Postpartum Anxiety: The Hidden Disorder

Postpartum Anxiety: The Hidden Disorder

Most people have heard of postpartum depression, a common illness that affects about 15% of new mothers. This isn’t the only mood disorder women can experience after giving birth, though.

According to Postpartum Support International, about 10% of new moms have postpartum anxiety and about 5% struggle with postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder.

All parents worry that they do something wrong in caring for their baby. Most even experience some form of anxiety as a natural protective response. It’s not uncommon to have thoughts such as: “What if my baby suffocates?” or “What if someone snatches her from our home?” or “What if she gets the latest disease being reported in the news?”

Typically, most parents learn to dismiss these concerns and the thoughts eventually stop. When it continues day and night without relief, though, it could be postpartum anxiety.

Postpartum anxiety is called the hidden disorder (according to Jonathan Abramowitz, Ph.D., associate chairman of psychology and director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) because most mothers fail to recognize it, so it is not diagnosed.

Postpartum Progress, an award-winning site and blog, lists the following symptoms of postpartum anxiety or postpartum OCD. Your experience may not include all these or even most of them:

  • Your thoughts are racing. You can’t quiet your mind. You can’t settle down. You can’t relax.
  • You feel like you have to be doing something at all times. Cleaning bottles. Cleaning baby clothes. Cleaning the house. Doing work. Entertaining the baby. Checking on the baby.
  • You are worried. Really worried. All. The. Time. Am I doing this right? Will my husband come home from his trip? Will the baby wake up? Is the baby eating enough? Is there something wrong with my baby that I’m missing? No matter what anyone says to reassure you, it doesn’t help.
  • You may be having disturbing thoughts. Thoughts that you’ve never had before. Scary thoughts that make you wonder whether you aren’t the person you thought you were. They fly into your head unwanted and you know they aren’t right, that this isn’t the real you, but they terrify you and they won’t go away. These thoughts may start with the words “What if …”
  • You are afraid to be alone with your baby because of scary thoughts or worries. You are also afraid of things in your house that could potentially cause harm, like kitchen knives or stairs and you avoid them like the plague.
  • You may feel the need to check things constantly. Did I lock the door? Did I lock the car? Did I turn off the oven? Is the baby breathing?
  • You may be having physical symptoms like stomach cramps or headaches, shakiness or nausea. You might even have panic attacks.
  • You feel like a captive animal, pacing back and forth in a cage. Restless. On edge.
  • You can’t eat. You have no appetite.
  • You’re having trouble sleeping. You are so, so tired, but you can’t sleep.
  • You feel a sense of dread, like something terrible is going to happen.
  • You know something is wrong. You may not know you have a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, but you know the way you are feeling is NOT right. You think you’ve “gone crazy”.
  • You are afraid that this is your new reality and that you’ve lost the “old you” forever.
  • You are afraid that if you reach out for help, people will judge you. Or that your baby will be taken away.

It isn’t uncommon to have symptoms of both postpartum depression and anxiety. These are more than just bad days. If your feelings and symptoms greatly interfere with you ability to function most of the day and last at least 2 weeks or longer, know that you are not a bad mother and most importantly you are not alone. You could be experiencing a common illness that 10 to 15% of mothers have.

The good news is, it is completely treatable. Don’t assume your symptoms will go away on their own. Left untreated, postpartum depression, anxiety or OCD can interfere with your ability to bond with your baby. Talk to your ob-gyn or pediatrician about how you’re feeling and ask for a referral to a mental health professional.

Ann Sheerin, MA
asheerin @

Photo Cred: Poppy Smiles

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