Postpartum Anxiety and OCD, Explained

Postpartum Anxiety and OCD, Explained

Racing or gruesome thoughts, trouble sleeping, feeling jittery—learn more about the signs of postpartum anxiety or OCD and their treatments.

By Liz Krieger

Let’s get real: Caring for an infant is often incredibly hard work, and it can also be shockingly tedious. Adjusting to the chaos a new baby brings to a household is difficult. The lack of sleep is sudden and can feel never-ending. Not to mention that there are massive hormonal shifts happening in your body after childbirth, which can significantly impact your mood. Having a baby is a huge life change, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if your feelings are just a normal part of the adjustment that will pass or something more serious.

We also hear a lot about postpartum depression (PPD), but there are lots of mood disorders, such as Postpartum Anxiety and Postpartum OCD, that don’t get discussed as much but are just as intense and serious. It’s important to us that we start discussing more than just postpartum depression in raising awareness about postpartum mood disorders.

Postpartum Anxiety (PPA)

If you’re experiencing a massive uptick in worrying (read: you’re worrying all day, every day), accompanied by some irrational fears, it could be postpartum anxiety (PPA). Around 10 to 15 percent of new moms suffer from postpartum anxiety, and about half of those who have postpartum depression will also experience postpartum anxiety. Hormones may be partly to blame: the abrupt decrease in estrogen and progesterone at the time of delivery can lead to a greater sensitivity to stress, causing some moms to feel overwhelmed, fearful, or panicky. In addition, your brain is remapping its gray matter for the survival of the species, highly attuning you to any possible danger to your baby, making your fight-or-flight response hyper-sensitive. It’s no wonder this can lead to a serious spike in your anxiety, even when you know logically that your baby is perfectly safe.

Symptoms of PPA may include:

  • A constant sense of dread or a sense of danger
  • Racing thoughts
  • A persistent feeling of being on edge, like something is about to go terribly wrong
  • Excessive worry about your baby’s health, development, or safety
  • An overwhelming sense of burden, stress, and concern about the ability to be a good mom
  • A persistent case of the jitters or a constant agitated feeling that can manifest as anger or rage 
  • Insomnia or trouble falling or staying asleep, even though you’re exhausted
  • Changes in heart rate and breathing, including elevated heartbeat, rapid breathing and/or chest pain, especially if the anxiety takes the form of panic attacks

Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Oftentimes, postpartum anxiety can take the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Obsessions can present as persistent, intrusive thoughts or mental images related to the baby (like, are you suddenly imagining the worst things possible happening?). These thoughts can be incredibly upsetting, and sometimes include unwanted thoughts of your baby getting hurt or even that you have dropped or otherwise harmed your own baby.

Another piece is compulsions, which are are actions performed over and over again to reduce fears—such as obsessively checking the baby while he’s sleeping, asking for constant reassurance from family members that the baby has not been harmed or abused, constant cleaning, checking things, counting, or reordering objects. Postpartum OCD usually brings a feeling of horror about the obsessions, fears of being alone with the baby, and a strong desire to protect the infant. Other symptoms include:

  • A sense of horror about your own obsessions
  • Fear of being left alone with your infant
  • Hyper-vigilance in protecting your infant

Postpartum anxiety and postpartum OCD can both be treated with therapy and antidepressant medications to lift you out of this. If these symptoms sound familiar, the best thing you can do for yourself and for your baby is to call your doctor today.