New Moms Suffer More Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms Than General Population

Becoming a new parent is enough to create a certain amount of anxiety in anyone. However, studies in the U.S. and the U.K. point to pregnancy as a potential trigger for an anxiety disorder known as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. These soon-to-be-mothers worry about the impending responsibility of parenting, which is normal, but that concern can morph into a disruptive compulsion that impairs their mothering as well as other personal relationships. OCD manifests as involuntary anxious thoughts that compel a person to perform certain rituals in order to alleviate anxiety but which actually have no power to prevent the worry from occurring. In new moms, the disorder may appear as excessive cleaning or hand-washing or may come out in a need to check and re-check almost incessantly.

A Northwestern study recruited participants from the maternity ward at Northwestern Memorial.  Their study found that 11 percent of women were experiencing a notable level of OCD following the birth of their child. That number is exorbitant compared to the 2 to 3 percent of the general public who suffer from OCD. This study asked the new moms to complete screenings for depression, anxiety and OCD at the two-week and six-month mark following delivery.

The self-reported findings were that one-half of the women who showed signs of OCD at two weeks were significantly better by six months. Researchers believe that these women were likely suffering from a hormonally-triggered OCD. There were women who had shown no signs of OCD at two weeks but who did have symptoms by six months. The research team felt that these cases were less likely to be the result of hormones. Also important was the finding that 70 percent of the women who reported signs of OCD also screened positively for depression.

A study in the U.K. is tracking 4,000 mothers-to-be, looking for clues as to why some women are vulnerable to the condition while others are not. So far a couple of ideas have surfaced. One is that women who are overly sensitive to being criticized may be susceptible while others suggest that the danger may be greater for women who don’t know how to deal properly with negative thoughts and instead suppress them.

The important thing to note here is that OCD is an anxiety disorder; it is not merely a case of overactive hormones. The pressing responsibility of parenthood can trigger this anxiety, but experts say that any major changes in life can initiate the disorder. The hormone upset in pregnant women may trigger OCD, but if that is so, then the condition should resolve over time.  The Northwestern study seemed to indicate that for some women this is exactly what does happen.

Pregnant women who already suffer from OCD may see their symptoms worsen. New moms may suffer from the condition temporarily. Still a high number of moms will develop OCD and it will take hold. Frequently a decade passes between the first signs of OCD and the time when a person seeks help. Understanding the high risk for pregnant and new mothers is important in order that treatment does not have to wait an unnecessary 10 years’ time.

Posted on November 25th, 2013
Posted in Mental Health

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