While it’s normal for parents and caregivers to feel worried about their child’s health and well-being, postpartum anxiety refers to a constant feeling of paranoia or dread. This experience extends beyond the typical fears of a child’s safety.
In some cases, it can become entirely consuming. If left untreated, this condition may affect both the child and the parent’s mental and physical health.
What Is Postpartum Anxiety?
While postpartum depression has gained more recognition in mainstream conversation, postpartum anxiety is less understood. That said, the condition appears to be just as common. The common symptoms of postpartum anxiety include():
- Feeling a persistent sense of dread or danger.
- Racing thoughts about your child’s well-being.
- Excessive worry about your child’s safety.
- Insomnia or other sleep problems.
- Ongoing panic attacks.
- Chronic nightmares about your child in danger.
- Feeling ‘on edge’ or agitated throughout the day.
- Experiencing hot flashes or chills.
- Nausea, vomiting, or fainting.
- Chest tightness throughout the day.
Postpartum anxiety extends beyond the typical “new parent worries.” This anxiety is pervasive, and it doesn’t necessarily have a specific origin.
For instance, it’s normal for parents to check on their infant’s breathing while they sleep. But someone with postpartum anxiety may not feel like they can leave the room until their child awakens. It’s also normal for a parent to worry about a child meeting usual milestones. But a parent with postpartum anxiety may check online and call the pediatrician several times a week despite reassurances.
What Causes Postpartum Anxiety?
There isn’t a specific cause for postpartum anxiety- it appears that a combination of risk factors can increase one’s predisposition for developing it.
Keep in mind that postpartum anxiety may emerge at different times. For example, some people experience it during pregnancy or just after bringing their baby home. Others start having symptoms several weeks or months after the birth.
Previous Miscarriage or Death of an Infant
Any history of miscarriages or stillborn births can trigger panic about your child’s safety. These experiences require their own grief processes, and the pain associated with such loss never entirely vanishes.
Some parents blame themselves for what happened, which can trigger anxiety about “getting it right” with their child. Other parents may distrust doctors or other healthcare professionals, leading them to feel isolated in their parenting.
Above all, the fear remains: nobody wants this history to repeat itself. But this fear, of course, can exacerbate postpartum anxiety.
It’s no secret that new parents often feel perpetually exhausted. The series of sleepless nights can be grueling, and this fatigue can affect mental judgment.
To complicate matters, many people rely on caffeine or sugary snacks to maintain their energy levels. While these habits are permissible in moderation, depending on them often can leave you feeling even more depleted over time.
Preexisting History of Anxiety
People with past histories of anxiety may face an increased risk for postpartum anxiety. Likewise, anxiety can run in families. If one of your immediate relatives struggles with anxiety, you may be more susceptible.
Having a Child with Medical Issues
Giving birth to a premature baby or a baby with medical issues can heighten postpartum anxiety risk. As a new parent, you may not know what to expect, and all those doctor appointments and medications may feel frightening.
People who identify with high perfectionistic tendencies or living with certain personality disorders may struggle with postpartum anxiety. This often stems from a desire to do “everything right.” A mistake may trigger a cycle of shame, guilt, and fear, perpetuating feelings of anxiety.
Risks of Postpartum Anxiety
Postpartum anxiety can cause several issues for men and their families. Keep in mind that these issues may not unfold immediately. With that in mind, it’s important to be aware of the potential risks.
Some people use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their anxiety symptoms. While the occasional drink isn’t inherently problematic, relying on these substances can impair judgment, impulse control, and mood.
Chronic use can lead to dependence, which can cause an addiction. Additionally, parents cannot provide adequate support for their babies if they are under the influence.
Increased Anger or Aggression
In some cases, unresolved anxiety can manifest as hostility, irritability, and aggression. These feelings often only exacerbate stress.
Additionally, additional anger can make it challenging to stay present and enjoy the nuances of early parenting.
Postpartum anxiety can create relationship conflict. For example, the parent might become overly controlling about how other people parent the child. They may want to do everything themselves, which can be frustrating or disheartening for others.
Additionally, anxiety can cause shame, and shame often leads to low self-esteem. This can complicate a relationship because the person may demand constant validation or reassurance.
Poor Parent-Child Attachment
Attachment refers to the bonding a child has with their parent. Babies need to feel secure with their caregivers to feel safe to explore the world.
An anxious parent can stunt the child’s growth. They may hover excessively, do tasks for the baby that the baby wants to try by themselves, or try to shelter the baby completely from the real world. When this happens, the child may internalize that the world is unsafe and dangerous. As a result, they may grow up feeling anxious themselves.
Understanding the Father’s Role in Parenting
When it comes to parenting, most research focuses on the relationship. Subsequently, an overwhelming majority of studies examine how postpartum depression or anxiety affects women. There remains little to be said about new fathers and mental health.
This gap is problematic for several reasons. First, approximately 5-15% of men experience depression or anxiety after their child’s birth. This number may be significantly higher, but lack of adequate reporting and the fears of a social stigma may impact statistics.
