The Human Equation

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Postpartum Panic: Not Depressed, Just Scared to Death

The baby blues isn't the only challenge new moms face.

At 12:11 a.m. on January 1, 1995, I welcomed my first-born into the world after 22 hours of labor and a C-section. On January 3, I experienced my first panic attack. Just home from the hospital, I had fallen asleep, only to be awakened out of a dead slumber a few hours later, gasping for breath and heart racing.

I had no idea what was happening. All I remember is jumping out of bed, stumbling down the stairs and throwing the door open. The cold January air seemed to snap me back to reality and help me regain control of my breathing. I spent the next few hours terrified of going back to sleep, afraid of the dark, and wondering if I was experiencing some weird reaction to my anesthesia or if I was losing my mind. Over the next six weeks, as the panic attacks and anxiety escalated, I began to believe the latter.

This Ain't the Blues, Baby

There's an irony here. With a family history of depression, I was not unaware of the risk of postpartum mood complications. In fact, I had read up on postpartum depression and was well-armed to deal with any baby blues that might linger longer than usual. But postpartum panic? I, a clinical psychologist who had been in practice for over ten years, had never heard of it.

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Apparently, the psychological landscape hasn't changed that much; just a year ago, I spoke to a well-known psychiatrist who glibly assured me that there's no such thing as postpartum panic disorder. In reality, postpartum anxiety and/or panic disorder affects between 4% and 10% of women in the postpartum period, most often wiithin the first few days after birth although they can come on more gradually during the first year post partum.

What Causes Postpartum Panic Attacks?


We don't know for sure. Almost all new parents are highly sensitive to, and reactive toward, what goes on around them; for example, parents in the few months after delivery typically have four to five times their normal sensitivity to sound. In some women, this sensitivity may go one step further, triggering an adrenaline response that causes bursts of panic. This is most likely in women who already have a personal or family history of anxiety and/or panic disorder. Throw a difficult pregnancy in, or birth complications, and you up the odds even further.

What It Looks Like


Postpartum panic disorder looks and feels like plain old panic disorder with a few exceptions. One, anxiety may be focused on maternal issues (being a "bad" mother, worry the baby will get sick or die) rather than general concerns. Also, the sleep deprivation that inevitably accompanies a new baby can be a huge factor in exacerbating postpartum panic attacks.


If you're a new mom experiencing postpartum panic, this is what it feels like:

  • "I went through where I couldn't sleep at all, and I would just pace the floors."
  • "I feel completely enraged at little things my husband would do. He would do or say something so trivial and I would want to smack him in the head - literally - just to make myself feel better."
  • "I felt completely terrified for no reason. I was scared to get in the shower, terrified to be by myself, even scared to close my eyes."
  • "I feel like I don't have any control of anything. I feel like I might be going insane."

From Postpartum Panic to a Calm Mom

Many new moms with postpartum panic can be successfully treated with medication, although, of course, breast feeding must be factored in to treatment decisions. Psychotherapy, as well as getting involved with an online or in-person postpartum support group, can be a godsend for women struggling not only to deal with the panic (and terror of another attack), but also the isolation of new motherhood, the guilt over "not being happy," and the fear that their emotional symptoms will somehow leak into their baby.

Mothers will do anything for their children. Getting help for postpartum panic is one of the greatest gifts a new mom can give to her baby. Not only will it make the parenting process easier, it can reacquaint a new mom with the strength of will that will make her a great parent. For, as Christopher Robin said to Winnie-the-Pooh, "You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."

 

 

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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