Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
When I gave birth to my oldest son, I’d just moved to a new town, three hours away from my family.
My husband worked 12 hours a day and I was alone with my newborn — all day, every day.
Just like any new mom, I was nervous and unsure. I had a ton of questions and didn’t know what to expect life to be like with a brand-new baby.
My Google history from that time was filled with questions like “How many times should my baby poop?” “How long should my baby sleep?” and “How many times should my baby nurse?” Normal new mom worries.
But after the first few weeks, I began to worry a little more intensely.
I started researching sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The idea that a perfectly healthy baby could just die with no warning sent me into a whirlwind of anxiety.
I went into his room every 5 minutes while he slept to make sure he was okay. I watched him nap. I never let him out of my sight.
Then, my anxiety started to snowball.
I convinced myself that someone would call social services to have him taken away from me and my husband because he was a bad sleeper and cried a lot. I worried that he would die. I worried that there was something wrong with him that I didn’t notice because I was a bad mother. I worried someone would climb in the window and steal him in the middle of the night. I worried that he had cancer.
I couldn’t sleep at night because I was afraid he would succumb to SIDS while I was sleeping.
I worried about everything. And this whole time, his entire first year, I thought this was perfectly normal.
I thought all new moms worried like me. I assumed everyone felt the same way and had the same concerns, so it never crossed my mind that I should talk to someone about it.
I didn’t know I was being irrational. I didn’t know what intrusive thoughts were.
I didn’t know I had postpartum anxiety.
What is postpartum anxiety?
Everyone’s heard about postpartum depression (PPD), but not many people have even heard of postpartum anxiety (PPA). According to some studies, postpartum anxiety symptoms were reported in up to 18 percent of women.
Minnesota therapist Crystal Clancy, MFT says the number is probably much higher, since diagnostic and educational materials tend to place more emphasis on PPD than PPA. “It is definitely possible to have PPA without PPD,” Clancy tells Healthline. She adds that because of that reason, it often goes unaddressed.
“Women may be screened by their provider, but those screenings generally ask questions more about mood and depression, which misses the boat when it comes to anxiety. Others have PPD initially, but then as that improves, it reveals underlying anxiety which likely contributed to the depression in the first place,” Clancy explains.
Postpartum anxiety may impact as many as 18 percent of women. But the number might be even higher, since many women are never diagnosed.
Moms with PPA talk about their constant dread
Common symptoms associated with PPA are:
- edginess and irritability
- constant worry
- intrusive thoughts
- feelings of dread
Some of the worry is just typical new parent self-questioning. But if it begins to interfere with a parent’s ability to care for themselves or their baby, it could be an anxiety disorder.
SIDS is a big trigger for many moms with postpartum anxiety.
The idea is terrifying enough to typical moms, but for a PPA parent, focusing on SIDS pushes them into the realm of anxiety.
Foregoing sleep to spend all night staring at a peacefully sleeping baby, counting the time that passes between breaths — with panic setting in if there’s even the tiniest delay — is a hallmark of postpartum anxiety.
Erin experienced crushing anxiety about her newborn baby's safety after the birth of two of her children. Photo via Erin.
Erin, a 30-year-old mom of three from South Carolina, has had PPA twice. The first time, she described feelings of dread and extreme anxiety about her value as a mother and her ability to raise her daughter.
She also worried about inadvertently hurting her daughter while carrying her. “I carried her through doorways always vertical, because I was terrified I would smash her head into the doorframe and kill her,” she confesses.
Erin, like other moms, worried about SIDS. “I woke up in a panic every night, just sure she’d died in her sleep.”
Others — like Pennsylvania mom Lauren — panic when their baby is with anyone other than them. “I felt like my baby wasn’t safe with anyone other than me,” says Lauren. “I couldn’t relax when someone else was holding her. When she cried, my blood pressure would sky rocket. I would start sweating and felt an intense need to calm her down.”
She describes the overpowering feeling caused by her baby’s cry: “It was almost like if I couldn’t silence her, we would all die.”
The anxiety and dread can make you lose your sense of reality. Lauren describes one such instance. “One time when we were just home [from the hospital] I took a nap on the couch while my (very safe and capable) mother watched the baby. I woke up and looked over at them and [my daughter] was covered in blood.”
She continues, “It was pouring out of her mouth, all over the blanket she was wrapped in, and she wasn’t breathing. Of course, that’s not what really happened. She was wrapped in a gray and red blanket and my brain just went wild when I first woke up.”
Postpartum anxiety is treatable.
What can I do about my anxiety symptoms?
Like postpartum depression, if left untreated, postpartum anxiety can affect a mother’s ability to bond with her baby. If she’s too afraid to care for the baby or feels like she’s bad for the baby, there can be negative developmental implications.
Similarly, there may be a link between behavior problems at 24 months from children whose mothers had persistent anxiety during the postpartum period.
Mothers who experience any of these symptoms, or symptoms associated with PPD, should seek help from a mental health professional.
These conditions are treatable. But if they’re not treated, they can worsen or linger past the postpartum period, transforming into clinical depression or general anxiety disorder.
Clancy says that therapy has the potential to be beneficial and is usually short term. PPA responds to a variety of therapeutic models, mainly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
And according to Clancy, “Medication can be an option, especially if symptoms become severe enough to impair functioning. There are many medications that are safe to take during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.”
She adds that other approaches include:
- mindfulness skills
If you think you’re showing symptoms of postpartum anxiety, reach out to your doctor or mental health professional.
Kristi is a freelance writer and mother who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She’s frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction. Find her on Twitter.