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Signs and symptoms of postnatal depression or anxiety

6 minute read
A woman holding her newborn baby.

In recent years, women, including a host of celebrities, have become more open about sharing their experiences with postnatal anxiety and postnatal depression following the birth of a child.

It’s an important conversation to have. In Australia, one in five new mums develops postnatal anxiety within a year of giving birth, and an estimated one in seven women experiences postnatal depression.

Men can also develop postnatal depression, with up to one in 10 new dads impacted.

For those new parents struggling to understand why their mental health is at a low point, psychologist Leanne Hall has some upfront advice.

“These are not uncommon experiences, and they do not mean you are a bad parent.”

What are postnatal depression and postnatal anxiety?

Most new mums will feel some degree of anxiety or mood changes after the birth of their baby, Leanne says.

“This is due to hormonal changes and the huge adjustment of bringing a new baby home,” she explains.

Yet when symptoms become more serious, that could indicate postnatal depression or postnatal anxiety. Both can be “totally overwhelming”, Leanne says. But what’s the main difference between the two?

“In my experience, the main difference is that with postnatal anxiety, the mum has a fear of something happening to the baby – such as an accident or they stop breathing,” Leanne says.

“Whereas with postnatal depression, mums often fear that they will harm the baby and that they are a bad mum.”

Leanne points out that it’s not uncommon for new parents to have “intrusive thoughts” about harming their baby.

“Just because they have these thoughts, it does not mean they will act on them.”

What causes postnatal depression and anxiety?

The exact causes of postnatal anxiety and depression are not known. If you’re already living with anxiety or have experienced depression before, you may be more at risk, but these conditions can impact any parent.

Some general factors thought to play a part include the physical impacts (exhaustion and hormonal changes) and the emotional toll of caring for a newborn.

Other life changes – stopping work, not seeing friends much or trying to live up to perceived societal standards – can intensify the mental strain.

Postnatal anxiety symptoms

General anxiety is when you experience ongoing, uncontrolled and illogical feelings of anxiety and stress. Anxiety that develops during the first year after your baby’s birth is called postnatal anxiety.

You may have postnatal anxiety if you:

  • Have racing thoughts, a persistent fear or worry about something happening to your baby that completely take over and do not go away
  • Have a fast heartbeat and feel panicked
  • Feel like you are constantly on edge
  • Can’t sleep (sometimes known as postpartum or postnatal insomnia)
  • Have a short fuse and get irritated easily
  • Constantly check that your baby is OK (including to see if they are still breathing while they are asleep)
  • Feel overwhelmed.

Related: What to expect from my first psychology appointment

A mother lying down holding her newborn baby.

Postnatal depression symptoms

Like postnatal anxiety, parents with postnatal depression experience fear and worry. But this anxiety is also underpinned by a persistent low mood and tearfulness.

You may have postnatal depression if you:

  • Have extreme fatigue (more than what would be considered ‘normal’ for a new parent)
  • Feel hopeless and that things are not going to get better
  • Are irritable and angry
  • Start to negatively judge yourself, have low self-esteem and feel like a ‘bad mum’
  • Have lost interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Become withdrawn and want to stay home
  • Are fearful of being alone, and being alone with your baby.

How is this different from being tired?

Although sleep deprivation – and its resulting irritability, low mood and feeling of being overwhelmed – is common among new mums, postnatal depression symptoms are more serious.

If your mood doesn’t improve after your sleep improves or gets worse when your baby’s sleep improves, that could indicate you’re experiencing postnatal depression rather than exhaustion. Talk to your GP for advice.

Related: Does sleep deprivation matter?

Not just the ‘baby blues’

The baby blues – when mums become teary, anxious and moody – impacts up to 80% of women and typically kicks in between three and 10 days after the birth.

However, unlike postnatal depression and anxiety, the baby blues only lasts a few days and mums can usually get through with their partner and family’s support.

How do I know if I need help?

Leanne notes that symptoms can vary from mild to severe and that each person’s experience is unique.

“But if symptoms persist for more than two weeks, it’s a good idea to visit your GP or health practitioner,” she advises.

Your maternal child health nurse can also help.

Related: 6 ways to get help for mental health – and you won’t have to pay a thing!

What’s the treatment?

The good news is that both postnatal anxiety and depression are temporary and can be treated. Evidence-based treatment involves a combination of counselling or therapy and sometimes antidepressant medication.

If you’re seeking help, be patient; medications take a while to work, and you might not find the right counsellor or therapist for you straight away, Leanne says.

“Don’t be afraid to try different counsellors or therapists until you find one who you can connect with.”

Leanne urges parents experiencing these conditions not to feel ashamed or try to go it alone.

“Talk to loved ones and let them offer support and help,” she says. “And be kind to yourself.”

If you or someone you know needs help, please call:

  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

Are you suffering with your mental health and unsure where or who to turn to? We asked nib mental health nurse Jo Baja to put together a list of six resources that can help. The best part is, they’re free and only a website, app or phone call away. Check out our article 6 ways to get help for mental health – and you won’t have to pay a thing for more.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Leanne Hall

Leanne Hall is an integrative psychologist with additional qualifications in health and fitness and an impressive career as a therapist and health coach spanning more than 20 years. She’s the author of Head First Health Fast, The Smart Approach To Outwitting Body Issues and Sustaining Achievable Health and is currently completing her PhD in Ultra Running. Leanne is passionate about debunking the myth of 'balance' and keeps it real in everything she does. Something not many people know is that Leanne can mimic bird noises very well...

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