Behavioral Health

Postpartum anxiety: More common than you think

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Postpartum anxiety is more common than postpartum depression, but is often overlooked. Here’s when to suspect it.


 

References

THE CASE

Julia* is a 31-year-old woman, gravida 3 para 3, who presents to your office for evaluation after a recent emergency department (ED) visit. Her husband and children are with her. She is 4 months postpartum after an uncomplicated normal spontaneous vaginal delivery. She is breastfeeding her healthy baby boy and is using an intrauterine device for birth control. She went to the ED last week after “choking on a chip” while having lunch with her children. It felt like she “couldn’t breathe.” She called 911 herself. The ED evaluation was unremarkable. Her discharge diagnosis was “panic attack,” and she was sent home with a prescription for lorazepam.

Since the incident, she has been unable to eat any solid foods and has lost 7 pounds. She also reports a globus sensation, extreme fear of swallowing, insomnia, and pervasive thoughts that she could die at any moment and leave her children motherless. She has not taken the lorazepam.

She has a history of self-reported anxiety dating back to high school but no history of panic attacks. She has never been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and has never before been prescribed anti-anxiety medication. She doesn’t have a history of postpartum depression in prior pregnancies, and a depression screening at her postpartum visit 2 months ago was negative.

● How would you proceed with this patient?

*The patient’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

During the perinatal period, women are particularly vulnerable to affective disorders, and primary care physicians are encouraged to routinely screen for and treat depression in pregnant and postpartum women.1 However, anxiety disorders have a higher incidence than mood disorders in the general population,2 and perinatal anxiety may be more widely underrecognized and undertreated than depression.3 In addition, higher depression scores early in pregnancy have been shown to predict higher anxiety later in pregnancy.4

As family physicians, we are well-trained to recognize and treat anxiety disorders in the general patient population; however, we may lack the awareness and tools to identify these conditions in the perinatal period. Given our frequent encounters with both mom and baby in a child’s first year of life, we are uniquely positioned to promptly recognize, diagnose, and treat postpartum anxiety and thereby improve health outcomes for families.

DEFINING PERINATAL ANXIETY

Anxiety disorders (including generalized anxiety disorder, panic, phobia, and social anxiety) are the most common mental health disorders evaluated and treated in the primary care setting, with a lifetime prevalence of close to 30%.2

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