Health / Pregnancy

4 Tips for Handling Postpartum Stress and Anxiety

Feeling overwhelmed as a brand new parent? You’re not alone. Here’s how to cope.

For new moms, the weeks and months after having a baby can be a blur. You’re sleep-deprived, dealing with crazy hormones, recovering from both pregnancy and childbirth, and most of all, trying to care for your little one. Even if you feel like you’re functioning fairly well, you might also feel overwhelmed or full of self-doubt. This is completely common. Our experts share four tips for handling postpartum stress, explain why asking for help is so important, and note when you might be dealing with something more serious.

Remember, postpartum stress is incredibly normal.

“Stress is extremely common for postpartum moms,” says Aaptiv trainer Jaime McFaden. “There are so many changes going on internally and externally. Life is completely different. You might be breastfeeding or pumping, waking up around the clock, [feeling] hungry, dealing with hormones changing, and trying to maintain your normal life. There are so many reasons why the postpartum [period] can be very stressful.”

Causes of postpartum stress may include:

Basically, postpartum stress can come as a result of sleep deprivation, nursing, caring for another human being 24/7, and your personal needs being neglected, says Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist and marriage counselor in Boulder, CO. It can also be triggered by a difficult pregnancy or childbirth experience, adds Psychotherapist Dr. Mayra Mendez, especially experiences that may result in ongoing trauma or fear of illness.

“Stress is widely known to decrease the production of oxytocin and endorphins, which mitigate pain during and after a birth,” explains Marriage and Family Therapist Gina Borelli, who specializes in postpartum depression and grief at Marin General Hospital. “The postpartum period is challenging even when one is not predisposed to depression or anxiety. Recovery after birth is affected by sleep deprivation and the anxiety that accompanies normal parental duties. New parents typically have feelings of guilt—especially in regard to balancing self-care with the need to take care of their child.”

Try to eat healthy, exercise in moderation, and rest as much as possible.

“To combat postpartum stress, make sure [that] you’re taking care of yourself,” says Raffi Bilek, couples counselor and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center. “Go for a walk outdoors with the baby, make sure to get a shower or bath in there when you can, hire a babysitter for an hour, and get a massage. After a birth, these things aren’t luxuries. They’re necessities.”

In general, Dr. Sherry Ross, OB-GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, recommends eating well, exercising, staying hydrated, sleeping a solid seven to eight hours a day, and practicing relaxation techniques—like mindfulness and meditation—in order to minimize postpartum stress. “Exercise may be the safest ‘antidepressant’ for women suffering from postpartum stress, anxiety, or depression,” she continues. “Regular exercise can improve mental health, relieve stress, improve depression and anxiety, and help you sleep better. Yoga, acupuncture, and massage are other safe additions to your treatment plan.”

But, even though choosing well-balanced foods, working out, and resting will help drastically, says McFaden, juggling all three during the postpartum period can be difficult. So be sure to give yourself a break.

Ask for help.

“My best tip is this: Don’t try and be supermom and do it all,” says McFaden. “Ask for help. You have got to take care of yourself before you take care of anyone else, which is easier said than done. Focus on what is most important at the moment, and ask for help when you need it.”

Start by enlisting others to support with caring for the baby, so that you can practice a little self-care. Focus on your sleep routine, both for yourself and baby, says Dr. Fisher, and then try to connect with other mothers. Remember, the first few months are usually the hardest. However, if you feel particularly isolated, try seeing a therapist or attending a support group.

“Seeing a maternal mental health therapist can help a new mom feel less alone,” suggests Heidi McBain, a therapist who specializes in maternal mental health. “Many of these specialists are now offering online video counseling, using platforms similar to Skype, so that new moms can get the support and help that they need without worrying about leaving the house, finding a babysitter, driving to an appointment, etc.—which can be huge barriers to treatment for new moms.”

Watch out for more serious signs of postpartum depression.

“Postpartum stress is more generally understood as [an] adjustment to the experience of motherhood and developmental life changes that occur after the birth of a baby,” says Dr. Mendez. “It includes adapting to new roles, adjusting to obligations and duties, and learning how to navigate multiple relationships and tasks. As stress increases and goes unmanaged, it sets the foundation for the development of more serious symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.”

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety is key, notes Dr. Fisher. These can include feelings of worthlessness, loss of joy, thoughts of self-harm, and surges of anxiety. “There’s no question that postpartum stress and depression go hand-in-hand,” says Bilek. “Having a baby is stressful, whether it’s your first child or your fifth. There is a whole lot to take care of all at once, and little time for yourself. You might find yourself getting exhausted easily, having trouble sleeping, even experiencing panic attacks.”

“It’s so important [that] you get your rest, ask for help, and know [that] with time and patience, postpartum stress will resolve. But it is something you should never experience alone,” says Dr. Sherry. “If you or your loved one experience signs of depression and withdrawal, it’s imperative to seek out help as early as possible with your healthcare provider. The best offense is a good defense!”

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