Babies are great. Everyone loves babies. They are cute. They are funny. They are an extension of you – a life that you brought into this world that looks a little like you and will love you unconditionally for the rest of your days.
Babies also poop. Like all the time.
They cry. They require non-stop food. They drool and spit up and get sick and never sleep and always sleep and get rashes and fart and cry more and are so, so fragile…
Having a baby can be one of life’s greatest joys. But it is rarely easy.
Most parents experience some degree of nervousness in their life after giving birth. Yet some parents experience real, serious anxiety. Raising a baby is hard enough. Raising a newborn baby while you also seem to be struggling with anxiety can make it overwhelming.
Postpartum Anxiety – In Moms AND Dads
Anxiety after giving birth, also known as postpartum anxiety, is common. It is also present in both moms and dads, although women have a few extra factors that do put them slightly more at risk. Anyone that feels that they are overwhelmed by nervousness or struggling to keep the stress together may be showing sign of this type of condition.
There is a lot of attention placed on postpartum depression, and rightfully so, as it is a heavily underdiagnosed issue. But postpartum anxiety is also very common. While it can theoretically go away with time, others find that it becomes a lasting issue that affects their lives for years to come.
Even if you are someone whose anxiety is destined to go away, the challenges that anxiety can bring to one’s life can affect your ability to adjust to parenthood, and your ability to remember and enjoy the time you have with your new child.
The MANY Causes of Postpartum Anxiety
With anxiety, it is not always important what causes your anxiety as much as it is finding ways to treat it. But sometimes by examining how many different issues lead to anxiety after childbirth, it can put some perspective on what has happened that led to the condition.
This is by no means an exhaustive list because anxiety is complex. The factors that lead to it can be as simple as worrying about the baby, or as complex as a past interaction of your own childhood. But some of the most common reasons for anxiety after birth include:
- Lack of Sleep – It cannot be emphasized enough how often poor sleep is responsible for the development of anxiety. Your ability to cope with stress is related to both your brain and the chemical messengers inside of the body. When you don’t sleep, your brain doesn’t work as well and the chemical messengers do not function properly. If you don’t cope with stress well, anxiety can be the result. (Similarly, when someone struggles with sleep they often drink extra coffee, which may make anxiety worse).
- Hormonal Changes – Women that have given birth often take 6 months or more for their bodies to recover. Part of that recovery is your hormones going back to normal. When you have a hormonal imbalance, it can trigger anxiety.
- Societal Pressures – We now live in a world where we are conditioned to believe that parenting is perfect and that we have to raise our child a specific way or we are bad parents. Those pressures to be perfect can easily trigger the development of anxiety. Any time you believe that you have to be perfect, anxiety is often the result.
- Expectations vs. Reality – Some new parents thought parenting a newborn will be easier. Others thought that they would feel an instant connection to their child, or that there would be no setbacks. But rarely do expectations match reality. Parenting a newborn is hard. Many parents do not feel a connection to their child right away (remember, babies may not make eye contact, smile, or laugh for months). Parenting often has setbacks. It is messy. Expecting it to be easy can lead to stress when it is not.
- Change in Life – Although it is not always clear why there is scientific evidence that change leads to anxiety. It is likely due to the way routine and familiarity leads to comfort and relaxation. When you have a baby, routine changes, and familiarity changes. Suddenly your mind doesn’t have that comfort anymore, and the ability to control stress reduces with it.
- Already Have Anxiety – There is this assumption that anxiety develops after the baby is born. But for many parents, that anxiety already existed. Maybe it wasn’t as severe or unmanageable, but the anxiety was always present. Having a baby simply exacerbated it in a noticeable way.
- Financial Woes – Not all anxiety is the result of the baby itself, but some of the experiences that happen after birth. For some parents, having a baby can be extremely expensive. This leads to financial woes that cause stress. When combined with some of the stresses of caring for a baby, the result can be anxiety.
- Little Alone/Relationship Time – Similarly, when you have a baby, some of the things that used to decrease your anxiety go away. You don’t get any alone time anymore. You and your partner don’t get to go on dates as easily or have much intimacy (you may also be fighting more). There are changes that take place that take away some of the tools you used to use to control your stresses.
This is not a complete list, but it’s easy to see where anxiety can develop. Anxiety and stress co-exist. Having a baby is stressful. The body and life are going through changes. If anything, it’s surprising anxiety isn’t even more common.
Why to Cure Postpartum Anxiety
Things get easier. They always do. Newborns are only newborns for a short time. Soon they’ll be pooping less, crying less, and playing more. You will adjust to your life with your baby.
That means that for some people, the anxiety will go away all on its own.
But there is still a real benefit to reducing your postpartum anxiety, and not waiting for it to go away.
First, there is no guarantee it will go away. You may be waiting for a long time, only for your anxiety to remain a constant problem in your life.
