Postnatal depression and perinatal mental health

Explains postnatal depression and other perinatal mental health issues, including possible causes, sources of treatment and support, and advice for friends and family.

What is perinatal anxiety?

Perinatal anxiety is anxiety experienced during pregnancy or in the year after childbirth. You might hear it called:

  • prenatal or antenatal anxiety if you experience anxiety during pregnancy
  • postnatal anxiety if you experience it after giving birth

While many people are aware that you can become depressed after having a baby, it's less well known that many women experience anxiety during and after pregnancy. In fact, it's common to experience depression and anxiety together.

Some women experience a particular anxiety about childbirth. This is called tokophobia, a fear of childbirth. Tommy's has more information about tokophobia and what support is available.

This page covers:

What are the common signs and symptoms?

How you might feel physically

  • tense muscles and headaches
  • pins and needles
  • feeling light headed or dizzy
  • faster breathing
  • sweating or hot flushes
  • a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat
  • raised blood pressure
  • difficulty sleeping
  • needing the toilet more frequently, or less frequently
  • churning in the pit of your stomach
  • experiencing panic attacks

How you might feel psychologically

  • feeling tense, nervous and on edge
  • 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 that you’re anxious and are looking at you
  • feeling your mind is really busy with thoughts
  • dwelling on negative experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again (this is called rumination)
  • feeling restless and not being able to concentrate
  • feeling numb

What are the treatments?

There are a range of treatment options for anxiety, any of which you might find useful to treat perinatal anxiety. 

  • Talking treatments. You're likely to be offered cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or your local mental health services may run specific counselling or group programmes for anxiety. You can speak to your doctor, or contact your local services to find out what they offer. See our talking treatments section for more information.
  • Self-help resources. Your doctor could give you access to online CBT programmes, or prescribe self-help books to help you learn to manage your anxiety. 
  • Medication. There are several different drugs that can be helpful in managing anxiety. If you have any concerns about taking medication during pregnancy or breastfeeding, you can always discuss this with your doctor. See talking to your doctor for more information.

You may be offered a combination of medication and a talking treatment. Many people find that taking medication helps them feel stable enough to get the most out of a talking treatment. However, other people find medication or talking treatments alone are more helpful.

If there are long waiting lists for talking treatments in your area, your doctor may recommend that you try an antidepressant to help you manage your mental health in the meantime.

Our page on treatments for anxiety has more information about these treatments. 

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

How can I help myself cope?

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 immediately anxious about something, focus on 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 counter 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. This 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 here for more ideas.
  • Contact specialist organisations. Charities like Anxiety UK and No Panic offer support, advice and information for people experiencing anxiety.

See our page on self-care for anxiety for more ideas.

This information was published in July 2016. We will revise it in 2019.

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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