Two Studies Find Postpartum Anxiety & OCD Much More Common

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postpartum anxietyIn the past, it was always estimated that about 3% of postpartum women would get postpartum OCD. That number never made any sense to me, given how many of you with whom I speak about intrusive thoughts and other significant obsessive and compulsive symptoms. Plus, I had postpartum OCD, so I’m probably a little biased. ;-)

A new study published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine finds the number is much higher — one in ten new moms may have postpartum OCD. Researchers at Northwestern University watched 461 new mothers for OCD symptoms and found that 11% of moms had postpartum OCD symptoms — intrusive thoughts and compulsive actions like checking and rechecking on their babies or washing and rewashing bottles — at two weeks postpartum. Six months later, half of those who’d had the symptoms at two weeks still had them, and 5% had developed new symptoms of postpartum OCD. (This compares to an OCD prevalence in the general population of 3%.) The authors’ conclusion? If moms show postpartum OCD signs early, it is highly likely those symptoms will persist. Time to do a better job watching out for postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A different study published in the journal Pediatrics took a look at postpartum anxiety symptoms, noting that moms may be screened for postpartum depression but are not usually screened specifically for anxiety. The researchers from Penn State screened more than 1,000 moms using both the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale and the State Trait Anxiety Inventory. They found 17% had anxiety and 6% had depression symptoms in the first few weeks postpartum, and that anxiety remained more common than depression even at 6 months postpartum. Their conclusion is, in part, that postpartum anxiety may be more common than PPD. With this particular study, I’m more interested in what happens down the line than what happens in the first two weeks. Was there some way to identify, among those who presented with anxiety symptoms early, which moms were more likely to have persistent anxiety and require treatment?

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  1. Wow. Wow, wow, wow. So interesting and, in a sense, reaffirming to read. I was so super frustrated that PPA/OCD was not mentioned in the literature I brought home from the hospital after having my babies, and that my providers never screened me for it… just for PPD. Yet, it seems like SO many moms I talk to deal with some sort of PPA/OCD, and most of them had no idea that’s even a “real” thing. I hope they continue with this research.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I wish I had known about this when I was suffering w/ anxiety after my first was born. Better late than never!

  3. Thank you Katherine! As a recovered ppd OCD sufferer I cannot describe the personal hell that it is! So many mommas suffer in silence.

  4. WOW. Thank you so so much for posting this. I wish this would have been done years ago, but like you all are saying…better late than never! I am so grateful for ladies like you who are sharing in their experiences. This research will flourish, I am sure. So necessary to keep going!

  5. As you know so very well, the treatment for OCD is not the same as general anxiety disorder or depression. Getting that diagnosis right at the outset is critical to the recovery of the mother. I’m optimistic these studies and your efforts will continue to raise awareness of OCD and Anxiety as separate conditions that warrant a different type of treatment!

  6. Thank you for sharing this latest research Katherine. Do you know what screening tool was used to screen for OCD? Through the 2020 Mom Project, we’d like to share some recommendations on tools to use for screening OCD (as well as Anxiety & Psychosis). Hats off to the researchers who continue to dig in!

      • Great findings and conversation – thanks, Katherine!!
        I work on the clinical staff team for an Intensive Outpatient Program that treats anxiety disorders, including OCD, in Northern California. We use the Y-BOCs in all of our intake assessments with new clients to assess for OCD and regularly find that folks simply aren’t aware of their own compulsions (e.g., don’t know they are doing compulsions, just that they do some things to try to ease anxiety or feel better) or they haven’t even heard of OCD except in the context of repeated hand washing (which many OCD sufferers don’t experience). In addition, after starting treatment, we use the Y-BOCs Symptom Checklist to tease out the specific obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors each individual engages – simply because there are so many possibilities and each person’s experience with OCD is unique. One important caution I would offer is that the clinician needs to have a firm understanding of what the terms “obsession” and “compulsion” mean and how to explain them to the other person in order to administer the Y-BOCs accurately and ensure the respondent is answering as accurately as possible.
        This is such an important topic – I’m delighted to see it being discussed!

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  8. I am so glad that there is more awareness now (3 & 1/2 years after my first baby) about PPA. During my first PP, my symptoms did not match either PPD or OCD, but now after having my 2nd child, my symptoms came sooner and are much greater strength. In addition, I can now identify my “sickness” as PPA.

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