When you became a parent, you knew that waking up for 3 a.m. feedings was part of the package. Waking up at 3 a.m with your heart pounding, head spinning, and a throbbing sense of doom, on the other hand? Not so much.
Postpartum anxiety is common (both in mothers and non-birth partners), and may include panic attacks like the one described above. These terrifying experiences are also highly treatable. Learn more about what you can do to alleviate the symptoms of postpartum panic attacks.
1. First, understand that the panic attacks aren’t actually life-threatening
My strategy for helping clients get relief from postpartum panic attacks is to first establish an accurate diagnosis and then help them understand what a panic attack is in the first place**. Even though they are not dangerous, if you've never experienced a panic attack before or don't know what is happening, the physical symptoms can be overwhelming and very frightening.
**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!
2. Soothe the “fight or flight” response from within
Typically, women try to do things to avoid getting panic attacks (like avoiding certain places, situations or thoughts) and when an attack happens, they try hard to stop it. This teaches the body that a panic attack really is dangerous – leading to more anxiety, more panic and often more isolation.
So, early treatment entails teaching strategies to help the body learn that the triggers for panic aren’t actually dangerous – and neither is the panic attack itself. This helps women to address triggers without reacting to the fight or flight response.
3. Eliminate stressors that can trigger panic attacks
We aim to lower baseline stress that could be setting a woman up for panic attacks, such as:
- Lack of sleep
- Poor nutrition
- An inadequate support system
We'll identify the unique stressors together, and figure out solutions to alleviate their effect on the client's situation.
4. Work with a therapist to understand, navigate, and get relief from your anxiety
A perinatal specialist can help tremendously by correctly diagnosing the problem, and providing good education about what is happening when you have an attack.
They’ll work with you to identify and cope with triggers, and to help your body learn to respond differently to them – i.e., without panic.
Therapists can also work with you to identify and moderate stress (or stressors) that may be contributing to or maintaining the problem.
5. Seek additional resources from your therapist, if necessary
Therapists can also refer you to a prescribing clinician in some cases, where medication that you can take in pregnancy or postpartum would be helpful in interrupting the cycle of panic and avoidance, or in helping to treat underlying depression or anxiety.
Some anxiety is a natural responses to the chaos of growing a family – but when reactions settle in and control your actions or cause too much distress, it is wise to seek help. For many, that's an important first step towards restoring balance and peace of mind.