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Sharp Health News

Beyond depression — understanding postpartum anxiety

July 30, 2018

Beyond depression — understanding postpartum anxiety

A lack of sleep, breastfeeding challenges and a never-ending stream of visitors wanting to hold your infant are enough to put any new mom on edge. However, some moms have an additional concern to contend with: postpartum anxiety.

While postpartum depression is part of the parenting lexicon, postpartum anxiety disorder is not often discussed nor considered when a new mom is struggling. However, more women experience postpartum anxiety than depression.

“Postpartum depression is talked about the most and is more readily understood,” says Veronica James, a clinical social worker at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns and facilitator of the hospital’s Postpartum Support Group. “There is a big push now to replace the term postpartum depression with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders since more women are experiencing postpartum anxiety with or without depression.”

According to James, unlike postpartum depression — which can cause mothers to experience extreme sadness or even disinterest in their baby — postpartum anxiety symptoms manifest themselves mainly in the form of incessant worry. Postpartum depression often involves women feeling numb or an absence of emotions, whereas postpartum anxiety finds women feeling hyperalert with a multitude of symptoms.

Signs of postpartum anxiety may include:

  • Inability to sit still and focus on the task at hand
  • Constantly being on edge
  • Change in sleeping and eating habits
  • Racing heart
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Feeling dizzy, faint or nauseous
  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Fearfulness
  • Worries that exceed reality and affect daily activities (caring for the baby’s needs, driving, going out with the baby, etc.)

Women at greatest risk for postpartum anxiety are those with a personal or family history of anxiety or other mental health disorders. Those who have experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth — and are naturally concerned about potential complications with later pregnancies — are also at greater risk. However, any woman can develop the disorder after giving birth, especially while contending with surging hormones, lack of sleep, and a complete change in lifestyle and responsibilities.

There is hope, though, for new mothers struggling with anxiety while also caring for an infant and adjusting to their new role. Treatment often includes social supports, therapy or medication. A combination of all three may be needed, depending on the severity of the postpartum anxiety.

“A good starting point toward seeking treatment is calling your OBGYN or primary care physician,” James says. “A referral to a therapist with expertise in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders is also important. If medications are needed, most women are able to stop taking them after about one year postpartum.”

Loved ones can also play a key role in helping. A willingness to educate themselves about postpartum anxiety and help in practical ways can make a difference in helping a mom to heal and enjoy motherhood.

“Help mom reach out to her doctor or therapist and take her to appointments,” James says. “You can also give mom baby breaks, take evening shifts to allow her to sleep, or help with tasks around the house. Most importantly, just sit with her and let her know you are there.”

Learn more about Sharp’s Postpartum Support Groups for new mothers and for couples.

For the news media: To talk with Veronica James, LCSW, about postpartum anxiety for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com.

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