Postpartum Anxiety: Possible Causes, Symptoms and Support Methods

Updated December 26, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Living With Postpartum Anxiety Disorder?

Postpartum anxiety disorder can feel completely overwhelming and disorienting. It can be misunderstood as a form of “baby blues” for some, or a general feeling of confusion due to the hormonal fluctuations surrounding birth. However, science suggests that this is a disorder of its own, and completely separate from either of the former options. Understanding this vital difference may help others feel more validated in their experiences and can result in a more supportive general environment and culture for new or expecting mothers. 

Below, we’re exploring what postpartum anxiety disorder (PPA) is, possible symptoms and causes of the condition, and supportive strategies that may be helpful for those experiencing postpartum anxiety disorder. We'll also be reviewing the scientifically supported role that therapy can play in the care experience of someone with this diagnosis.  

What Is Postpartum Anxiety?

Postpartum anxiety disorder is not the same thing as general nervousness that can accompany a pregnancy and birth. Rather, it is a psychological disorder that can manifest in 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 is not 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 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: such as major depressive disorder or OCD. 

Symptoms Of Postpartum Anxiety Disorder

Many may experience feelings of nervousness after the birth of a child. It 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 means that you may have an experience that’s unique to you or unrelated to the symptoms on this list. 

The common signs of postpartum anxiety symptoms include:

  • 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 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 step.

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 no single definitive cause of postpartum anxiety, there are several factors that can contribute to its development. These can include:

  • 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 are possible contributing factors, we do want to note that there can be different causes that may contribute to the formation of postpartum anxiety, and that it may manifest completely independently of environmental factors. Every patient's experience is unique to them.

Treatment Options And Support For Postpartum Anxiety 

Postpartum anxiety treatment from a licensed counselor can help those experiencing postpartum anxiety symptoms find relief more quickly. There are also several scientifically supported methods of support 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 is a specific type of counseling that may focus on supporting patients throughout the process of reframing and 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 can 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 the thought. Once you've replaced the past thought with a new 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 benefit when led by a licensed counselor. 

Living With Postpartum Anxiety Disorder?

Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness can be an effective way to manage the symptoms of postpartum anxiety disorder in some, calling attention away from physical symptoms and redirecting energy to breath work and balance of both mental and physical states. 

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that can help 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 choose to 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. 

Steps can continue and be applied to each muscle group of the body.

Getting Enough Sleep

Getting enough sleep can promote enhanced control for both your mental and physical health. However, this can be extremely difficult for a new parent due to the potential difference and variation in sleep schedules. Looking for help falling and staying asleep? You may consider trying the suggestions below:

  • Consider adjusting your sleep schedule, falling 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 cause anxiety in some inadvertently, as well as potentially avoidant behavior.

  • Consider engaging in routine tasks before bed to provide your brain with a foundational routine, signaling 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 breath work 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 are 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 the home can be difficult with a little one, and going out at all to an unfamiliar or “clinical” setting can feel overwhelming. Online therapy can help remove these barriers to support, 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?

If you're considering therapy to address the symptoms of postpartum anxiety disorder, you may be wondering: Is online therapy effective for the symptoms of 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 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. BetterHelp facilitates connection with licensed mental health professionals from the comfort of your own home.

Takeaway 

The effects of postpartum anxiety disorder can be disruptive for new parents during and after the postpartum period. Any person, across gender or identity, can experience this type of mental disorder. However, online therapy, as well as other supportive therapies, have been suggested to be clinically effective in symptom mitigation and to enhance one’s quality of life. BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed therapist who may be able to help you find new or more effective ways to live with postpartum anxiety disorder. 

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