About 13% of new mothers suffer from postpartum anxiety, yet most people are not aware of the symptoms and most cases are ignored. In this article we explain what postpartum anxiety is, what the risk factors and symptoms are, and how to get treatment.
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The emotional and physical trauma of childbirth can, in some cases, trigger the onset of extreme anxiety. When your inner fears and worries can get the better of you. When they can get out of hand.
This is what medical professionals call postpartum anxiety.
But anxiety isn’t an all or nothing response. It is not black and white. It is continuum, a scale from low to high with every feeling in between.
All new mothers have fears, worries, concerns about the well-being of their baby. But at some point you might find yourself operating at the higher end of this anxiety scale. Behaving in a way where the feelings of anxiety are so great that they start to be detrimental to your health.
But because anxiety is a scale, it is sometimes difficult to determine when the anxiety has become “too much”. It is also why postpartum anxiety often goes by unnoticed which is why you may find yourself struggling alone, unaided. And sometimes with the additional heartache of accusations that you are just being a “neurotic” mum and that you should just “calm down” and “stop worrying so much”.
But you can’t. Your fear system is on hyperdrive. Your brain has become primed to only notice and remember the bad and fearful aspects of every experience, rather than the good and safe. And you are no longer experiencing the kind of worries which you can push to the back of your mind. The worries are uncontrollable. They are taking over. And you may need some kind of support or therapeutic intervention to help stabilize your thinking.
In addition, there are different types of anxiety. Different experiences. Sometimes you can have flashbacks, sometimes panic attacks, sometimes compulsive behaviours, or sometimes periods of intense worry, irritability and restlessness. Assessments by a medical professional involve the use of specific questioning to help them measure the anxious feelings in an objective, controlled fashion, and to work out what are the next steps to take on a case by case basis.
Although there is only limited research on the prevalence of postpartum anxiety, some scientists estimate that anxious feelings reach this high “out of control” level in about 6-8% of births. It is also much more prevalent in people who have shown symptoms of high-anxiety in the past (estimated to be about 5-10% of the global population). And it is these individuals who are particularly “vulnerable” to postpartum anxiety and who will be especially sensitive to the following risk factors:
From a medical perspective, there are a specific set of standardized behaviours which you have to display to be classed as having anxiety from a medical perspective. The particular array of behaviours depend on the particular form(s) of anxiety that you might experience. Although many of the symptoms may be “typical” of motherhood, it is the frequency, duration or strength of these feelings that determines whether you have postpartum anxiety.
One of the difficulties with postpartum anxiety is knowing whether your anxious thoughts are “normal”. How do you know that the anxiety you are feeling is greater or different from other moms?
Talking to other moms within your safe social circle of friends and family can sometimes help you answer this question to some degree. Sharing experiences and feelings. Opening up and describing the kind of thoughts you have. And finding out more about their own feelings. Whether they are the same as yours.
But is not always easy to talk about these kinds of thoughts and feelings even with close family and friends. And even if you do open up, not everyone will feel comfortable doing the same. It takes real bravery to talk about your fears. True courage.
And this is why you might turn to your midwife, health advisor or a medical professional to listen to you.
Don’t be afraid to do so.
One of the characteristics of postpartum anxiety (unlike postpartum psychosis) is that moms usually have a good awareness of their worries, obsessions, panic episodes and so being honest about the full extent of your symptoms will help them make an accurate assessment of your mental state, and get you the help and support you might need.
If you think that someone you know might be suffering from postpartum anxiety then what they may need most is encouragement, courage, to speak up. To talk to someone about it. And ideally to a medical professional.
It is good to remember that this person is in an anxious state of mind, where their fear response is hyperactive, so even considering seeking help may create extra worries, making the decision to do so even more difficult. Fears such as being thought of as a neurotic mum who over-worries may stop people talking to a medical professional because of the fear that their concerns may be ridiculed or dismissed.
Listen to them. Encourage them to be open and honest about their experiences and feelings. Acknowledge them as real. Show them that you care. As the saying goes, love conquers fear.
All these things may help them overcome the anxiety of speaking to their midwife or doctor – something you can try and encourage them to do. Because only by seeking help, can they start to receive the necessary therapeutic support they need to become better at controlling, and overcoming, their inner anxieties.
The particular type of treatment that you may receive depends on the particular symptoms that you display. There are a few different options which may be offered to you.
The experience of postpartum anxiety can become an imagined barrier which makes you fearful of having another baby.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Anxiety is something that is well understood in the medical world and the non-invasive treatment options are readily available.
The key is starting to prepare early. During your pregnancy before the baby even arrives.
By talking honestly to your midwife about your previous postnatal experiences, they can work with you to put together a plan which means that you receive the support you need. As anxiety sometimes even starts to arise even before childbirth, it is important to start this process as early as possible.
And although these preparations won’t necessarily stop the anxiety returning next time, it can provide some much-needed comfort and reassurance to know that the support is right there, if or when the fear get too much.
Anxiety Disorders During Pregnancy and the Postpartum Period by Lori Ross, & Linda McLean, (2006). The Journal Of Clinical Psychiatry, 67(08), 1285-1298.