Those newborn snuggles are like nothing else. Is there anything better than the smell of a new baby’s head? “Enjoy this moment!” the kind older lady tells you in the grocery store line. But all you can think is, “Is he still breathing?”

Signs of Postpartum Anxiety: Why Am I So Anxious? 4Later that day you’re driving down the interstate and suddenly a thought pops into your head, “what if I just drove off the road right now…what would happen to the baby?” As soon as the thought crosses your mind you’re horrified. Where did that come from? You glance back in the rearview mirror and suddenly your heart starts racing and your palms start to sweat. “He’s probably smothered by his blanket and that’s why he hasn’t made a sound.”

What is Postpartum Anxiety?

If you’ve struggled with thoughts like these, you are not alone. You could be suffering from postpartum anxiety, a common, and sometimes debilitating condition.

While the general public is increasingly familiar with postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety tends to be underdiagnosed even though 1 in 5 women will likely experience anxiety during or after pregnancy. So how do you tell the difference between the normal worries of motherhood and postpartum anxiety?

Of course I’m worried, I’m a mom!

One thing that can make postpartum anxiety so tricky is that there is a level of vigilance that you need that is necessary to take care of a tiny and helpless person who is relying on you for everything. The responsibility is truly overwhelming. Author Elizabeth Stone says, “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decideSigns of Postpartum Anxiety: Why Am I So Anxious? 5 forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

The level of vulnerability a mother feels, and the increased awareness of everything that could go wrong to harm this new person can be a catalyst for anxiety. For many, the sudden shift to being solely responsible for another human is daunting at best and paralyzing at worst.

Worrying about your child, desiring the best for them, researching different parenting approaches, asking for advice, and thinking about them when they’re not with you, are all natural, normal responses. If anything, they are indicative of a strong desire to be a good parent.

However, when behavior that can be protective and helpful becomes disruptive, it could mean that it’s more than just normal new mom worries. What are some of the symptoms that could indicate a need to seek extra support?

Postpartum anxiety symptoms

  • Inability to sleep (not due to baby waking)
  • Panic attacks (intense physical sensation, may feel like you can’t breathe, sweaty palms, heart palpitation, dizziness)
  • Intrusive thoughts (distressing and unwanted thoughts or images of something bad happening to you or baby)
  • Muscle tension and pain, increase in headaches
  • Rumination (repetitive worrying)
  • Appetite changes
  • Irritability
  • Rage (most often an anxiety symptom, not a sign that you are a terrible mother)

Postpartum anxiety can occur alongside postpartum depression. Many mothers with postpartum depression experience anxiety, but not all mothers who experience anxiety are depressed. It is especially important to know what you are dealing with if you are interested in pharmaceutical support, as some medications prescribed for depression may not help with anxiety.

The postpartum period has unique stresses that make it an especially vulnerable time for the onset of mood disorders. Depending on your birth experience, your baby’s temperament, your support network, your need to return to employment or not, etc. The experience can vary from person to person.

However, one thing that all postpartum mothers will have in common is that physiological changes are happening that make their bodies and brains more susceptible to stress.

Your brain on postpartum

Recent research using brain scans showed that when healthy parents with no previous psychological diagnosis heard their baby cry, the neural pathway most activated was one very similar to the neural pathways involved in OCD. The researchers referred to this as a sort of “transient” OCD that is meant to endure infant survival.

Signs of Postpartum Anxiety: Why Am I So Anxious? 6

Intrusive, or “scary” thoughts can be one of the most distressing examples of this type of thought loop. For example, perhaps you have a repeated scary thought that you will drop the baby while walking up and down the stairs. You might spend an inordinate amount of time finding ways to avoid the stairs or strapping the baby into the baby carrier every time you go upstairs.

What a lot of new moms don’t realize is that these scary thoughts do not mean you’re a bad parent! They are alarming because you wonder why you would think this strange thing. It can be helpful to know that your brain is in a hyper-aware state and is trying to keep your baby safe, and that you do not have to dwell on these thoughts.

Knowing that these thoughts are common and do not make you a bad mother often relieves stress. It can be helpful to have a conversation with a therapist or counselor who is well versed in postpartum mood disorders to help you figure out a plan of action and strategies to mitigate distress.

Sleep deprivation and hormonal shifts are also huge factors in postpartum anxiety. For many women, the symptoms can surface months after their last visit with their maternal healthcare provider.

Hormones experience a wide fluctuation in the first year postpartum (and beyond, depending on if you are breastfeeding and when you choose to wean). These fluctuations affect women differently and can make it more difficult for your body to return to homeostasis after a stressful event.

 

Another factor to consider if you are having postpartum anxiety symptoms is that postpartum thyroiditis can often mimic the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Hyperthyroidism can cause anxiety symptoms and hypothyroidism can cause depression symptoms, and some women will experience both during postpartum.

If you are struggling, please talk to your doctor or a trusted counselor and explore your options. It is normal for postpartum to be a time of adjustment, but it is not normal for it to be a time where you feel crippled by anxiety. The very best thing you can do for yourself and your child or children is to seek support.

Why am I so anxious if motherhood is a blessing?

The same God who designed you, knit a baby together in your womb, and is caring for both you and your child, is notSigns of Postpartum Anxiety: Why Am I So Anxious? 7 sitting in Heaven waiting to condemn you for your anxious thoughts. Your body and brain were designed with a purpose and because this world isn’t heaven yet, both body and brain need help. Take comfort in knowing that God does not expect you to handle the weight of anxiety on your own.

Matthew 11:28-30, sometimes called the “comfortable words” in some liturgies, says,  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Isaiah 40:11 gives a picture of God as the Good Shepherd, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arm; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

God cares for you in your anxiety, He is the “God who sees” and suffering through anxiety without care and support is not what He requires of you. Counseling, physical supports like supplements, dietary measures, more rest, medication, can all be wonderful tools to help you be a better parent.

You are not required to tough things out, and if you feel that you need support, please reach out. If you are scared by your symptoms, please call your health care provider immediately. Be assured that seeking help does not make you a bad mom, in fact, it is just the opposite. Reaching out can be scary, but that is why resources are in place and they can be the difference between getting to enjoy your baby or suffering greatly.

Sources:

“Main Menu.” The Postpartum Stress Center, LLC, https://postpartumstress.com/get-help-2/are-you-having-scary-thoughts/.

Abramson, Anna J, and Dawn Rouse. “The Postpartum Brain.” Greater Good, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/postpartum_brain.

Stephanie Collier, MD. “Postpartum Anxiety Is Invisible, but Common and Treatable.” Harvard Health, 30 July 2021, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/postpartum-anxiety-an-invisible-disorder-that-can-affect-new-mothers-202107302558.

Photos:
“Tiny Feet”, Courtesy of Manuel Schinner, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Mother and Child”, Courtesy of Hollie Santos, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Baby Feet”, Courtesy of Omar Lopez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Picking Flowers”, Courtesy of Liana Mikah, Unsplash.com, CC0 License

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