Anxiety After Having A Baby: Symptoms & Recovery
Senior clinical psychologist Dr Sara O’Byrne has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and their families, and she is here to answers your emotional health questions. Visit treehousepractice.ie for more information.
Reader question: I am a first time mother of a seven month- old baby girl. Lately, I’ve been finding myself overwhelmed with anxiety. I worry about almost everything from my baby’s diet to my partner not looking after her properly to my daughter catching germs off people in the supermarket. I’m normally an upbeat person but I’m struggling to sleep, eat and I cry at the drop of a hat these days. Are there any coping mechanisms that can get me through this tough period?
Sara says: Having a new baby is a time of emotional upheaval at the best of times. Anxiety is a common experience during this period and a mild to moderate amount of new fears and worries is to be expected. For some women, anxiety can start to take over and interfere with enjoyment of this period and make you feel entirely different from your ‘old self’. When this is the case, it is possible that postpartum anxiety is responsible.
Signs & Symptoms Of Postpartum Or Perinatal Anxiety
- Racing thoughts and inability to relax
- Feeling the need to be doing something all the time, such as cleaning the house, making bottles, doing housework
- Worrying all the time and not responding to reassurance about these worries
- Having disturbing and worrying thoughts (such as, “What if I die?” or “What if my baby gets seriously ill?”)
- Feeling the need to check things constantly, such as the door being locked, the oven being switched off
- Experiencing anxiety in your body. This might include panic attacks, nausea, headaches, and shakes.
- Having difficulty sleeping even though you are exhausted
- Feeling restless and on edge all the time
- Loss of appetite
- Being afraid to ask for help for fear that you will be judged a bad mother or that your baby will be taken away
If these signs ring true, what is important to realise firstly is that postpartum anxiety is an extremely common difficulty, with estimates suggesting that around 15-20% of mothers will have these experiences. What is also important to realise is that perinatal anxiety is generally temporary and treatable with the right support. The condition is known to develop as a result of a number of factors.
There is a huge hormonal shift straight after delivery, with oestrogen and progesterone levels dropping significantly. This can leave many women feeling depleted and run-down. In combination with these chemical changes, as a new mother you are also encountering sleep deprivation, new responsibilities, and being in charge of your baby on a 24:7 basis. There is also the impact of expectations from friends, family and society. How often do we hear that having a new baby is one of the happiest times of our lives? Yes, this can be true but it can also be one of the most stressful and life-changing of experiences. No wonder that so many mothers come unstuck.
So What Might Help?
It is important both to look at small changes you can make to your day but also to realise that accessing support networks and professional help is also likely to help strengthen your existing coping skills.
Develop Your Toolbox
- Make sure you are eating a balanced diet. It is important to replenish yourself after childbirth and if breast feeding. Some symptoms, including agitation and nervousness can be related to hunger.
- Get active. This does not mean going to the gym on a daily basis but can be as simple as setting yourself a daily challenge to walk to and from your local shop.
- Address sleep deprivation. Yes, easier said than done but research suggests that women are more susceptible to postpartum anxiety if they are consistently surviving on four to five hours sleep per night, or less. Consider accepting offers of help from your partner, friends and family. Your ability to problem solve will be increased after better quality sleep.
- Focus on your breathing, using techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing. Anxiety is known to make breaths more shallow and rapid; this is what leads to panicky sensations. Engaging in mindful, slow, deep breaths will calm your body and lead to a reduction in physical symptoms.
- Try to ground yourself using techniques of mindfulness that involve focusing on your senses (“What can you see/hear/smell and touch?”). Tune in to these experiences and try to see your thoughts and worries floating in and out of your mind, without engaging with them.
- Focus on a positive mantra that you can use as a guide (e.g. “I am going to be okay”, “I am looking after myself”).
Seek Professional Support
Accessing support through your GP, a psychologist, psychotherapist or specialist organisation can be helpful to teach you additional skills to help alleviate the anxiety. Charities and organisations such as Nurture and Cuidiu offer accessible and practical support to women with these experiences. Of course, with experiences of anxiety it can be difficult to take this step but once you do, you will be met with understanding, kindness and compassion. These are exactly the tools you will need to learn to apply to yourself.
Remember that you are a person too and you are as deserving of love, attention and support as your new baby.