If you’re working with a mother who can’t switch off, is plagued with questions, finding it hard to sleep and who needs constant reassurance, you may be dealing with Postpartum/Postnatal Anxiety. By knowing the factors that increase risk - and the signs to look for - new families can get help earlier.
And many will need it, because PPA/PNA is extremely common. In fact, a recent study from Monash University in Australia found that around one third of new mothers and 17% of new dads are experiencing anxiety symptoms in the first six months post baby.
Anxiety symptoms are distressing at any time in life,
but even more so when you have a young baby to care for.
How do you know if you’re dealing with anxiety? Symptoms include:
Not sleeping well even though they’re exhausted
Feeling lethargic or unmotivated, but at the same time also restless and like they “should be doing something”
Loss of appetite and sometimes weight loss
Constant worry, feeling on edge, a sense of dread or imagining the worst
Needing to have everything perfect or under control
Racing thoughts, feeling like they’re “going crazy” or “losing it”
Physical complaints such as upset stomach, feeling light headed, short of breath, hot flushes
If this sounds like your client, or they’ve noticed these symptoms in their partner, refer them to their G.P. Because anxiety is common, temporary and very treatable, especially if it’s caught early.
If the anxiety is mild, it may be enough for a momma or dad to realize what the underlying issue is and make certain lifestyle changes to cope with it. Regular exercise is both a natural anti-anxiety and antidepressant, so support your clients to build this into their week, starting off small if they need to. Low blood sugar levels can increase anxiety, so it helps to eat small meals regularly, especially if momma is breastfeeding.
Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, conscious muscle relaxation or listening to guided meditations can help. There’s some great apps for this, so check them out. Many find meditation difficult to begin with - it’s like building a new muscle. Parents may need to experiment with different techniques, but the multiple benefits make it worth persevering!
Feeling disconnected (from partner, family, friends, life or ourself!) increases risk for anxiety. So where possible, support your clients to maintain old connections or foster new ones. Connection gives us a sense of emotional wellbeing, so it’s important to schedule in regular time with people and activities that enable this. Other simple ways to help clients relax and ground themselves are through artwork, reading, yoga or even watching re-runs of a favorite TV show.
Husbands or partners can often unknowingly make anxiety worse, and this is distressing for both parents. Anxiety can increase tension and conflict levels between partners and then this can negatively affect babies. For all these reasons it’s vital that partners understand what’s going on and know how to respond in an emotionally supportive way.
If this is outside your area of expertise, encourage couples to make an appointment with a family therapist or relationship counselor if they need help with this - and most do. The good news here is effective couple work at this time also builds strong family foundations. Lovely stuff!
If you’re working with a client who is pregnant, there’s lots you can do to minimize the risks for anxiety in the postpartum period. One of the simplest and most effective ways is to include “after the baby comes” and “relationship preparation” information along with your normal program. Research shows that having more realistic ideas of life with baby, knowing what the challenges are and how to prepare for them as a couple, can not only reduce risks for anxiousness, but set couples up for a better beginning for their family. Research also tells us this type of parenthood preparation leads to better birth outcomes, so that’s great news too!
To learn more about the different types of anxiety disorders, see the COPE website: http://cope.org.au/first-year/postnatal-mental-health-conditions/postnatal-anxiety/