness of the chest and throat
- Chest discomfort
- Muscle tension
- Shallow or irregular breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Heart palpitations
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Racing thoughts
- Excessive worry or feelings of doom
- Trouble concentrating or memory disturbances
- Feeling overwhelmed or hypervigilant
Those living with postpartum anxiety disorder may experience disruption in the quality of their daily life. Feelings of worry may be categorized as intense in many with the disorder, and these feelings may not resolve without therapeutic intervention. If you're concerned you may have postpartum anxiety disorder, speaking with your physician may be helpful in determining your next steps.
How Long Does Postpartum Anxiety Disorder Last?
Postpartum anxiety symptoms can start within the first four to six weeks after the child is born. However, in some cases, it can start before the child is born and last up to a year or more postpartum. Duration and overall experiences may vary by patient and may or may not be influenced by possible contributing factors.
We do want to address a common stigma behind postpartum anxiety disorders. Some may believe that postpartum mood disorders should be over by the baby's first birthday. However, literature shows that the time period for recovery may extend past this point. Embracing a more inclusive timeframe and understanding that variability can occur can lead to increased validation and support for those who currently live with PPA.
Possible Causes Of Postpartum Anxiety
Although there’s generally no single definitive cause of postpartum anxiety, there are likely several factors that can contribute to its development. These can include the following:
- Hormone fluctuations
- Sleep deprivation
- Relationship changes and strain
- Previous diagnoses of anxiety and depressive disorders
- Previous prenatal losses or miscarriages
- Societal expectations and social stressors around parenthood
- Family history of anxiety disorder diagnosis
While these may be possible contributing factors, there can be different causes that may contribute to the formation of postpartum anxiety, and it may manifest independently of environmental factors. Every patient's experience tends to be unique to them.
Treatment Options And Support For Postpartum Anxiety
Postpartum anxiety treatment from a licensed therapist can help those experiencing postpartum anxiety symptoms find relief more quickly. There may also be several scientifically supported methods of treatment that may give those living with PPA a higher quality of life.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy For Postpartum Anxiety
A scientifically supported treatment for postpartum anxiety can be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
According to the Association for Behavioral or Cognitive Therapies, CBT can be effective for many who are currently experiencing postpartum anxiety.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can be seen as a specific type of therapy that may focus on supporting patients throughout the process of reframing their thoughts and gaining emotional control. Many can use CBT as a resource to support them in experiencing different feelings around a life event, such as parenthood.
Your clinician may choose to help you identify thoughts that may be perpetuating your anxiety. Then, you might be asked to evaluate the thoughts to determine if they're helpful to you or your baby. If you decide that those thoughts are not helpful, your therapist can help you revise them. Once you've replaced the unhelpful thought with a healthier one, you can work on changing your behavior.
As your thoughts and behaviors change, your emotions can become less intense. CBT can provide more enhanced benefits when led by a licensed therapist.
Meditation And Mindfulness
Meditation and mindfulness can be effective ways to manage the symptoms of postpartum anxiety disorder in some. They usually call attention away from physical symptoms and redirect your energy to breathwork and balance between your mental and physical states.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that can relieve the tension in your body at any time, including during the postpartum period. One technique that has helped some starts with the person lying still on their back. They can then tense the muscles of their toes as tight as they can and hold the tension for several seconds. Next, they can then release the tension and let their toes hang loose. These steps can continue and be applied to each muscle group of the body.
Getting Enough Sleep
Getting enough sleep can promote enhanced control over your mental and physical health. However, this can be extremely difficult for a new parent due to the potential variation in sleep schedule. Looking for help falling and staying asleep? You may consider trying the suggestions below:
- Consider adjusting your sleep schedule so you can fall asleep at the same time every night (when possible).
- Try to sleep when you're sleepy rather than lying awake in bed when you're not. This can inadvertently cause anxiety and potentially avoidant behavior in some people.
- Consider engaging in routine tasks before bed to provide your brain with a foundational routine that can signal the end of your day.
- Consider avoiding or limiting caffeine and nicotine.
- Consider avoiding alcohol.
- Consider keeping work and other “daytime” activities away from your bedroom, as this may support your brain in associating the bedroom with restful sleep.
