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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
New mothers have a lot to contend with. From the struggles of a newborn’s sleep schedule to ever-changing recommendations for things like naps and feeding, there’s not much going on that isn’t a potential source of worry. It’s enough to cause symptoms of new-mom panic, also known as postpartum anxiety.
If you’ve been feeling anxious your first days, weeks or months into parenthood, you’re not alone. Most moms occasionally worry whether they’re making the right decisions and providing the best life for their babies in the most formative months. This is normal — and it’s not postpartum anxiety.
Postpartum anxiety is what happens when those anxious feelings become a problem — when they affect your ability to function normally. Not sure whether that applies to you? This is understandably a confusing time.
Whether you’re worried you might be struggling with postpartum anxiety or fairly certain it’s happening to you, you probably have questions. Let’s get you the answers you need, starting with some basics.
Signs of postpartum anxiety include many of the same symptoms of anxiety experienced by non-mothers. But in postnatal anxiety, common signs can include intense fear, irrational fear, increased heart rate and chest palpitations during the second half of the perinatal period.
We should note all moms become anxious at some point, whether it’s the uncertainty of feeding a baby or another sleepless, crying-filled night. There are plenty of instances when worry is a natural response to a given situation. But worry is different from anxiety.
When worried feelings about a particular concern turn into anxious feelings about many things, and when those anxious feelings start to affect your ability to function normally, you’re looking at a disorder.
If you feel like virtually every mom could qualify for this anxiety diagnosis, you’re not as far off as you think. It turns out postpartum anxiety is relatively common — research shows as many as one in five new mothers experience it.
There’s no specific screening for postpartum anxiety at the moment. Unfortunately, this means many healthcare professionals have neither the tools nor guidance to look for and diagnose postpartum anxiety.
That may be slowly changing. But for the time being, if you suspect you’re suffering from postpartum anxiety, it’s on you to bring it up with a healthcare provider.
There are two ways to consider how long this condition will last.
The first is to look at the big picture. Postpartum anxiety can morph into generalized anxiety disorder or another mental health condition after you leave the postpartum period (which is technically just six to eight weeks long).
So unfortunately, postpartum anxiety could, in theory, be a lifelong condition. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be, and you can reduce your chances of living with anxiety forever by seeking early treatment.
As for the onset, postpartum anxiety can start at any time, from the moment of birth to several weeks after. As noted, anything after eight weeks may not be technically postpartum depression. But for treatment purposes, any “new” anxiety that appears up to 12 months after giving birth will probably be considered postpartum — at least initially.
Of course, this is assuming you have anxiety 12 months after giving birth. There are a number of preventative measures you can take to lower (but not entirely eliminate) the risk of postpartum anxiety.
Let’s look at what these are and how they might be employed before and after giving birth.
You can’t really “prevent” any type of anxiety disorder, whether it be postpartum panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.
What you can do is address your existing risk factors. By minimizing potential risks, you can reduce your chance of later being stricken with one of these mental health disorders.
There are many factors to consider in your risk assessment for anxiety. This includes your family history of anxiety and other mental disorders, how you dealt with unfamiliar situations as a child, and the stress and negative life events you’re currently experiencing or previously experienced.
Anxiety can also be caused by physical conditions and illnesses, as well as certain postpartum anxiety medications and substances like caffeine or illicit drugs. We’re not trying to cramp your style, of course, but frequent partying and daily lattes could be making you more anxious.
The same factors play a role in postpartum anxiety, especially if your pregnancy or childbirth qualified as a medical incident, injury or illness.
If this sounds like it might describe you, talking to someone is the best way to deal with the potential threat of looming anxiety. It’s also the best way to access the right treatments for your needs.
There are a few ways to approach treatment for postpartum anxiety. Generally, medication is not the best idea, as many prescription drugs haven’t been thoroughly investigated for their long-term effects on infants and newborns.
Because medication can pass from mother to child through breastfeeding, it’s generally agreed that antidepressant medication during breastfeeding should only be used in circumstances when the unmedicated mother’s potential risks outweigh the risks of the medication itself.
One medication-based way to treat postpartum anxiety is lorazepam: a type of sedative called a benzodiazepine. Maternal levels of lorazepam at typical dosages haven’t been shown to cause any adverse effects in breastfed infants.
This is crucial, given that lorazepam doesn’t cause the typical sedation effect in infants (let alone the potential side effects of other medications).
But we should note lorazepam is not a great long-term solution for anxiety because sedatives (and lorazepam, in particular) can become highly addictive over time. So if you’re trying to pick an ongoing treatment, you may want to talk to a healthcare provider about other options.
Those other options often include lifestyle changes. In addition to knocking out the caffeine we mentioned earlier, you can reduce your risk of anxiety by eating and sleeping well, getting some exercise and prioritizing social time.
You can also treat anxiety with therapy. Both cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy are considered ideal avenues for new moms struggling with mental health issues.
But the best way to get a treatment tailored to your unique needs isn’t to keep reading about the facts and studies. It’s to talk to a healthcare professional who can help as soon as possible.
Postpartum anxiety is an often overlooked experience. Like the so-called “baby blues,” perinatal anxiety isn’t something silly that should be ignored, yet for many postpartum women, the issue is written off without much investigation.
If you’re experiencing the symptoms of postpartum anxiety or another postpartum mental health issue, ignoring them is a mistake. Getting help is essential.
Support can take many forms. While you may want to talk to your general practitioner or OB/GYN about these concerns, any healthcare professional can offer guidance on how to handle mental health issues during this delicate life stage.
Not sure where to go for that? The Hers online therapy platform can connect you with mental health professionals so you can find the right person for your needs. We also offer a variety of other mental health resources you can access right now.
Start your mental wellness journey today.