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Understanding and Managing Postpartum OCD

This article will offer a comprehensive understanding of postpartum OCD, providing in-depth information on its symptoms, impact, and management strategies aimed at supporting new mothers and their families in navigating this challenging condition. 

Introduction

Having a new baby brings with it great joy, opportunity, and responsibility. But for many women, it also brings postpartum issues like depression, which affects up to one-fifth of women, and OCD, which affects around two percent of women. Postpartum OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)

It is important to recognize and manage this condition if you or someone close to you exhibits symptoms. This article will briefly cover how to do that, what the symptoms are, and what management options are out there. 

postpartum ocd

What is Postpartum OCD?

OCD is a mental health disorder categorized by the DSM. However, postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder is when those same symptoms occur directly after childbirth. 

Note: If postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms begin during pregnancy and not after birth, it is considered perinatal OCD instead. 

Research indicates that women who have recently given birth are more likely to develop OCD symptoms, and those who already have OCD are likely to see an increase in the severity or frequency of their obsessions and compulsions.  

So what is postpartum OCD, and how is it different from any other kind?

Postpartum OCD differs from other postpartum mood disorders because it causes obsessions and compulsions. Psychosis is different because it leads to actual hallucinations or delusions. Depression is different because it embodies negative thoughts that might turn into obsessions but typically leave a new mother feeling sad and anxious. 

Those who already have a mental health disorder, particularly OCD, are at a higher risk of severe symptoms after giving birth. 

Symptoms of Postpartum OCD

Postpartum OCD symptoms can include obsessions or compulsions:

Obsessions

include obsessions or unwanted thoughts. These can include:

  1. Obsessions over the new child being harmed.
  2. Fear of talking about obsessions because it can risk being hospitalized.
  3. Fear that, as the mother, you might harm your baby even if you don’t want to.

Compulsions

Compulsions are often designed to stop such obsessions or to stop them from coming true. These can include:

  1. Checking on your baby too often.
  2. Excessively washing.
  3. Asking for reassurance from those around you.
  4. Praying repeatedly.
  5. Avoiding certain activities with your new baby, such as changing their diaper, holding them, or bathing them.

Some people experience both obsessions and compulsions, which can lead to things like:

  1. Feeling overwhelmed by all OCD symptoms.
  2. Having trouble sleeping.
  3. Needing partners or assistance from others because of the ongoing fears.
  4. Depression: OCD and postpartum depression are known to overlap.
  5. Interferences when trying to care for your new child.

The Impact of Postpartum OCD on Mothers and Families

Postpartum OCD has an impact on new mothers and their families:

  1. For starters, new mothers can experience severe sadness, sleep loss, low appetite, and loss of interest. These symptoms of depression can result in a lack of self-care. 
  2. New mothers might have issues caring for their children because of their fears, which can force other family members to compensate or cause stress for other family members. 
  3. OCD can cause issues in bonding because of avoidance behaviors, which can have a harmful impact on the new baby’s development. 
  4. Extreme anxiety from postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder can strain a marriage, partnership, or other familial relationships. 
postpartum ocd

Diagnosis of Postpartum OCD & Treatment Options

If you notice postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder signs, you should consider getting a professional diagnosis.

The diagnostic process

When you reach out to a postpartum OCD therapist, they will have you undergo a diagnosis. This initial diagnosis consists of a session during which they will ask questions about:

  1. Your mental health
  2. Your feelings
  3. Your physical health
  4. Your family history of things like mental health disorders

It is important to be honest during these sessions, as the information provided will ensure you get the right postpartum OCD treatment. 

Common challenges in diagnosing postpartum OCD

One of the most common challenges in diagnosing postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder is women who are afraid to be honest about their symptoms because they fear they will be labeled as psychotic or “crazy” and not be allowed to care for their children. 

Postpartum OCD is NOT the same as psychosis. With psychosis, individuals suffer from distinct hallucinations and delusions, and this rare condition only impacts fewer than 0.1% of mothers. 

Note: Research shows that it is completely normal to experience unwanted thoughts when experiencing stressful situations, including childbirth. Increased anxiety about having a child or caring for a child is normal, and it can lead to anxiety, depression, or OCD if left untreated. 

With postpartum OCD treatment, you will learn that all of the most upsetting thoughts you have about your baby are not thoughts that you should try to independently fight or control or even get rid of. If you do, it only exacerbates the cycle of obsessions and compulsions. 

For example: Try not to think of a purple fox right now. 

While compulsions might seem like they reduce obsessions and unwanted thoughts, they are only temporary solutions. In the end, they lead to more obsessions. 

postpartum ocd

Available postpartum OCD treatment

So, if you have postpartum OCD symptoms, what are the treatment options?

Therapy

The main form of treatment for any kind of OCD, including postpartum OCD, is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you:

  1. Learn that the intrusive thoughts you have are normal, and you should not be fearful of them.
  2. Challenge how you interpret the thoughts you are having.
  3. Confront situations or thoughts that you have previously tried to mask or get rid of.
  4. Reduce the compulsions you use to deal with anxiety
  5. Replace negative thoughts and actions with positive alternatives to deal with anxiety or stress. 

Medication

Medication is also sometimes used. These include SSRIs. 

Note: You will need to check with your doctor as to whether the medications considered are safe for pregnancy or breastfeeding. 

Alternative and complementary treatment methods

There are, of course, several complementary treatment methods that a postpartum OCD therapist might recommend you use in addition to therapy. 

For example:

  1. Yoga and meditation are popular complementary treatment methods that can help you refocus your mind when stressed.
  2. Mindfulness practices can help you openly acknowledge all of your feelings, including stress or anxiety, instead of trying to push them away. 

With each of these alternatives, you can find options for new mothers, such as shorter meditations specifically for OCD, or new mom-safe online yoga classes that can be used while your body is repairing itself. 

Summing Up

Overall, if you are noticing postpartum OCD signs, you should see a qualified therapist to get a diagnosis and start the right treatment. It is imperative, as a new mom or someone with a friend or family member experiencing postpartum OCD, to understand the symptoms and know how to manage them. There are several effective treatments and recovery paths for those in need.