How To Treat Postpartum Anxiety & Why You Shouldn't Try To Do It Alone
As a mom to a newborn, you are likely overwhelmed with emotion and trying to adjust to your new daily life. But, if you feel like everything is getting on top of you and you're not coping well, it might be time to talk to a healthcare professional about how to treat postpartum anxiety. It's a condition many women experience after having a baby and it can feel debilitating without proper treatment.
Like postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety is a condition that affects a large number of new moms, including those with no history of mental health conditions. What makes postpartum anxiety tricky is that new motherhood is naturally full of worry and feelings of being overwhelmed, so it can be difficult for a woman to determine if her worry is normal or not. "There are typical levels of worry and anxiety a mother might feel after giving birth," Venus Mahmoodi, Ph.D., tells Romper. "However, when these thoughts affect functioning, like prevent someone from sleeping, eating, constantly checking baby, then we begin to suspect that anxiety is becoming a more serious concern," she adds.
Signs that "normal" levels of worry are progressing include "insomnia, panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, intrusive/scary thoughts, hypervigilance, hyperarousal, and a whole litany of other warning signs that anxiety is high and climbing," Kellie Wicklund, M.A., L.P.C., PHM-C, tells Romper.
Once postpartum anxiety has been diagnosed, there are a few different approaches to treatment. Medication is one option. "SSRI's are safe for nursing, and work well at therapeutic doses for many women," says Wicklund. "The nervous system can have a chance to calibrate down, and the brain gets a chance to heal from the sustained stress hormones. They work well, and often without any complications or side effects." In addition to SSRI's, Dr. Mahmoodi suggests benzodiazepines, "which are medications that bring down the intensity of the body's reaction to the anxiety." However, she notes that a mom should see a psychiatrist to ensure medication is the appropriate treatment.
Both Dr. Mahmoodi and Wicklund also recommend therapy, either in place of or in addition to medication. "Therapy is helpful for taking a look at the big picture of what the woman is expecting from herself, and how she can ask for help and support from friends and family," says Wicklund. In a talk-therapy setting, Dr. Mahmoodi says a clinician may try "cognitive behavior therapy [to] help manage the negative thought patterns and how they might influence [a woman's] behavior and her emotions" and/or practicing mindfulness.
Outside of medication and therapy, there are some things moms can do on their own to help manage the symptoms of postpartum anxiety. Wicklund suggests activities like yoga and meditation, self-care, relying on a support system, and getting a few hours of childcare. "Deep diaphragmatic breathing" is another technique recommended by Dr. Mahmoodi, which is done by "[taking] a breath in through the nose and then slowly [exhaling] through the nose, extending the exhale." She suggests doing three of these breaths in a row as many times in a day as desired.
Wicklund emphasizes the importance of finding someone to normalize these feelings of anxiety. "We have system problems, that women misunderstand and assume as their own deficiencies and failures," she says. "I think that is the saddest thing of all, women think it's them, beat themselves up over it, and suffer in silence." She and Dr. Mahmoodi encourage moms who are experiencing symptoms of postpartum anxiety to speak to a trusted healthcare provider to get a proper diagnosis and develop a treatment plan.
Venus Mahmoodi, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist Khalil Center