Postpartum depression is being discussed more than ever these days, meaning more women can identify early warning signs and find treatment options where they live. But postpartum anxiety, specifically health anxiety in new moms, can be just as harmful if left untreated. And postpartum anxiety is actually quite common.
Postpartum Support International’s website says that up to 10 percent of women will develop postpartum anxiety after giving birth. Some will have only anxiety, and others will experience depression as well. Signs of postpartum anxiety include worrying constantly, fearing something bad will happen, racing thoughts, and even some physical symptoms, like nausea.
For some new mothers, their anxiety centers on their own health and even their mortality. Now that they have a baby, how will they ever take care of them if they’re sick, or worse, gone? Candice Franco, Ph.D., licensed psychologist at Baptist Behavioral Health in Jacksonville, Florida, tells Romper in an interview that sometimes women do begin fearing for their health — and even their lives — after birth.
“When women have a hard time with recovery or become more aware of their physical vulnerability, they have an extra layer of anxiety where they become more worried about their health and their functions," she says.
"Combined with them realizing this baby’s survival depends on them, it can be a big deal for a new mom. Many women are also going to have chronic pain or difficulties resulting from a difficult birth or C-section."
Physical anxiety symptoms can feed the idea that something is wrong health-wise, she explains.
“Physical signs would be high heart rate, quick breathing, flashes of hot or cold, muscle tension, upset stomach, and headaches. A lot of these concerns, which she is perceiving as a medical problem, may actually be an anxiety response.”
Moms aren't the only ones to experience these symptoms, either. In an interview with Romper, NYC-based family therapist Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., LCSW, said it’s not uncommon for both parents to experience these kinds of worries after baby comes along.
“I think there are all kinds of anxiety people start to personalize when they become a mom they never thought of before. You hear about dads going out and buying large life insurance policies when they have a child. Parenting is humbling because it makes you aware of your own mortality. I think that’s a natural offshoot of becoming a parent, and you want to do everything you can to protect your child,” she says.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways women can try to manage their health anxiety at home. Or, in the gym.
“This could be just as matter-of-fact as getting into an exercise program that makes you feel like you have more control of yourself, because this feels like being out of control, so you want to capture some sense of control and help yourself,” says Smerling. “You’re actively helping your health, and releasing endorphins, so you feel better about yourself.”
Franco seconds Smerling’s recommendation, saying that as little as 15 to 20 minutes a day of light stretching or walking could help reduce anxiety (as long as your doctor approves). She adds that gathering reliable health information can also ease an anxious mom’s mind.
“Reach out to health professionals who can check on health, and practice anxiety management at home. They need to be going to OB follow-ups — usually about six weeks after birth — but they should be calling before that if they have any problems. What an anxious mind often needs is information to make sure everything’s OK. In most cases, things are OK and women are going to feel better after getting that feedback,” she says.
Staying connected with your circle can help, too, as well as making sure you get your essentials in each day.
“Supportive relationships are as effective as medicine, like if someone can connect with a partner who is supportive and listens, or a friend who just had a baby,” Franco says.
“It’s also important for women to think about their own needs, like diet and hydration. They’re so busy with their baby they may not realize it’s been four hours since they had a glass of water. We’re not curing anxiety with this, but at least we’re taking some of the extremes out of it by hydrating and eating every few hours.”
If managing anxiety at home isn’t alleviating those health concerns, it’s probably time to schedule an appointment with a therapist.
“If you’re thinking about anxiety more than you’re able to function, that’s when you have to take action,” Smerling explains. “Seek a therapist. It may be a very short-term therapeutic intervention. We have lots of options: talk therapy, medication combined with talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, all kinds of methods available to us. The underlying theme must be that you do something proactive to help yourself, so you feel empowered.”
“We want to get into some talk therapy,” says Franco. “The brain changes more in the postpartum period than it does at any other time. We may want to consider some medicine, and there’s lot of research that says that can be really helpful for anyone struggling with anxiety. That can help set the brain chemistry back to what it used to be.”
It’s important for new mothers to monitor themselves for up to a year after delivery for symptoms of health anxiety and postpartum anxiety, as not all doctors will screen for mental health concerns at follow-ups. If you have to, tell your baby’s pediatrician about what you’re experiencing during their monthly visit.
“Unfortunately, what we know is that this is going largely untreated. Mood and anxiety issues are the most common complication of pregnancy in the postpartum period,” Franco says. “That six-week checkup with an OB is an important time to catch this, but for many women, it can hit around three to four months postpartum, when many women are returning to work. The person in the best position to notice it is the pediatrician. That’s where she’s going monthly with her baby and if they notice she’s not herself, that’s a great way for women to get referred.”
Franco adds that new parents who can try self-care techniques — and find mental health care if they aren’t helping — should see a quick improvement.
“When women are connected to the resources that are available, they get better quickly. Postpartum Support International has hotlines to get direct information from people who are able to speak to their concerns, provide data, help them make their own decision about medication, and ask questions about what’s been prescribed to them.”
Smerling says rather than worrying about having anxiety — which may compound stress on a new mom experiencing health anxiety — consider it your body’s red flag, alerting you that it’s time to take action.
“If all of a sudden you’re feeling anxious about mortality, like going on an airplane, instead of pathologizing it to where you think you’re sick, see it as a warning signal that you have to handle it, but it’s nothing that can’t be handled.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.