In recent years, we’ve learned that the changing hormones that many pregnant people and new parents experience can bring on a variety of different anxiety disorders that can impact early parenthood. You might have heard of postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis, as these conditions are fairly common and often portrayed in the media. However, postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (postpartum OCD) isn’t as regularly in the spotlight.
Like other postpartum disorders, postpartum OCD can greatly impact the health and wellness of new parents and can affect the bond they develop with their baby. Though early research suggests that the condition can be fairly rare, affecting somewhere between 3% and 5% of childbearing women, those with OCD who have given birth have commonly cited pregnancy and childbirth as “triggers” of OCD onset. That’s why it’s so important to understand the signs and symptoms of postpartum OCD and be able to identify when a new parent may need additional help or support.
OCD involves intrusive or unwanted obsessive thoughts that often trigger compulsions. Compulsions are actions that are often taken in an effort to calm or subdue intrusive thoughts, but by acting on compulsions, those with OCD may make their condition worse by triggering unending cycles of obsession and compulsion.
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In postpartum OCD, intrusive thoughts can appear a little differently from someone experiencing other types of OCD. While someone with contamination obsessions might be worried about germs and have to obsessively wash their hands before doing anything, someone with postpartum OCD often experiences obsessions that center around their baby. This could manifest as recurring, disruptive fears about the baby’s life or wellbeing. And while it’s perfectly normal for new parents to worry about their children, when it causes great deals of distress to the point of disrupting your ability to function, it may be cause for concern..
For example, having a sudden thought one night that your infant may be in danger and running to their crib to check is an understandable occurrence as an isolated incident. However, if you check on your baby multiple times throughout the night, every night, because you’re constantly afraid for their safety, it could be a sign of postpartum OCD.
Some people with postpartum OCD have reported intrusive thoughts about themselves causing harm to their babies as well, which understandably causes discomfort and concern. Some research suggests that up to 80% of all new mothers, whether they have experienced OCD symptoms or not, report unwanted or concerning intrusive thoughts similar to those experienced by mothers with known postpartum OCD. The difference is, however, that new mothers with postpartum OCD are so terrified by their intrusive thoughts (oftentimes the fear of violent or sexual harm) that they try to neutralize those thoughts with other thoughts or compulsive actions.
Like many forms of OCD, postpartum OCD is sometimes treated with medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, but — more often than not — the most effective form of treatment involves exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP therapy), a highly effective form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
ERP therapy works by exposing the person with OCD to potentially triggering situations or circumstances so that they can learn to live with and control their responses in a safe environment. The goal of ERP therapy is to help the person with OCD understand that they don’t have to act on their compulsions. ERP therapy is the gold standard of treatment for OCD and has been proven effective in treating many OCD subtypes, and studies suggest that it is likewise effective for those with postpartum OCD.
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When searching for a therapist to help with postpartum OCD, look for a provider that has specific experience with ERP therapy. You can search for therapists who have completed clinical internships, fellowships or residencies focused on ERP, and you can also search for providers who are members of the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) or the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT). Both sites allow you to filter searches for therapists in your area who specialize in or have experience with ERP therapy.
You can now also find ERP-trained therapists online through services like NOCD. NOCD has a nationwide network of therapists with specialized experience in ERP therapy. NOCD therapists can see you via one-on-one video therapy sessions or teletherapy, and you’ll be able to get started quickly, with more than 90% of people seen by a therapist within two weeks of booking their first appointment.
This online therapy option is not only accessible, but it’s one of the most affordable OCD therapy options on the market today. It’s easy to get started working with an NOCD therapist to treat postpartum OCD — simply schedule a free call with a member of the NOCD clinical team, and they’ll help find the right therapist for you.