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Breaking the Silence on Perinatal OCD

Shedding Light During OCD Awareness Week

The experience of motherhood highlights our unmatched strength, our unwavering dedication to those we love, and our capacity to run on 1 hour of consecutive sleep (not advisable, but I've been there). Motherhood also brings challenges that are often left unspoken. One such challenge that deserves our attention, and one I know all too well, is Perinatal or Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (PP-OCD). As a mother with lived experience, I am deeply passionate about helping women who may feel they have to suffer in silence. I've walked through the storm of PP-OCD, and I want to share the raw, real, and hopeful aspects of this journey.

A little over six years ago I became a mother for the first time. My postpartum period was nothing I had imagined. I was riddled with fear of illness and contamination, consumed by intrusive thoughts that felt like a record I could not turn off... no matter how hard I tried. I was able to identify my thoughts were irrational, yet I felt completely powerless over them. It was exhausting, it was depressing, and it left me feeling like I was losing myself, and my mind.

Looking back on this period of my life, I wish I could tell that fearful new mom...

You are an amazing mom...
You are not crazy...
Your intrusive thoughts are not a reflection of you...
They are symptoms...
This is treatable...
It is OK to get help...

OCD Awareness Week: Shining Light on the Shadows

This week is OCD Awareness Week, and it is an opportunity to illuminate how OCD impacts the perinatal population. While OCD is often discussed, PP-OCD is frequently misunderstood and shrouded in silence. This blog post aims to build awareness, and also connect to those who are suffering to offer empathy and understanding, to encourage them to seek help, and most importantly to share with them:

You are an amazing mom...
You are not crazy...
Your intrusive thoughts are not a reflection of you...
They are symptoms...
This is treatable...
It is OK to get help...

Understanding Perinatal OCD: The Silent Storm

Perinatal OCD, also known as postpartum OCD (PP-OCD), is a specific subtype of OCD that emerges during pregnancy or the postpartum period. It's a condition that not only affects birthing individuals but can also impact partners who may be actively involved in caring for the newborn. Those who suffer, often do so in silence, out of feelings of shame, guilt, or fear of possible repercussions for seeking help. For example, many are fearful that their child will be taken from them or they will be hospitalized. It's important to recognize that PP-OCD is a temporary condition, and with the right support and treatment, it is manageable.

Common Symptoms of Perinatal OCD

PP-OCD is hallmarked by obsessions and compulsions that typically focus on the newborn and its symptoms can be both distressing and exhausting:

  • Intrusive Thoughts: These are unwelcome, haunting, and often terrifying thoughts, obsessions, or images. In the context of PP-OCD, these thoughts often revolve around the baby's safety. They can take the form of fears of unintentional harm, accidents, contamination/illness, and result in an incessant loop of anxiety.

  • Compulsions: To quell the storm of anxiety brought on by these intrusive thoughts, individuals with PP-OCD engage in compulsive behaviors. These can encompass excessive hand-washing, checking on the baby obsessively, consistently googling, or avoiding their child.

  • Hyper-vigilance: While new parents naturally tend to be vigilant about their baby's safety, PP-OCD can take this vigilance to an extreme, causing debilitating anxiety and exhaustion.

Common Intrusive Thoughts

In the depths of PP-OCD, intrusive thoughts often circle around themes such as:

  • Harming the Baby: Fears of accidentally smothering the baby, poisoning them, falling down the stairs with the baby, or causing physical harm become constant, haunting nightmares.

  • Contamination Concerns: Excessive fears of germs and contamination transform into relentless cleaning and sterilization rituals.

  • Unwanted Sexual Thoughts: Intrusive thoughts of an inappropriate nature can be deeply unsettling, particularly for new parents trying to protect their child.

  • Religious or Moral Concerns: Some individuals experience intrusive thoughts related to religious or moral beliefs, amplifying the turmoil.

