We all experience the occasional life-changing event—a new baby, a cross-country move, a serious injury. In rare cases, such events can precipitate a mental disorder. The problem is compounded because people often assume their suffering is par for the course after such upheaval. In reality, relief is probably a short treatment away, via therapy or medication.
For a new mother, dealing with a newborn is fraught with anxieties. Did I fasten the car seat properly? Is the baby still breathing? In more than one in 10 new mothers, these normal worries can escalate into more serious obsessions that can interfere with her ability to care for herself and her baby.
Most of the research on postpartum psychiatric problems has focused on depression and psychosis. Obstetricians such as Emily Miller of Northwestern University, however, were also noticing a range of anxiety-related disorders, including intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors. “It's good to check that your baby is strapped into the car seat,” Miller notes. “But these women aren't just doing it once. They're doing it over and over, and it's interfering with their lives.”
With her colleagues, Miller followed 461 women after they gave birth. Eleven percent said they had obsessions and compulsions two weeks after delivery that the researchers found to be the equivalent of mild to moderate obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—a sharp increase over the 2 to 3 percent rate of OCD in the general population. Half of these women's symptoms continued six months' postpartum, and an additional 5.4 percent developed new OCD symptoms in that time. The afflicted women indicated that their symptoms were distressing, taking up a significant amount of time and otherwise interfering with their daily life.
Nearly three quarters of the women with OCD also showed signs of postpartum depression. As with depression, therapy would probably help new moms cope with OCD, according to Miller. “If OCD symptoms are mild and resolve by six weeks' postpartum, they may be normal,” Miller says. “But if they interfere with a patient's daily functioning and persist, she should talk to her doctor.”
More Unusual Causes of Mental Symptoms
Common life events occasionally lead to mental distress. If you think any of these scenarios might describe you or a loved one, tell a doctor: treatments today are more effective than ever.
Reading or hearing about a traumatic event may lead to a specific phobia, the persistent fear of a certain situation or object. Targeted exposure therapy has been shown to diminish, and perhaps erase, such phobias in a few sessions.
Bacterial infections, such as strep throat, may cause symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder in kids. Only a small subset of all OCD cases, which affect 3 percent of children, are thought to be caused by infections. Treatment with antibiotics cures most infected kids.
Eating more processed foods may be linked to experiencing greater levels of anxiety and depression. Avoiding grocery items with trans fats (hydrogenated oils) may help lift your mood.
Moving to a new house or school may trigger anorexia or bulimia in teens. Treatments such as talk therapy usually reverse the eating disorder.