Most people have heard the term postpartum depression and they automatically think: baby blues. Postpartum depression is a common disorder, affecting as many as 20% of new mothers in the United States annually, according to the CDC. 

However, far fewer have heard of the near-equally common condition known as postpartum anxiety, which is the irrational worry that a new mother might experience after the birth of a child. Postpartum anxiety is a deep fear that something terrible is going to happen. It affects between 11 and 21% of new mothers each year, and it’s something more people should be talking about.

We’re looking at what postpartum anxiety is, its causes, symptoms, and risks, as well as what types of treatment can help women who are living with this crippling anxiety disorder. Keep reading to learn more. 

What is Postpartum Anxiety?

Postpartum anxiety refers to irrational fear and anxiety that something awful is going to happen to your baby. It’s not an uncommon experience…the truth is, many mothers feel this way shortly after giving birth. The anxiety can extend to fear or even postpartum rage that a partner won’t be capable of taking care of the baby correctly. It might even develop to that they, themselves, won’t be up to the task of parenthood.

While a certain degree of anxiety is natural after the birth of a child, postpartum anxiety becomes a problem when it interferes with a mother’s ability to do everyday tasks, care for herself and her baby, and just enjoy life.

How Common is Postpartum Anxiety?

According to a recent study, as many as 21% of women will experience prenatal or postnatal anxiety. The true number is likely even higher since many postpartum women are hesitant to discuss anxiety with their doctors.

Causes of Postpartum Anxiety

Postpartum anxiety is definitely not “in your head.” Although what causes anxiety, and more specifically, what causes postpartum anxiety isn’t yet fully understood, there are some factors that increase the likelihood of a woman experiencing it. 

“When I was in school many years ago women’s health was not getting research dollars so everything was labeled as “in your head.” This is devastating for a new mom who can’t figure out why she’s not overjoyed. Today we are learning more about the hormonal influences at play.”

Talkspace therapist Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD

Common factors that can increase the likelihood of postpartum anxiety:

  • A personal or family history of depression or anxiety disorder — up to 50 percent of women with pre-pregnancy anxiety disorders will experience postpartum anxiety
  • A past difficult birth, or currently experiencing pregnancy anxiety 
  • A high degree of stressful life events (with job or family) 

Symptoms of Postpartum Anxiety

Signs of postpartum anxiety to be alert for include:

  • An obsessive intrusive thought about the baby
  • Symptoms of a panic attack, such as a rapid heartbeat or difficulty breathing
  • Changes in eating habits (eating a lot more or a lot less)
  • Insomnia or not wanting to get out of bed
  • Uncontrollable racing thoughts that are often irrational, negative, and overwhelming
  • Muscle tension
  • Trouble focusing or concentrating on tasks

It’s important to point out that everyone experiences anxiety differently. The postpartum anxiety symptoms that one mother experiences may be totally different from those experienced by another.

Risks and Complications

In addition to robbing a new mother of the joy of giving birth and having a new baby, postpartum anxiety poses some significant health risks to both a mother and her baby. For women who experience postpartum anxiety, it can be difficult to bond with the baby, it can negatively impact the baby’s development, and it can even contribute to infant neglect.

“Postpartum anxiety can lead to long term anxiety that may contribute to the parenting dynamics which are directly related to the mental state of the mother. For example, the inability to be in the moment due to worries of the future could hinder you from enjoying subtle growth milestones.”

Talkspace therapist Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD

Treatment for Postpartum Anxiety

Postpartum anxiety can be scary, but there is some good news. Several effective treatments are known to ease postpartum anxiety symptoms. Some of the common methods for how to treat anxiety and more specifically, postpartum anxiety follow. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy involves talking with a licensed mental health provider to uncover the underlying issues behind a woman’s anxiety about her baby. The aim of therapy for anxiety is to replace anxiety-producing thoughts with more positive ones. CBT is a powerful tool that allows people to identify the source of postnatal anxiety and then come up with healthier ways to think, feel, and act. 

Mindfulness meditation

Meditation can also be effective in easing postpartum anxiety. Ways to incorporate meditation into your daily routine might include using positive affirmations, practicing yoga, and prayer or guided visualization. Relaxation techniques, like deep-breathing exercises, have also proven useful in easing postpartum anxiety.

“Mindfulness practices that fit your personality such as yoga, pilates, tai chi, or walking in nature can help ground you in the moment. Finding a mothers’ support group can be a way to not feel isolated. Most of these activities are about self love and encouragement. When you’re kind to yourself and nurturing it benefits your baby.”

Talkspace therapist Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD

Medication

Medication is another treatment option that’s sometimes used to combat minor to severe postpartum anxiety. It can be used alone, or in conjunction with CBT and/or other additional alternative therapies. 

Common medications used for anxiety include: 

  • Antidepressants: Serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • Anti-anxiety medications: Benzodiazepines

Aromatherapy

For some people, a good alternative therapy for easing postpartum anxiety symptoms is aromatherapy. This involves introducing scents or essential oils that have a calming effect on the body, like lavender or bitter orange. Aromatherapy can be done by diffusing and inhaling the scents, or by rubbing them on the body with a carrier oil.

An important note: mothers who are breastfeeding should not apply essential oils to their skin as they can be transferred to their breast milk.

Diet

Lastly, what postpartum women eat can dramatically affect their mood and stress levels. The best foods to choose include those rich in calcium (such as dairy products and legumes), foods with lots of vitamin B (such as green, leafy vegetables, and eggs), and foods rich in vitamin D (such as cod, fortified dairy products, and egg yolks).

Getting Help

The first step toward getting treatment is recognizing the signs of postpartum anxiety and speaking with your physician or therapist. They’ll be able to guide you toward treatment and help you find the right healthcare professional for your needs. Getting help is easy when you have a support system in place, so consider reaching out to a family member or close friend to let them know you’re struggling. Therapy, whether in-person or online, can also be a natural next step to get more help with postpartum anxiety.