- Consider trying breathwork before you settle down for the night.
- Consider taking a hot bath an hour before sleep.
How Can Online Therapy Support Those With Postpartum Anxiety Disorder?
There can be many ways to treat postpartum anxiety disorder. Online therapy can be a helpful form of support for new parents who are looking for resources and extra help during this new season of life. Leaving home can be difficult with a little one, and visiting an unfamiliar or “clinical” setting can feel overwhelming. Online therapy can remove these barriers to support, potentially connecting you to a resource that you can leverage in the comfort of your own home without disturbing or altering the baby’s schedule.
Is Online Therapy Effective For Postpartum Anxiety Disorder?
While research is still being done regarding the implications and success of online therapy in new parents, a recent Canadian study suggested that the use of online CBT was generally associated with higher and more positive patient outcomes in the test group, reducing symptoms by an average of 6.24 points, nearly triple of what the control group attained. Online therapy platforms can facilitate connection with licensed mental health professionals from the comfort of your own home.
How long does anxiety last after having a baby?
The length of time postpartum anxiety lasts can vary. Some people may recover within a few months, while others may have symptoms for a year or more. The timeline for recovery can depend on factors like treatment, parenting support, and the person’s unique situation.
What can postpartum anxiety lead to?
Postpartum anxiety can have a range of short- and long-term effects, such as:
- More severe anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Trouble breastfeeding
- Challenges in relationships
- Trouble bonding with the new baby
- Physical health effects, like high blood pressure
Left untreated, postpartum anxiety may also contribute to other affective disorders, like depression. That said, this can depend on the person.
What are the signs of postpartum anxiety?
The symptoms of postpartum anxiety can be different for different people. That said, some common signs may include:
- Excessive worry about what might happen
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Trouble concentrating
- Rapid breathing or a rapid heartbeat
- Racing thoughts
- Muscle tension
- Digestive issues
- Unexplained pains
It may be worth noting that although postpartum anxiety may share some of the same symptoms as postpartum depression, another mental illness, the two conditions do not always occur together.
How do doctors treat postpartum anxiety?
A doctor may recommend a variety of treatments for postpartum anxiety, such as:
Anti-anxiety medication: Medications used to treat anxiety in general may also work as postpartum anxiety medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are some of the most common. Depending on the situation, a doctor may also recommend other types of medication, like tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs).
Therapy: Therapy may also be a helpful treatment for postpartum anxiety. A doctor may recommend therapy either on its own or in addition to medication. Therapies commonly used for anxiety disorders include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
Lifestyle changes: A doctor might recommend lifestyle changes to ease some of the stress and anxiety parents may be feeling. These changes might include things like exercising regularly, practicing self-care, or getting outside support to help with daily tasks.
Can breastfeeding cause anxiety?
Breastfeeding can be a source of anxiety, especially for new parents. A separate condition, called D-MER, may also cause feelings of anxiety during breastfeeding.
That said, postpartum anxiety tends to be longer lasting, with a different set of causes. These may include:
- A personal or family history of postpartum anxiety, perinatal depression, or another pregnancy-related mood disorder
- A lack of support from one’s partner or family members
- Changes in hormone levels
- Not getting enough sleep
- A previous prenatal loss (also known as a miscarriage)
Other risk factors for postpartum anxiety may include having a past depression or anxiety diagnosis and having a history of eating disorders.
Can a baby sense their mom’s anxiety?
There is some research showing that babies may be able to pick up on their parents’ emotions. For example, in a 2014 study, researchers checked the vital signs of 69 mothers and their babies after the mothers were asked to do a stressful task. They found that the babies showed stress responses similar to their mothers’.
It may also be possible for babies to react to other emotional states, like anxiety, although more research may be needed.
How do you know if you are recovering from postpartum anxiety?
Postpartum anxiety, treated properly, can often be overcome. Signs that symptoms are improving may include:
- Improved sleeping and eating habits
- Less time spent worrying
- Fewer physical symptoms of anxiety
- Improved concentration
- Improved ability to cope with stress
It may be worth remembering that recovering from postpartum anxiety can be a process, and improvements may not come all at once.
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