What to know about postpartum anxiety
Postpartum anxiety is when a person experiences excessive anxiety during the postpartum period, which is the period following childbirth. It can become so severe that it may interfere with a person’s ability to function in everyday tasks.
Many people know about postpartum depression, which is a type of depression that can occur after childbirth. Postpartum anxiety, or excessive anxiety that develops after childbirth, is less known or researched.
Keep reading to learn more about postpartum anxiety and how it differs from postpartum depression, including the symptoms, treatment options, and when to contact a doctor.
What is postpartum anxiety?
Anxiety is a mental health condition that leads to symptoms that may include worrying thoughts, tense feelings, and physical symptoms such as increases in blood pressure.
Postpartum anxiety refers to excessive anxiety during the postpartum period, which is the time following childbirth. This type of anxiety can become so severe it interferes with someone’s ability to function.
Anxiety disorders cause excessive anxiety for 6 months or more. That said, some researchers suggest that someone may have postpartum anxiety if they have symptoms for at least one month.
Researchers know a lot more about postpartum depression than postpartum anxiety, but according to a 2021 report, 11–21% of women living in the United States develop an anxiety disorder in the perinatal (during pregnancy) and postpartum period. In one 2018 study, 75% of women with postpartum anxiety also experienced symptoms of depression.
Though postpartum anxiety and postpartum depression are not the same, some estimates claim between 25–50% of people with anxiety disorders also develop postpartum depression in the 2 months following childbirth.
Learn more about postpartum depression here.
Everyone experiences anxiety differently.
But people with postpartum anxiety experience thoughts that are usually:
- irrational (not logical or realistic)
These uncontrollable, consuming thoughts tend to center on a few major areas of worry, such as:
- fears about the baby’s and one’s own health
- fears about a parent or partner becoming ill or dying
- a sense that something bad will happen
- irrational obsessions or fears
- blaming oneself excessively when something goes wrong or feeling excessively guilty
Postpartum anxiety can also cause physical symptoms, including:
- unexplained exhaustion
- trouble sleeping
- trouble concentrating
- increased irritability
- muscle tension
- feeling on-edge, restless, or wound-up
- a rapid heartbeat
- feeling panicky for no clear reason
Postpartum anxiety may make it harder for a person to bond with their baby. It may also negatively impact a baby’s mental and physical development. Left untreated, postpartum anxiety can also lead to serious negative consequences such as infant neglect and, in extreme cases, infant death.
The treatment options for postpartum anxiety are usually similar to those used for other types of anxiety disorders.
Common treatments include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Short-term talking therapy with a mental health professional to learn ways to change anxiety-producing thought patterns.
- Stress-reduction methods: Practices that can reduce or help manage stress, such as relaxation techniques, mindfulness, yoga, and meditation.
- Aromatherapy: Breathing in calming or soothing essential oils may help reduce or manage stress and anxiety, in particular lavender or bitter orange. People who are breastfeeding should not apply essential oils to their skin because they can enter the bloodstream and cross over into breast milk.
- Antidepressant medications: Medications such as selective serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors, SSRIs and SNRIs, which increase levels of mood-stabilizing brain chemicals.
- Antianxiety medications: Medications that work to reduce anxiety, such as benzodiazepines.
Most antidepressant and antianxiety medications are only prescribed in cases of moderate to severe postpartum anxiety because they can cause side effects. They can also cross over from the bloodstream into breast milk and potentially harm a child who is breastfed.
Safe disposal of medication
Inappropriately discarded drugs can harm people, animals, and the environment. It is essential to dispose of any unwanted medication safely. Read our guide on medication disposal here.
Some factors that increase the risk of developing postpartum anxiety are not preventable, such as having other anxiety disorders, depression, or the “baby blues.” The baby blues are an extremely common, short-lived condition. They tend to cause symptoms such as random crying spells, restlessness, and irritability for a week or two after childbirth. People who have other mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, should seek treatment as early on in their pregnancy as possible. This could help prevent the development of postpartum anxiety and depression later on.
That said, a few of the other risk factors potentially linked with postpartum anxiety may be preventable to some extent.
Potential risk factors of postpartum anxiety include:
- experiencing many stressful life events or a lot of stress during pregnancy
- low levels of social support
- problems adjusting to life/relationships after childbirth
- having previous unwanted pregnancies or surgical abortions
- taking certain approaches to cope with problems or major life changes
- increased fear of childbirth, and fear for the life of the fetus or oneself during delivery
- worry about lack of control during the labor process
- lack of confidence in one’s ability to handle delivery, or in the medical staff performing or assisting with the delivery
- increased worries about parenting skills or ability
- lack of sleep
- changes at work
Based on the risk factors listed above, tips for helping prevent postpartum anxiety include:
- managing or reducing stress during pregnancy and afterward
- building strong social support systems of friends and family
- learning ways to cope with stress and life changes
- talking to doctors and other medical staff that will be assisting with labor and delivery about ways to reduce concerns and gain more confidence and control
- getting enough sleep and exercise
When to contact a doctor
Almost all parents, and especially new parents, often experience anxiety. People with severe anxiety after childbirth should contact a doctor.
These following signs and symptoms may indicate that a person should seek medical help:
- symptoms that make it hard to do daily tasks or take care of and bond with a baby
- symptoms of postpartum depression
- worsening mental or physical symptoms
- thoughts of self-harm or harming a baby
Postpartum anxiety is a common but poorly understood medical condition that causes excessive, severe worry in the time following childbirth and in the years after.
Some studies suggest that people may be even more likely to develop postpartum anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
People experiencing postpartum anxiety or who think they are experiencing symptoms of it should talk with a doctor as soon as possible.
Treating postpartum anxiety and depression as early as possible reduces the risk of negative outcomes for people and their babies.