Having a panic attack is a terrifying experience at any point in someone’s life. When coupled with the stress inherent to postpartum life – all of a sudden, you're balancing sleep deprivation with unprecedented levels of stress – panic attacks can feel even scarier than before. In addition to not knowing when panic attacks are going to strike, many women also worry about whether they will impact the baby or their ability to care for the baby.
Understanding what causes, contributes to, and alleviates panic attacks is an empowering first step. Read on for seven helpful things to know about addressing postpartum panic attacks.
1. Postpartum panic attacks are similar to other types of panic attacks
In a panic attack, a person’s body senses a severe threat, when in reality there is nothing dangerous happening. The body’s “fight or flight” system kicks in, and prepares itself to either eliminate the threat or escape it.
Like other panic attacks, a postpartum panic attack arises without warning. Symptoms include:
- Intense fear
- Pounding heartbeat
- Feeling hot or sweaty
- Difficulty catching a full breath
- Throat or chest tightness
- Sense of needing to escape
A woman may experience just some, or all, of these symptoms at various points, and typically for less than 30 minutes at a time.
2. Postpartum panic attacks aren’t always postpartum
Panic attacks can happen at any point in the perinatal period, including during pregnancy.
However, during their first year after giving birth, women are more vulnerable to anxiety disorders and mood disorders such as depression, both of which set the stage for postpartum panic attacks. Symptoms that worsen postpartum actually often begin during pregnancy.
3. A history of anxiety may increase your odds of experiencing a postpartum panic attack
If you have struggled with anxiety or panic attacks in the past, you may be more likely to experience them in your postpartum period.
That said, panic attacks can occur postpartum even in women who have never had them before; and just having a history of anxiety or panic doesn't necessarily mean you will suffer more postpartum.
4. Sleep deprivation, traumatic labor & delivery, and postpartum anxiety or depression can exacerbate postpartum panic attacks
While the exact causes of panic attacks remain unclear, severe stress, medical conditions, and other physical causes have been indicated as triggers for panic attacks.
In the postpartum period, stressors specific to being a new mom can lead to increased anxiety. The following are also important to note:
- Sleep deprivation or severe stress in pregnancy or postpartum can also set a woman up for panic attack.
- Sometimes panic attacks show up as part of perinatal depression or other types of anxiety. They can, however, also occur on their own.
5. Increase sleep and support – not caffeine – if you are suffering from anxiety postpartum
After a whole pregnancy with limits on caffeine, moms sometimes gravitate to coffee to keep them going – but caffeine can both trigger panic attacks and make them worse.
If you’re having symptoms of a panic attack, it’s better to change the lack of sleep than to reach for caffeine!
6. Postpartum anxiety and panic attacks can happen to both parents, and both biological and non-biological parents
Postpartum anxiety are common in non-birth parents after conception and during the first year of parenthood too – meaning much of the above applies to all parents.
7. You should consult with a doctor to rule out medical causes
There are some medical conditions, some serious, that can cause symptoms similar to panic attacks. Some are more common in, or unique to, postpartum women. So, it is important to be evaluated by a medical professional before assuming you are having a panic attack. Once you are sure there is no medical cause, therapists can be very helpful! Medication can also be helpful and your therapist should be able to make a referral to a good prescriber and provide coordination when it seems that may be a good option for you.
The perinatal/postpartum stages – when baby is on the way, and the months after birth – are exciting periods, and can also be very stressful. If anxiety looms over you, it can be difficult to catch your breath and appreciate the wonders of this time or just to adjust to the huge transition in your life.
Know that you're not alone – and that postpartum anxiety, depression, and panic attacks are all treatable with talk therapy (and in some cases, medications). You can find help for your situation and your family from a perinatal specialist on Zencare, below. Filter the list by your desired insurance, fees, and location; then watch therapist introductory videos, and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you.