New Mothers: Help for Anxiety and Depression

“Being a mother comes about as naturally to me as being an astronaut.”

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., The Mother Dance


What are the symptoms?

Being a new mother can be one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences in life. However, many new mothers feel stress, loneliness, anxiety, and confusion. Fifty to eighty percent of new mothers suffer post-partum “baby blues” a few days after delivery, which often resolves in a couple of weeks on its own. Symptoms include:

  • Crying for no apparent reason
  • Impatience
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety

As many as one in ten women suffer from post-partum depression, which is more severe than the blues. Symptoms include:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Guilt
  • Sadness
  • Self-doubt
  • Helplessness
  • Crying
  • Thoughts of harming the baby
  • “Forbidden” feelings like, “I just want to get in the car and drive away.”

Post-partum anxiety is characterized by:

  • Uncontrollable, excessive worry/anxiety
  • Restlessness, insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension

Panic disorder occurs in about 2% of post-partum women. Symptoms include:

  • Extreme anxiety
  • Chest pains
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Feelings of loss of control

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) occurs in about 2% of post-partum women and is characterized by:

  • Intrusive, horrifying thoughts or images of harming the baby or something harmful happening to the baby
  • Fear of being alone with the baby

Post-partum psychosis occurs in 1 in 1000 new mothers and is characterized by:

  • Thoughts of being a danger to the baby
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Irrational thoughts and statements
  • Severe insomnia
  • Refusal to eat
  • Extreme anxiety and agitation
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or homicidal thoughts
  • Lack of attention to personal hygiene
  • Frantic, excessive energy
  • Avoidance of the baby

If you experience any of the symptoms of post-partum psychosis, contact your doctor immediately.

When post-partum depression and anxiety set in, the challenges of parenthood can seem insurmountable.

Where can I turn?

It can be terribly upsetting and frightening to have feelings about motherhood that don’t feel like the “right” feelings. For some women, eating healthy, exercising a few times a week, getting help from friends and family, and finding some personal time are sufficient to get through the initial adjustment period. For others, talking with a therapist or a group of new mothers about these feelings can be comforting, enlightening, and relieving. Feeling better as a new mother helps give babies a good start in life.

Individual Therapy

Many new mothers find that talking with a qualified professional helps them understand their feelings better, and reduces the shame and guilt that come from having these feelings. Therapists who have specialized training in post-partum disorders understand that hormone changes, family history, personal history, and social support are all vital factors in understanding and alleviating post-partum symptoms. Individual therapy helps women make specific adjustments to reduce stress and anxiety.

Group Therapy

Many mothers find the greatest comfort and relief when talking with other mothers going through the same experiences. Group therapy for new mothers provides an opportunity to talk about the stress, loneliness, and depression that often come in the months after giving birth. It can also bring relief and a sense of community to mothers who feel isolated.


For some mothers, medication is essential for recovery from depression and anxiety. Many mothers have understandable concerns about the effects of medication on their babies while breastfeeding. Talking with a physician who specializes in post-partum disorders about taking medication while nursing helps new mothers decide whether this is a viable option.

“In the self-help literature directed at parents virtually no attention is paid to the emotional upheavals that the parent is likely to face…the disturbing return of long banished feelings, the sensation of being inhabited by the ghost of one’s own mother or father as one tries to relate to one’s child.”
Robert Karen, Ph.D., Becoming Attached

“One senses intuitively that for the tiny child, mother-love…promotes well-being.”
Robert Karen, Ph.D., Becoming Attached

Books and Websites

While this list is not exhaustive, these resources will get you started.

Kleiman, K.R., and Raskin, V.D. This Isn’t What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression. Bantum Books, 1994.
Lerner, H. The Mother Dance. Harper Perennial, 1998.
Sebastian, L. Overcoming Post-partum Depression and Anxiety. Addicus Books, 1998.
Siegel, D. Parenting from the Inside Out. Tarcher/Purnam. 2003.

Dr. Jan Morris began working with struggling mothers in Chicago, Illinois as a volunteer with Parents Anonymous in the mid 1970′s. She earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin in 1985. She received special training in the treatment of children and families during her internship at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and training in group psychotherapy through the Center for Group Studies in New York City. She has worked with children, adolescents, and adults in Austin since 1985. She has also received training in the treatment of post-partum anxiety and depression.

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