Drug Use History May Predict Postpartum Stress and Anxiety

Woman with postpartum stressWomen with a history of substance abuse, even long before pregnancy, are more likely to experience stress and anxiety in the three months following childbirth, according to a study published in the journal Archives of Women’s Mental Health. However, the study did not find a significant association between lifetime drug use and postpartum depression.

Substance Abuse and Postpartum Mental Health Issues

The months following childbirth are notoriously difficult. In the postpartum period, women must recover from birth and pregnancy, cope with hormonal shifts, and provide care to a newborn. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate these challenges. Women who breastfeed usually have to wake to feed their babies every few hours, and most newborns keep irregular schedules and wake frequently during the night.

To explore whether drug and alcohol use played a role in postpartum stress, researchers interviewed 100 women in British Columbia who had recently given birth. Participants were mostly from high socioeconomic backgrounds and were not at higher than usual risk for postpartum mental health issues.

In structured interviews, the women provided information about their history of substance abuse and mental health issues, as well as their postpartum symptoms of posttraumatic stress (PTSD), general stress, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive issues (OCD), and depression.

Even after controlling for sociodemographic factors, women with any history of substance abuse were at a heightened risk of postpartum PTSD. Substance abuse history also increased the risk of anxiety, though not as much. The study also found a marginal link between substance abuse history and stress. There was no correlation between alcohol use and postpartum mental health issues.

According to the study’s authors, a previous history of mental health issues is still the best predictor of any postpartum mental health issues.

Postpartum Anxiety More Common Than Postpartum Depression?

Although postpartum depression receives significant media and medical attention, research suggests postpartum anxiety is more common. A 2013 study found 17% of women have postpartum anxiety, and 6% of women experience postpartum depression. As many as 11% of new moms may experience postpartum OCD.

Postpartum OCD is characterized by obsessive thoughts that women attempt to alleviate with compulsive behaviors, such as hand washing. Women with postpartum anxiety may be plagued with anxious thoughts, often involving the baby’s safety. Intrusive thoughts of bad things happening to the baby are especially common among women who experience postpartum anxiety.


  1. Drug use strong predictor for postpartum mental health problems. (2016, December 8). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161208125900.htm
  2. Paul, I., Downs, D., Schaefer, E., Beiler, J., & Weisman, C. (2013). Postpartum anxiety and maternal-infant health outcomes. Pediatrics, 131(4). doi:10.1542/peds.2012-2147d
  3. Two studies find postpartum anxiety & OCD much more common. (2013, March 05). Retrieved from http://www.postpartumprogress.com/two-studies-find-postpartum-anxiety-more-common-than-expected
  4. Prevatt, B., Desmarais, S. L., & Janssen, P. A. (2016). Lifetime substance use as a predictor of postpartum mental health. Archives of Women’s Mental Health. doi:10.1007/s00737-016-0694-5

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Cara

    December 30th, 2016 at 12:52 PM

    I would agree regarding post partum anxiety. I wasn’t depressed after having my first child but I was so scared that I was going to do something wrong that would harm her that there would be times I would totally freeze and not be able to act or react. I am thankful that my mom and husband were both there for me and understood exactly what I was feeling. They helped me out so much during that time and I am so grateful because not everyone has that type of support system.

  • Janet S.

    December 30th, 2016 at 6:00 PM

    Thank you for bringing attention to OCD, particularly postpartum. OCD is such a misunderstood and misrepresented disorder and it indeed is not uncommon to experience postpartum OCD. In my son’s case, his OCD became severe during college. He could not even eat and wold get stuck in the same place for hours at a time. Thankfully exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the first line psychological treatment for OCD, literally saved his life.Today he is a young man living life to the fullest. I recount my family’s story in my critically acclaimed book, Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery (Rowman & Littlefield, January 2015) and discuss all aspects of the disorder on my blog at ocdtalk.wordpress.com. ERP therapy can also benefit those with postpartum OCD and they can make amazing recoveries as well.

  • Beth

    December 31st, 2016 at 8:15 AM

    Is this just casual use or abuse we are talking here? Two very different things

  • Kim

    December 31st, 2016 at 1:16 PM

    Another thing to think about is that people who abuse drugs probably have also struggled at times with being able to handle difficult situations in their lives and this could be one reason why they turned to drugs in the first place.

    So it makes sense that they may also struggle with some of the difficulties which are presented with becoming a new parent.

    having a baby is never easy and if you have abused drugs in the past and have not ever really strengthened some of your coping abilities than I can definitely see how bringing a child into the pictures could heighten that depression and anxiety all over again.

  • Shelley

    January 2nd, 2017 at 9:05 AM

    The thing about this that is so sad to me is that many of these women have probably made such great strides in recovery and have left the drug abuse far behind them but it continues to haunt them.

  • ray

    January 3rd, 2017 at 1:02 PM

    I would hope that most pregnant females are honest with their OB GYN about past abuse so that maybe there would be a little more help for them? Or at least the doctors would know what the likelihood of this being a possibility would be?

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.