for better mental health

Postnatal depression and perinatal mental health

Explains postnatal depression and other perinatal mental health problems, including possible causes, treatments and support options. Also has information for friends and family, including support and advice for partners.

What is perinatal anxiety?

If you experience anxiety while you are pregnant or after giving birth, this may be called:

  • prenatal or antenatal anxiety – while you are pregnant
  • postnatal anxiety – during roughly the first year after giving birth
  • perinatal anxiety – any time from becoming pregnant to around a year after giving birth.

Lots of people are aware that you can become depressed after having a baby. But many people also experience anxiety during pregnancy and after giving birth. In fact, it is common to experience depression and anxiety together.

The information on this page is about perinatal anxiety, so it is relevant if you are experiencing either prenatal or postnatal anxiety. It covers:

If you experience anxiety specifically about childbirth, this is called 'tokophobia'. Pregnancy charity Tommy's has information about tokophobia and what support is available.

Signs and symptoms of perinatal anxiety

These are some of the common signs and symptoms of perinatal anxiety:

Effects on your body

The common effects of perinatal anxiety on your body include:

  • a churning feeling in your stomach
  • feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • pins and needles
  • feeling restless or unable to sit still
  • headaches, backache or other aches and pains
  • faster breathing
  • a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat
  • sweating or hot flushes
  • finding it hard to sleep, even when you have the chance
  • grinding your teeth, especially at night
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • needing the toilet more or less often
  • changes in your sex drive
  • having panic attacks.

Effects on your mind

The common effects of perinatal anxiety on your mind include:

  • feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax
  • having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
  • feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down
  • feeling like other people can see you're anxious and are looking at you
  • feeling like you can't stop worrying, or that bad things will happen if you stop worrying
  • worrying about anxiety itself, for example worrying about when panic attacks might happen
  • wanting lots of reassurance from other people or worrying that people are angry or upset with you
  • worrying that you're losing touch with reality
  • worrying a lot about things that might happen in the future
  • rumination – thinking a lot about bad experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again
  • depersonalisation – feeling disconnected from your mind or body, or like you're watching someone else (this is a type of dissociation)
  • derealisation – feeling disconnected from the world around you, or like the world isn't real (this is a type of dissociation).

Treatments for perinatal anxiety

There are various treatments that you may be offered for perinatal anxiety. Your doctor should discuss these options with you, so you can make a decision together about the best treatment for you:

Talking therapy

The talking therapy you are most likely to be offered for anxiety is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Your local mental health services may also run specific counselling or group programmes for anxiety. You can speak to your doctor or contact your local services to find out what is available.

See our pages on talking therapy and counselling for more information.

Self-help resources

Your doctor could give you access to online CBT programmes to try yourself. Or they may prescribe self-help books to help you learn to manage your anxiety.

Medication 

There are several types of medication that can help to manage anxiety. If you have any concerns about taking medication, you can talk to your doctor or pharmacist. This includes discussing any concerns about taking medication during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.

See our page on talking to your GP if you're worried about having this conversation. 

A combination of talking therapy and medication

You may be offered a combination of a talking therapy and medication. Many people find that taking medication helps them feel stable enough to get the most out of a talking therapy. But others find medication or talking therapies are more helpful on their own.

If there are long waiting lists for talking therapies in your area, your doctor may recommend that you try an alternative to therapy. These can help you manage your mental health while you are on the waiting list.

See our page on treatments for anxiety for more information. 

"I was dealing with panic attacks, and distressing thoughts about my baby being better off without me."

Self-care for perinatal anxiety

Experiencing anxiety can feel very overwhelming and leave you struggling to cope with daily tasks and interactions.

Here are some ideas on how to look after yourself and help yourself cope:

Try shifting your focus

If you're feeling anxious about something right now, try to shift your focus onto something small, like the details of a picture or the texture of something you're wearing.

If you can, try to keep your thoughts entirely on this one thing, really taking in all the small details. This can help you take a moment to calm down.

Learn some breathing exercises

Controlling your breathing can help with some of the physical sensations of anxiety and help you to relax. There's an example of a breathing exercise on our page about relaxation.

Try doing some physical activity

This can help distract you from any thoughts making you anxious, and also use up some of the anxious energy you might be feeling.

It doesn't have to be playing a sport or going to the gym. For example, you might want to go for a walk or do some physical activity around the house, like tidying.

See our pages on physical activity and your mental health for more ideas.

Contact specialist organisations

Charities like Anxiety UK and No Panic offer support, advice and information for people experiencing anxiety.

For more ideas, see our page on ways to look after your mental health when becoming a parent.

This information was published in April 2020. We will revise it in 2023.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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