Second, the stress and anxiety you experience now can still have a long-term effect on your life in the future. It can make it harder to enjoy parenthood, it may make it harder to bond with your baby, it can damage your relationship with your partner, it can even cause you to simply forget things (anxiety can lead to some memory loss) during a time in your life that you probably want to remember.
Finally, you deserve to be happy. Anxiety is extremely difficult to live with and takes away your happiness. During this time, finding a way to get some relief from your stress and anxiety should be a priority.
Symptoms of Postpartum Anxiety vs. Natural Worry
It should be noted, however, that not all worry is anxiety. It is natural to worry about your baby. You have to make sure they are on their back, or that their diaper rash is cared for so that they are not uncomfortable, or that you do not leave them in the car. Sometimes these worries are even a bit distracting and stay on your mind for a while.
So how can you tell if you have anxiety or if your worries are “normal?”
Anxiety is normal, so this question is a bit misleading. But generally, the symptoms of anxiety after childbirth include:
- Persistent Overwhelming Worry – One of the keys is “overwhelming.” If the worry is manageable, and you don’t find it too difficult to deal with, then it may not be anxiety. “Overwhelming” means different things to different people. If it feels difficult for you, even if you think you can manage it, that still may count as overwhelming.
- Physical Symptoms – If you feel nauseated, shaky, sweaty, twitchy, on edge, or experience any of the symptoms of panic attacks, it is a sign you have anxiety.
- Changes in Mood/Behavior – If you find yourself far more irritable than normal, or you can’t stop checking to make sure the baby is okay even though you checked only a moment ago, or you won’t let anyone touch your baby because you’re afraid they’ll get sick, these may be signs that you are experiencing some anxiety symptoms.
In some cases, anxiety may also spill out and affect areas of your life that have nothing to do with your baby. You may find yourself more anxious about work, for example. A sign of postpartum anxiety in many new parents is that anxiety becomes their state of being – one that becomes their “new normal” in many ways.
How to Reduce Postpartum Anxiety
If you are one of the many parents that struggle with postpartum anxiety, it helps to have solutions that can make it easier to manage. If you find that your anxiety is severe, it is perfectly healthy and acceptable to see a therapist or talk to a psychiatrist about medication.
In the interim, however, there are strategies that you can use to assist you in anxiety reduction:
- Accept That You Have Anxiety – The first step in reducing it is not to fight it. Parents try to tell themselves that they can control it, or that it is a sign of weakness, or that it means they are a bad parent. None of that is true. It is a normal challenge that affects millions of new parents. Accepting that you have it is the first step towards changing it.
- Assess Your Stresses and Time – Try to list out what your stresses are, and assess what your schedule is like with your new baby. Then see what you can address given your schedule. For example, if sleep and alone time are the biggest problems you have, see if there is a time that you or your partner can exchange naps and alone time so that you can get the refresh you need. The idea of “sleep” may seem hilarious, but most people do have a period of a half hour or so that they can fit in a nap if they and their partner communicate about it.
- Communicate Often and Push Love Time – If your partner is available, leaning on your partner for support is going to remain an important part of your recovery from anxiety. Talk to your partner calmly about your stresses and worries. Try to find a way to spend romantic or loving time together, even if you have to simply hold hands and kiss while you’re cheering baby up from crying. Communication and romance can help reduce some of the behind the scenes challenges that people struggle with.
- Find Some Time With Others – Having a strong support system is very important for addressing some of the challenges of anxiety. It’s useful to find time for that support system, even with the demanding needs of the baby. Something as simple as calling a friend and asking them to spend a few hours with you while you handle baby duties can be enough to help you realize and feel that everything is going to be okay.
- Use Some Relaxation Strategies – There are several relaxation exercises for anxiety that can help you feel calm even in times of high stress. This can be especially useful if your child suffers from issues like cholic, which are often very overwhelming for parents.
- Exercise – It sounds almost cliché to mention that exercise has value, but for parents with a newborn child, it can be especially useful. You are going to build up a lot of tension, and rarely will you have time to “work off” that energy. It will simply build and build. Exercise can help improve sleep quality, naturally reduces anxiety on its own, and then help you work off some of the energy that builds up.
Anxiety is something that generally needs to be addressed in the long term, and benefits from making small and long-term life changes. It also helps to remind yourself that things will get better. The newborn stage, leading up to infancy, is going to be the most difficult stage because it is the one stage where your child cannot do anything for themselves and is unable to give much back in return.
But over time, things do change. Not only can they take care of smaller issues themselves – they’ll also be able to reward you more with smiles, laughs, talking, and positive feedback that will make your heart melt and help you feel as though you’re getting rewards for all of your hard work.
So reminding yourself that it does get better can also be highly advantageous. And of course, if you combine those reminders with anxiety reduction strategies, like those you can learn after you take our free 7-minute anxiety test, you should be able to find that your anxiety is at least more controllable over time.
Learn more about your anxiety by taking our anxiety test here.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jun 26, 2018.