The Hidden Disorder :: Postpartum Anxiety

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mom in the background suffering from postpartum anxiety with head in her hands with her baby in a swing

As parents, we all have some level of anxiety when it comes to our children. Which is doubly true when they’re first born and especially when it’s your first child. It’s normal to worry—we love these little people, usually more than we can put into words. Nerves are a completely normal part of fumbling through those first wonderfully overwhelming first six months and even the monumental first year. But what happens when those worries become fears? And those fears become all-consuming? What if they interfere with your ability to parent and even to function? What if you have postpartum anxiety?

Postpartum Anxiety

You’ve heard about postpartum depression. A recent push by the medical community to raise awareness of its prevalence and effects has helped many sufferers get the help and support they need. But postpartum anxiety hasn’t received the same level of attention, even though it’s more prevalent.

An older study from the University of Heidelberg in Germany that tracked 1,024 women for three months post-birth found that six percent suffered from some level of postpartum depression. But 11 percent suffered from postpartum anxiety! Despite this fact, it’s still understudied and underdiagnosed. Which is why Parents magazine quotes Jonathan Abramowitz, Ph.D., associate chairman of psychology and director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as calling postpartum anxiety “the hidden disorder.”

Postpartum anxiety is different than postpartum depression, although they can exist together. The medical community characterizes postpartum anxiety by mental and physical symptoms that go beyond every-day worries and fears. It can manifest physically with symptoms including panic attacks, sweating, and trouble breathing. Mentally, symptoms can include obsessing, obsessive worrying, and imagining worst-case scenarios. Everyone’s anxiety manifests in different ways.

Like any severe form of anxiety, postpartum anxiety is difficult for non-sufferers to understand. “You’re going to have to figure out how to relax,” is a phrase I heard often. There was also “what are you so worried about?” and even “just stop worrying.” But like other forms of anxiety, postpartum anxiety isn’t something you can “just stop.” It’s caused by psychological, physiological, and hormonal shifts and imbalances made worse by sleep deprivation, the stress of having a new baby, and even personality type (many sufferers include those who describe themselves as Type A and sensitive).

My Experience with Postpartum Anxiety

I have a long history with anxiety, especially about health and family, due to childhood trauma. But even with that long history, my post-partum anxiety hit me unexpectedly.

My water broke without warning at 34 weeks. The suddenness of our daughter’s birth, the overwhelming stress of her NICU stay, and the after-birth hormones raging through my system set the stage. She came home on oxygen, and we also had to navigate daily doctors appointments, problems nursing, and all of the dire warnings and waves of information we’d received about her health. I was an anxious wreck.

I had difficulty sleeping. We barely left the house because I was terrified she would get sick and end up back in the hospital. I checked her constantly and was over-protective and controlling. But I was also indecisive, second-guessing everything I did. At times I felt like my daughter would be better off with someone else as her mother.

I couldn’t stop the repeated intrusive thoughts about worst-case scenarios in my head. The fear was suffocating and all-consuming. It was a constant battle to fight off the terrible images in my head, to counter the concerns that popped up multiple times a day over issues large and small, imagined and real. I felt exhausted, spent, and completely drained. I would hold my daughter to me, crying and afraid to put her down because I wouldn’t be able to protect her.

Treatment Options for PPA

The passage of time along with support from my therapist, husband, family, and friends helped ease my anxiety. Truthfully, the anxiety hasn’t completely disappeared, but it’s manageable. I can do much more than merely function now.

Postpartum anxiety steals your joy, your peace of mind, and time with your little ones. It’s important to remember that you’re not going crazy and you’re not failing at being a mom. What you are experiencing is very real and experienced by many women the world over. If you feel you may be suffering from postpartum anxiety or depression, please reach out to:

  • Family or friends
  • Your OB-Gyn or primary care physician
  • A psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist, especially one who deals directly with postpartum issues

Dar a Luz Birthing Center here in Albuquerque has connections to therapists, as do the many doulas in the city. You can also search online for these specialists in Albuquerque. I can’t attest to any of them, but there are options out there. You can also ask someone in your circle to help you find time to meditate, exercise (even walking!), or practice gentle yoga—even ten minutes a day can help!

I am not a doctor, a psychiatrist, or a therapist, so please do not take this as medical advice. As on my blog, however, I hope I can help any sufferers out there realize they’re not the only ones going through this and provide some options for seeking help.

Just remember: you’re not alone, it’s understandable, and you’re not to blame. You’re doing a fantastic job, mama! Postpartum anxiety is challenging and tough, but you can do this! There is a light at the end of the tunnel—I promise.

Originally published October 2018

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ABQ Mom, its executive team, other contributors to the site, its sponsors or partners, or any organizations the aforementioned might be affiliated with.

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