Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

One of the most under-reported and under-diagnosed postpartum mood disorders, postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (PPOCD) can be extremely distressing for many women. Although experts are not exactly sure just how many women are affected by the disorder, it is estimated that between two and three percent of new mothers will suffer from PPOCD.

What Is It?
People affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) become consumed with particular thoughts, impulses or images. These thoughts or impulses often cause the person a great deal of anxiety, disgust and discomfort. As a result, people with OCD have compulsive urges that help to ease their feelings of anxiety and distress.

The main difference between PPOCD and the obsessive-compulsive disorder that affects the general population is that women who develop the disorder in the postpartum period tend to focus their obsessive thoughts on their baby. While women with this disorder may be prone to bizarre thoughts, they are acutely aware of the fact that their feelings are not normal. However, some women with the disorder are reluctant to seek help for fear that they will be looked down upon for their peculiar thoughts and fears.

Symptoms of Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Typical symptoms of PPOCD cause disruptions in a woman’s daily routine and can get in the way of her personal relationships. The rituals that many women establish to cope and deal with their obsessive thoughts can be time consuming and interfere with regular activities. Signs of postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder include:

  • Intrusive, recurrent and obsessive thoughts, usually involving the baby
  • Avoidance behavior, possibly of the baby but generally anything that will cause fear
  • Establishing rituals which include:
    • Repetitive behavior (touching every door knob you pass)
    • Obsessive cleaning and/or washing
    • Hoarding (done to combat fear of losing objects
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Fear

Women affected by PPOCD usually experience obsessive thoughts about their baby coming to harm. This can result in repetitive behavior such as repeatedly sterilizing the baby’s bottle for fear that it may be contaminated or checking on the child an excessive number of times. Some women may also harbor fears that they will harm their child in some way, such as drowning the child during bath time. However, while these fears can be especially disturbing, very few mothers with this particular disorder are likely to actually cause themselves or their child any harm.

Who Is At Risk?
Although any woman has the potential to develop PPOCD, women who have a personal or family history of obsessive-compulsive disorder have an increased risk of developing PPOCD. Women who develop an obsessive-compulsive disorder during their pregnancy are more than two times as likely to have PPOCD.

While PPOCD can develop for the first time during the postpartum period, some women may have already been diagnosed with OCD prior to becoming pregnant. For these women, their symptoms of OCD may become even worse during the postpartum period.

Getting Treatment
It is important that women affected by PPOCD seek professional help. Left untreated, PPOCD can impede a woman’s ability to cope as well as interfere in her relationship with her partner, family, friends and child.

There are different treatment options available to women with PPOCD. Some may be treated with anti-obsession medications. Other may receive the medication in combination with other forms of treatment or may not receive any medication at all.

Another treatment approach uses psychology to help women. Through different types of counseling, including couples therapy, support groups, interpersonal therapy and cognitive behavior therapy, women are able to change their behavior and the way in which they act. This helps them gain control over their PPOCD.

The final form of therapy takes a social approach to the issue. Through this treatment, women are able to learn coping strategies. Additionally, because this approach involves a woman’s partner, family and friends, she is able to build a network of social support.

Because of the different treatment approaches, it is possible for each woman to have a very personalized therapy that will be the most beneficial to her. With proper care and treatment, it is possible for a woman to overcome this disorder.

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