What Is Postpartum Anxiety?

A sad mother sitting at home suffering from postpartum depression

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Postpartum anxiety is a form of anxiety experienced in the months following giving birth. While it may not be commonly discussed in casual conversation, many birthing people still experience this type of anxiety.

Many changes accompany the postpartum era. Suddenly, your body changes, your relationships become different, and hormonal fluctuations change how you feel. In addition to these changes, mental health challenges can arise.

A recent study estimates that 8-12% of people experience at least one anxiety disorder in the postpartum period. Unfortunately, research on postpartum anxiety disorder is somewhat limited. This is due to postpartum disorders becoming a newly researched issue of interest.

Symptoms of Postpartum Anxiety

Postpartum anxiety is much more common than what is generally recognized. Knowledge is power, and it is vital for birthing people to know the symptoms of postpartum anxiety. In addition, having an awareness of the symptoms means that you or someone you love can access support when needed.

The mental health field does not recognize postpartum anxiety as an official diagnosis. Instead, it is most often characterized by the symptoms of anxiety disorders that exist outside of the postpartum period, like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Symptoms can arise as quickly as weeks after giving birth and can last up to a year or longer after birth.

Postpartum symptoms include:

  • Uncontrollable concern or worry
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Obsessive impulses or behavior
  • Struggles with bonding to your new baby, presenting as excessive detachment or withdrawing from caregiving duties
  • Shakiness
  • Feelings of panic

Causes of Postpartum Anxiety

High levels of stress and little partner or social support during pregnancy are two key contributing factors to the development of postpartum anxiety. Experiencing a preterm birth is another documented risk factor for developing postpartum anxiety. Additionally, smoking during pregnancy isn’t only a contributor to infant health complications—it can also result in postpartum anxiety.  

Other contributors to a diagnosis of postpartum anxiety include giving birth to an infant that has a hospital stay of two weeks or longer, a pre-existing diagnosis of diabetes, consuming more than seven drinks per week before conceiving, and experiencing at least six stressors during pregnancy. A decreased duration of breastfeeding can also lead to the development of postpartum anxiety.

Many of the causes of postpartum anxiety are outside of birthing people’s control. However, sometimes high-stress levels, an extended hospital stay, or decisions regarding breastfeeding are natural occurrences that birthing people cannot avoid. It isn’t lost on us how these risk factors may feel overwhelming. 

A way to use the knowledge of the causes of postpartum anxiety without feeling disempowered is to share them with your immediate community. Let your friends, family, and partner know what can lead to this diagnosis to ensure that you are supported, regardless of your birth outcomes. Also, give your doctor a heads up if you’re nervous about the risks of developing postpartum anxiety. You don’t have to go it alone.

Diagnosis of Postpartum Anxiety

Due to the fact that postpartum anxiety doesn’t have an official diagnosis in the DSM-5, doctors typically screen for risk factors in perinatal appointments. Keeping in mind that research on postpartum anxiety is still building, it is essential to insist that your doctor screens for this disorder.

Your medical care provider may assess for GAD or OCD symptoms in postpartum appointments. Again, it is important to advocate for yourself if you feel you may be experiencing postpartum anxiety and do not feel your doctor adequately assesses the disorder. Alternatively, you may be offered a referral to a psychiatrist for further support. 

It isn’t uncommon to have a co-occurring diagnosis of postpartum anxiety and postpartum depression.

Treatment for Postpartum Anxiety

The suggested treatment for postpartum anxiety includes pharmacological offerings, psychotherapy, and holistic forms of support. The recommended pharmacological treatment is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor medications (SSRIs). It is important to note that SSRIs can present in breastmilk, so having a conversation about the risks and benefits of taking this medication is extremely important.

Consistent psychotherapy can aid in decreasing symptoms of postpartum anxiety and exploring the root causes of the disorder. For those who find that SSRIs aren’t the best fit for them, psychotherapy on its own is an excellent treatment. Shifts in diet, taking supplements, exercise, and parenting classes are great additional support to postpartum anxiety treatment.

Coping With Postpartum Anxiety

High levels of stress and unexpected birth outcomes can be significant indicators of postpartum anxiety. As such, having social support is key in coping with postpartum anxiety:

  • Support groups: Finding a support group is a great way to connect with other moms and remember that you’re not alone.
  • Couples therapy: If there are issues arising with your partner, seeking couples therapy can help develop enhanced communication tools.
  • Mommy & Me classes: Sometimes childcare can be a massive barrier to connecting with others—explore local offerings for Mommy & Me classes. Remember that some classes are offered on a sliding scale or donation-only basis if finances are an issue.
  • Healthcare provider support: Finally, staying in close touch with your doctor is incredibly important in healing from postpartum anxiety. 

A Word From Verywell

It is common to feel scared and powerless during pregnancy, but it doesn't have to become your new normal.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Julia Childs Heyl, MSW
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.