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Postpartum anxiety in women is poorly researched and understood. This is difficult to believe considering the impact of postpartum mood disorders on infants and their development, on new mothers, and on society as a whole. Historically, however, women and children’s health issues have been ignored so this is much of a surprise. Hopefully this is beginning to change.
Postpartum anxiety refers to any anxiety that is seen in the postpartum period (following the birth of a child). Although postpartum anxiety and depression are also seen in men, this page focusing on women. Postpartum anxiety is important to study because it can have a serious impact on the developing child.
Infants who have mothers who have postpartum anxiety have been shown to have :
What does all that mean? Essentially it means that if a mom is anxious, it can really impact how her child develops. Low vagal tone is associated with more vulnerability to stress (Harrison LL, 2000). The quiet alert state is the state where infants are most susceptible to learning. Serotonin and Dopamine are neurotransmitters that impact mood, sleep, attention, and really all aspects of development.
Anxiety in a mom can have a tremendous influence on the course of a child’s development. All of these issues make it important for us to help women who are experiencing anxiety after childbirth.
Generally we can agree a new mom has a lot of responsibilities and stress. Historically people have believed that motherhood is such a source of pleasure and tremendous fulfillment that women should be thrilled to be experiencing this. Unfortunately this has really served to further stigmatize women who may be experiencing difficulty with mood during and after pregnancy. The fact is that having a child can be extremely stressful. Your life purpose and identity change, perhaps permanently. You are deprived of sleep and subjected to constant demands on your emotional and physical energy. Your husband may become jealous and your marriage neglected. If you work like many moms do, you have to balance it all!
No wonder women are more prone to anxiety during pregnancy and up to two years after the birth of a child! (Haugen). Women who have less education, a history of anxiety or depression or increased stress during pregnancy are more at risk for postpartum anxiety (Britton, 2008)
One kind of postpartum anxiety is postpartum OCD. Postpartum OCD can consist of disturbing fears and obsessions about motherhood and often consist of beliefs that the mother will harm her infant. Moms react very strongly to this become increasingly fearful and isolated and often will avoid their infants.
Other signs of OCD that are seen in women postpartum are checking compulsions, obsessions about disasters and compulsive cleaning. Postpartum OCD is also correlated with postpartum depression, meaning if you have one you are more likely to have the other. (Wenzel, Gorman, O'Hara, & Stuart, 2001).
Treatment consists of exposure and response prevention (ERP). This is a highly effective method of dealing with obsessions by teaching people that they do not have to act on compulsions to relieve their anxiety. Postpartum OCD is different from postpartum psychosis in which a mom believes her thoughts of harming the infant are okay. These two diagnoses must be differentiated, and it is important if to seek immediate medical attention if you are experiencing these fears. These two diagnoses must be differentiated, and it is important if to seek immediate medical attention if you are experiencing these fears.
Postpartum anxiety and Panic Attacks
There is also a much higher rate of panic disorder and panic attacks among women postpartum then would be expected. Often this becomes debilitating and really affects the self esteem of the mothers who are suffering. Panic attacks consist of fears of impending doom and disaster and physiological symptoms that accompany them( dizziness, rapid beating heart, sweating). If you are experiencing panic attacks, they can be treated by someone who is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.
There is also a physical condition women may experience postpartum which can cause symptoms of anxiety called Postpartum Thyroiditis. It usually begins 1-4 months after delivery and can last for three months. Symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, palpitations ,and irritability. Often this condition is not detected in women and 80 percent of women will return to normal functioning eventually. 20 percent will not! If you are having these symptoms it may be important to talk with your doctor about postpartum thyroiditis. There are medical treatments available.
Please check out postpartum progress. A great resource if you are struggling!.
Breitkopf, C. R., Primeau, L. A., Levine, R. E., Olson, G. L., Wu, Z. H., & Berenson, A. B. (Sep2006 Vol. 27 Issue 3). Anxiety symptoms during pregnancy and postpartum. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology , 157-162.
Britton, J. R. (2008, Vol. 25 Issue 9,). Maternal anxiety: course and antecedents during the early postpartum period. Depression & Anxiety , p793-800.
Harrison LL, W. A. (2000). Factors associated with Vagal Tone Response in infants. Western Journal of Nursing Research , 776-795.
Haugen, E. N. (n.d.). Maternal psychiatric disturbance at eight weeks postpartum and its relation to personal, child, and family functioning at two to three years postpartum . Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences .
Postpartum thyroiditis brochure. (n.d.). Retrieved February 24, 2010, from American Thyroid Assoication: http://www.thyroid.org/patients/patient_brochures/postpartum.html
Wenzel, A., Gorman, L. L., O'Hara, M. W., & Stuart, S. (2001). The occurrence of panic and obsessive compulsive symptoms in women with postpartum dysphoria: a prospective study. Archives of Women's Mental Health , 1435-1102.