July 23, 2019
Reviewed by Julie Ciecior, LPC, NCC
The odds are about 1 in 10 that as a new mom, you'll experience postpartum panic attacks. Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, heart racing, gasping for air, with terrifying thoughts that your baby was in danger? Or maybe you were driving, and all of a sudden started shaking and sweating and thought you were about to die. You’re not alone. Postpartum panic attacks can feel extremely scary. The good news is that they’re not life-threatening (although they can be very life-impacting), and treatment can be very effective.
Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear when there isn’t any true danger. The three most common fears are fear of death, fear of losing control, and fear of going crazy. When panic attacks occur during the postpartum period, the fears may relate to the baby or motherhood, for example fear that the baby is about to die or fear that motherhood is making you lose control.
There are often physical symptoms associated with panic attacks, including shortness of breath, chest pain, increased heart rate, excessive sweating, hot flashes and chills, shaking or trembling, nausea, dizziness, numbness or a tingling sensation, and headaches. Panic attacks may be frequent or sporadic and usually last between 20-30 minutes. After the panic attack subsides, there may be lingering (and intense) fear about having another one.
If you’re having panic attacks, it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider. Sometimes they get worse without treatment and they may be difficult to manage on your own. Also, panic attacks have a lot of symptoms in common with other serious health issues, so it’s best to rule them out. If you’ve had recurrent postpartum panic attacks, you may have a condition called postpartum panic disorder.
Postpartum panic disorder is a type of postpartum anxiety disorder. Like many of the other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), postpartum panic disorder resembles its non-postpartum counterpart. It’s characterized by panic attacks, and may include other anxiety symptoms like difficulty concentrating, inability to relax, insomnia, loss of appetite, and irritability.
Related: PMADs vs. Postpartum Depression
In addition to the focus of the fears on motherhood (which is common but not necessary), another difference between panic disorder and postpartum panic disorder is that the sleep deprivation that so many new mothers experience may make the panic attacks worse.
Studies suggest between 4 and 10 percent of new moms may develop postpartum panic disorder. Symptoms usually begin within the first few days after childbirth, but may show up anytime in the first year.
Postpartum panic disorder can be treated successfully with medication, therapy, or a combination of the two. In addition, physical activity has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety, so depending on where you are in your recovery from birth, a daily walk might help. Since sleep deprivation can exacerbate panic attacks, getting enough sleep should be a priority (but let’s be honest, it probably is already).
If you’re having postpartum panic attacks, you’re not alone, you’re not going crazy, and you’re still a good mother. But please talk to someone and get help, so you can feel better.
Postpartum Panic: Not Depressed, Just Scared to Death. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-human-equation/201006/postpartum-panic-not-depressed-just-scared-death
Postpartum Panic Disorder. PostpartumDepression.org. Retrieved from: https://www.postpartumdepression.org/postpartum-depression/types/panic-disorder/
Panic attacks and panic disorder. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from:
Julie Ciecior, LPC, NCC is a psychotherapist at the Postpartum Wellness Center of Boulder. She has received training in perinatal mood disorders through Postpartum Support International, along with extensive training in trauma and sexual abuse. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Colorado at Boulder and her Masters in Counseling from Regis University.
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