Postpartum Anxiety

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During pregnancy a woman’s body goes through many changes. Hormones are raging and then suddenly, the baby’s born. During the postpartum period following the birth of the baby, 4-6% of women find themselves experiencing what is commonly known as postpartum depression (Baby Blues), postpartum anxiety and/or panic disorder. Women who have a past history of panic attacks are more likely to develop a postpartum disorder, as well as those with a family history of anxiety and or panic disorders. These disorders can occur separately, or in conjunction with one another due to changes in hormone and neurotransmitter levels during pregnancy. Another common cause is a great amount of stress; it’s normal for new mothers to worry about their new baby (or babies!) and the additional responsibilities, but women who are affected by postpartum anxiety and/or panic disorder experience excessive worries and fears about the child, and their own actions as well.

Postpartum anxiety is a mood disorder that can cause women to suffer from panic attacks, experience overwhelming anxiety and even agoraphobia, which is a fear of open or public spaces. Panic attacks can be terrifying and can strike at any time and without warning, so the fear is always there that another is going to occur. Diagnosis is made a psychiatrist or psychotherapist by the presence of at least four of fourteen symptoms as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Symptoms of anxiety often include difficulty concentrating or remembering, difficulty finishing tasks, trouble making decisions, difficulty relaxing, insomnia, exhaustion, feelings of extreme uneasiness for prolonged periods of time, loss of appetite, and suicidal thoughts. The most common symptoms of a panic attack are shortness of breath, choking or smothering sensation, chest pain or discomfort, palpitations or increased heart rate, hot flashes or chills, trembling, tingling sensation, dizziness, nausea or indigestion, depersonalization or the feeling of being removed or disoriented from everything going on around you, the fear of going crazy or doing something uncontrolled, and the cardinal sign, a sense of impending doom.

Postpartum psychosis occurs when hallucinations or delusions are present, which is rare but can occur, especially in women who were bipolar or schizophrenic already. This is considered an emergency and help must be sought immediately to protect the safety of the child and the mother. Common treatments for postpartum anxiety or psychosis, and panic disorder are anti-anxiety/anti-depressant and/or anti-psychotic drugs in combination with psychotherapy, which has been proven to be more effective than any intervention alone in some cases. Anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, Ativan, or Valium are helpful in a panic situation to treat the symptoms immediately, whereas anti-depressants like SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors may take up to three to four weeks to become effective. Psychotherapy can help women learn to recognize triggers of anxiety and panic, and how to quell the uncomfortable symptoms through deep breathing, relaxation, bio-feedback, and other techniques. Fortunately, postpartum anxiety usually doesn’t linger forever; it’s just a small roadblock that you have to get around.

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