New Study: Postpartum OCD and New Mamas

washing my handsThe thoughts marched onto the battlefield when my daughter was less than a week old. They closed ranks around my brain and held on voraciously until they squeezed every bit of sanity out of me. Their arrows whizzed by, carrying horrid thoughts which would disappear as soon as the arrow sunk in – then the compulsions began. I washed my hands. I cleaned. I twitched. I watched movies. I read. ANYTHING, anything to make the whispers of danger stop.

I struggled mightily with Postpartum OCD during my first and second postpartum periods. With my second, my OCD was coupled with the trauma of being a NICU mama. All the pumping fed my compulsions, and quite frankly, may have provided some source of solace for me now that I look back.

Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or postpartum OCD, is an ugly stop on the spectrum of Perinatal Mood & Anxiety Disorders. It catches moms off-guard. We often wonder if the thoughts we have are normal – is this part of normal motherhood worry? When should we consider the possibility of having crossed the border into seeking help?

A new study out of Northwestern states that new moms are “FIVE TIMES more likely than their peers to experience OCD up to six months after their child is born.” Normal population rates of OCD sit at three percent. Among new moms? Eleven percent.

Dr. Dana Gossett had this to say regarding how to tell when mom needs to seek help:

“It may be that certain kinds of obsessions and compulsions are adaptive and appropriate for a new parent, for example those about cleanliness and hygiene,” Gossett said in a press release. “But when it interferes with normal day-to-day functioning and appropriate care for the baby and parent, it becomes maladaptive and pathologic.”

It’s encouraging to see researchers exploring additional stops on the spectrum. Postpartum Depression has been a catch phrase for so long that all too often, moms think that if they’re not sad or weepy, they aren’t experiencing a mood disorder after the birth of a child. Research like this, however, goes to show that a new mom doesn’t have to be sad to experience a mood disorder. Signs and symptoms of postpartum OCD, according to Postpartum Progress include, but are not limited to the following experiences:

  • You feel like you have to be doing something at all times. Cleaning bottles. Cleaning baby clothes. Cleaning the house. Doing work. Entertaining the baby. Checking on the baby.
  • You may be having disturbing thoughts.  Thoughts that you’ve never had before.  Scary thoughts that make you wonder whether you aren’t the person you thought you were.  They fly into your head unwanted and you know they aren’t right, that this isn’t the real you, but they terrify you and they won’t go away.  These thoughts may start with the words “What if …”
  • You are afraid to be alone with your baby because of scary thoughts or worries.  You are also afraid of things in your house that could potentially cause harm, like kitchen knives or stairs, and you avoid them like the plague.
  • You may feel the need to check things constantly. Did I lock the door?  Did I lock the car? Did I turn off the oven? Is the baby breathing?
  • You can’t sleep when the baby sleeps.

It is important to note that OCD symptoms may also appear during pregnancy. Note that symptoms would differentiate from that of nesting – if it interferes with day-to-day functioning, always see a professional.

The most important aspect of the symptom list above, for me, is this one:

“Moms with postpartum OCD know that their thoughts are bizarre and are very unlikely to ever act on them.”

When I had thoughts, I remember the immediate repulsion which followed them. I didn’t seek a higher level of help after my second daughter (once I was on meds) until these thoughts began to make sense and I started to rationalize them. OCD is frightening. But there is always help and you are absolutely not a bad mother if you have intrusive thoughts flitting through your brain.

One of the other interesting things which came out of this study was that of the 11 percent of moms who experienced OCD, 70 percent of them also experienced a form of depression, leading researchers to the following:

“There is some debate as to whether postpartum depression is simply a major depressive episode that happens after birth or its own disease with its own features,” Miller said. “Our study supports the idea that it may be its own disease with more of the anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms than would be typical for a major depressive episode.”

In my experience, I also was depressed. But it was exactly as they posit in the second sentence – it was a depression heavily laden with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. My experience was not solely depression, despite what the psychiatrist seemed bent on telling me.

Bottom line? If YOU think something is off with you, seek help. Know the signs and symptoms, know yourself, and if you’re not quite you and haven’t been for awhile, talk to a professional. You’re not alone.

photo credit: “OCD-Washing My Hands” by mstinas on flickr.
About Lauren Hale

Lauren Hale tells it like it is about Perinatal Mood & Anxiety Disorders over at My Postpartum Voice. She is also the founder of #PPDChat, an online Twitter & FB Community dedicated to supporting moms on their journey by harnessing the power of the Internet. You can find her on Twitter @unxpctdblessing.

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