As a first-time mom there were countless times that I spent my nights researching potential risks, activities, places or situations that could bring harm to my daughter. An outbreak of hand-foot-mouth disease meant we stayed away from the splash pad. The measles outbreak at Disneyland kept us away from the Happiest Place on Earth until things calmed down. Because I was advised early on in my pregnancy about the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD), I knew that what I was feeling was not PPD. However, my anxiety felt like it was at an all-time high after birth. I would plan our entire day around risky situations. Was my anxiety as a new mom normal? Or was this uncommon? When asked if having a child could cause a woman to develop anxiety, experts on this topic overwhelmingly agreed that yes, women can experience several common forms of anxiety during and after baby.
Women may feel anxious, fearful, and overwhelmed at not only the responsibility of taking care of a child, but the pressure to bounce back and pretend like everything’s OK.
“While we understand that anxiety can be a normal and adaptive response to the unpredictable and unprecedented demands and responsibility, when women are overwhelmed, emotionally compromised, sleep-deprived, and transitioning to motherhood, the anxiety can combust,” says Karen Kleiman, a licensed clinical social worker, and founder and executive director of The Postpartum StressCenter.
Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and director of the university’s OCD and anxiety program, tells Romper that we hear a lot about PPD but not clinical postpartum anxiety, which occasionally includes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), panic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder.
“We know that people who have a history of problems with anxiety are at increased risk to have that exacerbated when they get pregnant,” he says. The illness presents itself when the mom is pregnant and in the first three to six months after birth.
Women experiencing OCD have unwanted thoughts and often try to hide these thoughts by engaging in compulsive behaviors. While it is normal for women and men to have unwanted thoughts or thoughts that go against who you are, people with OCD misinterpret those thoughts and take them literally so they avoid things such as changing the baby, holding the baby or bathing the baby, he explains.
“The first thing readers should understand is that anxiety is a normal and universal experience. It is an adaptive response to the perception of threat. Anxiety is not bad for you. It’s especially common for new parents to have some degree of anxiety or worry,” he adds, “but when that anxiety gets to a level that the person is not taking care of themselves that’s an indication it is getting in the way with the partner or caring for the child.”
Kleiman explains while anxiety is anticipated after having a baby, it can also be crippling. Varying degrees of anxiety that are expected during the perinatal period range from hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, to irritability, and obsessive thinking. These symptoms may manifest in physical symptoms, as well, including loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, and teeth clenching/grinding.
Anxiety disorders can emerge in several forms: excessive anxiety (GAD; Generalized Anxiety Disorder), intrusive memories (PTSD; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), catastrophic misinterpretations of bodily functions (panic) or obsessive thinking/compulsive behaviors (OCD; Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder).
Kleiman tells Romper one of the most common and unsettling manifestations of anxiety during the perinatal period is the emergence of negative, intrusive thoughts of harm coming to the baby — which can occur for both moms and dads. These unwanted thoughts, images, and impulses are collectively referred to as Scary Thoughts.
Among perinatal mood disorders, anxiety is more prevalent than depression, says Ann Smith, a certified nurse midwife and nurse practitioner, and president of Postpartum Support International (PSI), tells Romper that, in her professional opinion, the most common presenting symptom of Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) is anxiety, not depression. The illness can start in pregnancy (as in 30 percent of cases) but is most often postpartum. It can occur anytime in the first 12 months after delivery and, without treatment, can last a long time.
While PPD is very well known, awareness of postpartum anxiety has yet to catch up. But steps are being made to help bring the focus to these disorders.
“New research reveals that anxiety-related disorders impact over 15 percent of…
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