Postpartum Anxiety: Much More Common than Depression?

Postpartum Anxiety

You have probably heard and read about how common depression is after pregnancy. Postpartum depression is more than just “baby blues.” It is a real mental health disorder. You may not be as aware of postpartum anxiety. It is also a real mental health disorder. It may be much more common than depression. The medical term for this disorder is perinatal anxiety disorder.

A study in 2016, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that perinatal anxiety disorder was about three times more common than depression after pregnancy. The study included 115 women who were interviewed and screened for both depression and anxiety at three months after delivery. About 17 percent of the women scored positive for anxiety compared to about five percent for depression. Less than five percent of the women scored positive for both anxiety and depression.

This was just one study, but it supports a number of previous studies suggesting that about 8-10 percent of women have some type of anxiety disorder during or after pregnancy, compared to 4-10 percent of women who suffer from depression.

How Is Perinatal Anxiety Different From Postpartum Depression?

Postpartum depression usually starts within 2 months to one year after giving birth. Symptoms last for more than two weeks and may include extreme sadness, crying, insomnia, fatigue, and guilt. Anxiety may also be a symptom.

Perinatal anxiety disorder may be more common during and after pregnancy. Symptoms may last longer. Although anxiety may occur in postpartum depression, the anxiety of perinatal anxiety disorder is different. It can be overwhelming and debilitating.

The main symptoms are excessive and irrational fears and worries. In most cases, these are fears or worries that something awful may happen to your child. You may even fear that you or someone else may harm your child. Other symptoms include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Hyperventilation
  • Insomnia
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Compulsive thoughts or actions
  • Tension
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability

The symptoms of this disorder can make it very hard to function normally. You may be at higher risk for perinatal anxiety disorder if you have always been a worrier, have a history of depression or bipolar disorder, or have a family history of anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder.

How to Manage Perinatal Anxiety Disorder

 The first step is to be aware of the problem and know the symptoms. Although this disorder is common, it often goes unrecognized and undiagnosed. Tell your doctor if you have overwhelming fears or worries. These symptoms are nothing to be ashamed of. They are common and they can be treated.

Your doctor may send you to see a mental health specialist. Perinatal anxiety disorder may be diagnosed after an interview and a screening-type questionnaire. In mild cases, the best treatments do not involve medications. These treatments have all been very effective in treating perinatal anxiety disorder:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy given by a mental health provider. You learn to replace irrational and unhealthy thoughts with positive thoughts.
  • Mindfulness training is a type of meditation therapy. You learn to let go of obtrusive thoughts and worries.
  • Relaxation therapies include guided meditations, breathing exercises, and muscle relaxation.

In more severe or debilitating cases of anxiety, your doctor may prescribe a short course of antidepressant or antianxiety medication. The risks and benefits of these medications must be carefully considered if you are still pregnant or breastfeeding.

The key takeaway is be aware of anxiety as a common disorder during and after pregnancy. Scary thoughts and obsessive worries can be very frightening. They do not mean that you will harm your baby. They do not mean there is something horribly wrong with you. They will pass with time. You may need help if these symptoms are overwhelming. Let your doctor know about them. Better yet, talk to your doctor now and discuss possible symptoms of anxiety. Get a plan in place, just in case.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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