Postpartum Anxiety: Is it More Common Than Postnatal Depression?

Research has identified that postpartum anxiety is more common than postnatal depression — and yet not enough women know about it.

While postpartum depression receives a great deal of attention, a study has revealed that more new mums experience postpartum anxiety (17%) compared to postpartum depression (5%).

The study, conducted by the University of British Columbia back in 2016, found that postpartum anxiety is far more widespread than originally thought. In fact, it’s three times more common than postnatal depression.

Lead researcher Dr. Nicole Fairbrother says, “Pregnant women and postpartum women who are suffering from an anxiety disorder may not be getting the screening or assessment or treatment that they need. This is because we aren’t thinking to ask about these kinds of concerns as we’re so focused on depression,” she said.

mum next to baby in cot depressed | postpartum anxiety

Being aware of postpartum depression is certainly a good thing. But more attention needs to be given to postpartum anxiety.

Referring to her work as a psychologist, Dr. Fairbrother spoke about a new mum who was having thoughts about harming her baby.

She explained that the mum had been receiving treatment for postpartum depression for a couple of years. However, it had been unsuccessful – because she wasn’t actually suffering from depression but from anxiety.

Once the treatment focus changed, she saw results within eight weeks.

This just highlights the importance of differentiating between postpartum anxiety and postpartum depression and getting the right treatment.

“Sometimes people have these really serious anxiety problems that, if they go untreated, can lead to the development of depression,” she said. “If we’re not asking about anxiety, we may not know.”

What’s the difference between anxiety and depression?

Postnatal (aka postpartum) depression affects approximately one in every seven women in Australia. While many new mums experience the baby blues in the first few days after giving birth, postpartum depression usually develops between one month and up to a year after the birth of the baby.

Postpartum anxiety (aka postnatal anxiety) is actually common in both men and women. While many of us can feel anxious about a certain situation or specific event, postpartum anxiety can occur for no particular reason. It can’t easily be controlled and it doesn’t easily go away.

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Signs of postpartum depression

A woman may suffer from a few or several symptoms of depression. Some of the most widespread signs include:

  • having a very low mood
  • feeling inadequate and a failure as a mother
  • having a sense of hopelessness about the future
  • feeling exhausted, empty, sad and teary
  • feeling guilty, ashamed or worthless
  • feeling anxious or panicky
  • having trouble sleeping, sleep for too long or have nightmares
  • worrying excessively about their baby
  • feeling scared of being alone or going out

Recognising postpartum anxiety

People suffering from postpartum anxiety may experience one or many of the following symptoms:

  • generalised anxiety (you feel anxious most days)
  • panic disorder — you have panic attacks, when you feel overwhelmingly anxious and have physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain and dizziness
  • agoraphobia — a fear of open or public spaces
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — where you are compelled to carry out certain behaviours or rituals
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — where your anxiety is directly related to a previous traumatic event, and you have nightmares, flashbacks and find it hard to relax
  • social phobia — an intense fear of being criticised or humiliated in public.

Women who suffer from anxiety or have an anxiety disorder prior to giving birth may be at greater risk of developing postpartum anxiety.

Signs of postpartum anxiety

Some of the more common signs of postpartum anxiety include:

  • intense and constant feelings of fear and worry
  • feeling irritable, restless or on edge
  • having a racing heart and/or palpitations
  • being constantly worried you’re not doing things right
  • thinking something bad will happen
  • inability to sleep
  • obsessively trying to control things, such as constantly checking on your baby
  • having visions of something terrible happening to the baby.

Woman crying feeling anxious or depressed

Why are we overlooking postpartum anxiety?

Some of the signs and symptoms of postpartum anxiety overlap with postpartum depression, which can make it difficult to distinguish which you are suffering from.

Also, almost half of the women who have postnatal anxiety will have postpartum depression simultaneously.

In addition, many mums feel so overwhelmed after having a baby or are so immensely tired that they don’t stop to consider their own wellbeing. They may think these feelings are all part and parcel of having a baby and dealing with feeding and sleep deprivation.

What should you do if you feel you have postpartum anxiety or depression?

Whatever you do, DO NOT SUFFER IN SILENCE. Not enough women know about postpartum anxiety. It is a conversation we need to be having.

Therefore, no matter what symptoms you have, if you feel concerned talk to your doctor, midwife or child health nurse. Alternatively, you can call the following helplines for immediate advice and support:

PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) — 1300 726 306

Beyondblue — 1300 22 46 36

Pregnancy, Birth & Baby — 1800 882 436

If you or someone you know has postnatal depression, encourage them to seek help or at the very least to talk about it. If you’re a new mum, don’t forget to read about how your husband can give you a helping hand (and yes, it’s okay to ask for help!). And despite what we thought we knew, men can also suffer from postnatal depression.

Avatar of Leanne Philpott

A former Sydneysider, she turned her ideas of a sea change into reality and now lives with her family in beautiful South-West WA. A lover of yoga and travel, like most mums, she’s on a quest to create a better work-life balance. When she’s not pulling socks out from behind the sofa or sponging little hand prints off the walls, she’s in the kitchen trying to dream up exciting lunch box ideas for her three cheeky monkeys.

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