Common Compulsions

In an attempt to silence the unwanted intrusive thoughts, individuals with PP-OCD may, but not always, engage in compulsive behaviors such as:

  • Excessive Handwashing/Steralization: The fear of contamination drives relentless handwashing, often to the point of damaging the skin.

  • Checking Behaviors: The baby and baby-related items become the focus of unrelenting checking, from baby monitors to locks and temperature settings, or constant googling/researching.

  • Reassurance seeking: Persistent reassurance seeking that alleviates distress in the immediate moment, but does not quell the fears or thoughts for long.

  • Mental Rituals: Repetitive mental acts, like counting or praying, become a lifeline to alleviate the unending distress.

Treatment Strategies for Perinatal OCD: A Path to Healing

The good news is that PP-OCD is treatable. There are many evidence-based treatments for PP-OCD, with the gold standard being Exposure Response Prevention (ERP). A treatment approach that includes psychotherapy, medication management (SSRIs), and support group intervention is seen as most effective in treating PP-OCD (Learn More). However, I can't stress enough the importance of letting in your support system. Partners, family members, and friends can play an invaluable role. Let in the people you trust, even though it feels hard. They can offer not just emotional support, but also a helping hand with caregiving responsibilities.

Resources for Support: You Are Not Alone

We've got you covered. There's an entire ecosystem of support:

  • Postpartum Support International (PSI): A treasure trove of resources, including support groups and a helpline, to help individuals and their families dealing with PP-OCD. They have a support group specific to PP-OCD. Every Tuesday @ 8:30pm ET/5:30pm PT:

    • Register Here **When registering for Sharewell for the first time skip the unlimited offer on the payment page (all of our groups are free!)*

  • Blogs:

    • Postpartum Progress: This blog, led by Katherine Stone, offers a wealth of information on perinatal mental health, including PP-OCD. It provides personal stories, expert insights, and a sense of community.

    • The Postpartum Stress Center Blog: This blog, run by Dr. Karen Kleiman, a renowned expert in perinatal mental health, offers informative articles and resources on various perinatal mood disorders, including PP-OCD.

  • Podcasts:

    • The I Am One Podcast: Each episode of the "I am One Podcast" showcases a profound truth: none of us stand alone in our journey, and regardless of our unique stories, we can all resonate with the powerful declaration, "I AM ONE" of the many individuals touched by Perinatal Mood & Anxiety Disorders.

    • All the Hard Things: With a blend of guest interviews, expert insights, unfiltered solo episodes, and down-to-earth, actionable guidance, this podcast offers a unique perspective for those dealing with OCD anxiety, their supportive loved ones, and professionals seeking a deeper understanding.

    • The OCD Stories: While not specific to postpartum OCD, this podcast hosted by Stuart Ralph covers a wide range of OCD-related topics, including interviews with experts and individuals sharing their experiences with PP-OCD.

Whole Counseling and Wellness: Supporting Individuals through PP-OCD

My private practice, Whole Counseling and Wellness, specializes in perinatal mental health and the treatment of PMADs such as postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD, and bipolar, and is recognized as a Postpartum Support International trained provider. We support mothers and couples through the most significant transition of their lives, helping them address their unmet needs, uncover their resilience, and find peace through the chaos of parenthood. My lived experience inspired me to provide advanced and specialized care for perinatal mental health. Reach out to us today for compassionate, confidential, and holistic care.

You Are Stronger Than You Think

OCD Awareness Week serves as a poignant reminder - you are not alone on this path. With the right resources, support, and treatment, individuals grappling with PP-OCD can discover hope and healing. Remember, you are stronger than you think.

Ellen Chance, Ph.D. is the creator of The Whole Mama Blog and the founder of Whole Counseling and Wellness, a private practice based in Stuart, Florida. Her practice specializes in women's and maternal mental health and serves all of Florida virtually. Dr. Chance is passionate about empowering women and mothers to prioritize their whole wellness and works from the belief that all individuals deserve to feel whole: complete, fulfilled, grounded, and connected.


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