While the term “postpartum depression” has become a well-recognized diagnosis for many childbearing women and, thankfully, a common consideration for birth care providers, there are other situations that require support and healing. Perinatal anxiety is also a significant burden for women to bear. Impacting some women during pregnancy and then continuing through to the postnatal period, anxiety can also make a surprise appearance after the baby’s birth. Certain predisposing factors raise the risk for anxiety: a thyroid imbalance, certain hormonal and metabolic disorders, and even life events, such as a history that includes anxiety, can open enough vulnerability to let anxiety come crashing through.
Anxiety can take several forms: critical or fear-laden thoughts that will not stop cascading through your mind, body symptoms that can include appetite and digestive abnormalities, restlessness, panic, exhaustion, insomnia, and even problems bonding with your baby. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was once considered to be part of the anxiety disorders, and is similar in many ways, however, OCD is now classified separately in the relatively new DSM-5 diagnostic manual for mental health. This disorder can cause immense challenges for the expectant and new mother or father. Post-traumatic stress disorder will create many symptoms that overlap manifestations of anxiety, however, this also is a separate diagnosis and requires a different kind of treatment.
Anxiety and OCD very frequently manifest differently in the perinatal period as compared with other life phases. Rather than the typical fears surrounding worthiness, finances, performance on the job or in relationships, perinatal anxiety often hits you where it matters most: your baby. Mothers with perinatal anxiety may worry about their baby’s health, weight, sleep, or his/her very survival. Everything feels catastrophic and overwhelming.
The treatments for anxiety vary, depending upon the cause. A visit to your health care provider will determine whether you would benefit from testing your thyroid function, blood iron level, or other physical factors. A psychologist can help to determine whether your history, current life stressors, pregnancy or childbearing experiences, or relationship concerns are adding fuel to anxiety’s fire. When the situation is physical, a physical response will be indicated. Working with your physician, naturopath, acupuncturist, functional health specialist, or other physical health care provider can help to identify remedies that are life altering. In the mental health field, anxiety is often treated by helping your mind to step out of the chronic fight/flight/freeze mechanism and into finding a more organized and thoughtful approach to problems. Biofeedback, hypnosis/visualization, exercise, healthy eating and adequate sleep (a particular challenge with a newborn in the home!), can begin to impact the problem. Longer term solutions can include dialectical behaviour therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, trauma recovery techniques, and life changes that protect your ability to once again enter a calm state for ever-increasing periods of time. Addressing your family system, with positive participation from your partner, parents, friends, and support systems can change the dynamics of stress toward a helpful, collaborative, team approach. Human beings are not designed to navigate significant stressors in isolation. This is particularly true for the new mother. Creating a team effort can go a long way toward settling your mental overdrive.
Anxiety can feel life threatening and never ending. Fortunately, the solutions are often easy to find and heart warming to apply. Using evidence-based, tried and true skills can help you to live your life with power and intention.