Of course, fathers have an essential role in parenting. They provide security, validation, and safety within the family dynamic. When they are affectionate and loving, their modeling can help instill a child’s confidence and self-esteem.
Today, many fathers value having an equal role in parenting. They want to be as hands-on as mothers. Simultaneously, they might have less experience interacting with small children, leading to feelings of insecurity and helplessness. If the mother automatically takes over most parenting duties, the father may feel resentful, confused, or unsure about his role.
Some fathers worry that the mother prefers the baby over them. They might feel concerned about the quality of their relationship with their partner, especially if their partner is struggling with depression and anxiety.
Furthermore, many men must grapple with the difficult balance of working and spending time with their families. Work or financial concerns may cast doubt and uncertainty about their competence as a provider. This can be especially problematic if the mother is not working or childcare options are limited.
What Do Fathers Need During the Postpartum Period?
We know that pregnancy can be an emotional and physical rollercoaster for women. Most people are sensitive to this phenomenon, and many women receive tremendous support during this vulnerable time.
However, men often feel invisible. They want to be supportive to their partners, but they may feel worried, depressed, or uncertain about the future themselves. Some men report finding it difficult to bond with their baby, especially during pregnancy. After all, they aren’t the ones growing the babies inside of them!
But men need support, validation, and encouragement during pregnancy and after the child’s birth. Many couples face tension and strain during the first year- this volatility can be scary and overwhelming for a new father.
How to Cope With Postpartum Anxiety
If you’re struggling with postpartum anxiety, you’re not alone. Recognizing the problem is the first step towards making a sustainable change. Here are some tips that can help.
Connect With Other Parents
Many new mothers take the liberty of finding ‘mom’ friends during the baby years. But this doesn’t need to be limited to women.
Get to know other fathers. Whether it’s connecting with old friends or colleagues, talking to other fathers in the neighborhood, or attending a parenting Meetup, building relationships can offer invaluable support.
Talk to Your Partner
Feeling disconnected in your relationship can intensify postpartum anxiety symptoms. You may feel worried about your baby’s health, but you might also be concerned about your partner.
Get in the habit of engaging in healthy communication. Set aside a few minutes each day to chat and connect. Talk about how you’re feeling. Try to be honest and forthcoming, even if you feel afraid. This kind of disclosure may also encourage your partner to share what’s on their mind.
Some couples use anxiety as an excuse to lash out or withdraw from one another. This only tends to cause more problems. It can also intensify anxiety. Instead, try to shift the focus onto how you can support one another and find reasonable solutions for managing your mental health.
Set Technology Limits
If your anxiety drives you to look up every poop, cry, or strange sound, it may be time to implement some serious boundaries with yourself. The Internet is full of scary anecdotes that can terrify even the most laid-back parent.
Try to set specific time limits for “Googling baby questions.” Even cutting down a few minutes can make a tremendous difference in your mental health.
Additionally, it can be beneficial to identify a few trustworthy resources to have on hand in advance. If you do need to need to search for an answer, only consult with those sources. This limits the possibility of an information overload.
Instead of getting lost in television or scrolling, learn about postpartum in more detail. With education comes understanding and that can make an incredible difference.
Exercise is a fantastic way to reduce stress. Try to prioritize regular physical activity.
Of course, this tall order may seem impossible during the newborn years. Get creative with it! You can include your baby by taking walks, hikes, or playing at the park together.
Mindfulness refers to the conscious act of being aware of the present moment. You can practice mindfulness using several different techniques:
- Take a few deep breaths when you feel overwhelmed. Practice inhaling deeply through your nose and exhaling with your mouth.
- Set a timer and meditate for a few minutes.
- Engage in single tasks at a time.
- Designate technology-free zones in the house.
- Create a mantra that you can tell yourself when you feel stressed.
Remember that mindfulness doesn’t need to be perfect to be effective. Setting the mindset for being present- and doing your best to honor that mindset- is what counts.
Therapy for postpartum anxiety can help you challenge your negative thoughts and manage your emotions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on identifying unhelpful cognitive distortions. After identifying them, you can learn to reframe your approach and practice new coping techniques.
Therapy also offers a safe and nonjudgmental space for you to process your feelings related to parenting. It’s normal to experience a combination of excitement, fear, sadness, confusion, and even regret during the first few months. Having support during this time can help you feel less alone.
Talk to Your Doctor About Medication
Medication can help with postpartum anxiety. Many doctors start by prescribing antidepressants (SSRIs) like Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, or Lexapro. These medications affect how your brain processes serotonin and dopamine. They can “level out” mood swings and decrease anxiety symptoms.
In some cases, a doctor may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication, such as Xanax, Klonopin, or Ativan. These medications are known as benzodiazepines, and they are typically recommended for short-term use. They can be habit-forming, which is why it’s so important to take this medication exactly as prescribed.
The postpartum period can be challenging for all parents. But the focus cannot and should not be limited solely to new mothers. Fathers need support, recognition, and resources during this time.
If you or a loved one is struggling with postpartum anxiety, reach out for help. Don’t wait for things to improve on their own. Even if they do, you (and your family) deserve relief now.