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How Pregnancy Impacts Your Mental Health

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How Pregnancy Impacts Your Mental Health

For some individuals, pregnancy is the happiest time of their lives. But for others, pregnancy and childbirth are full of confusion, pain, fear, stress, and even depression. The mismatch between cultural expectations and personal expectations can also make it difficult for pregnant people to cope and seek help when they need it.

Perinatal anxiety or depression can occur during or after pregnancy, and it can have a serious effect on mothers and their children, particularly infants and toddlers. Scientific research confirms that infants need engaging, attentive, and nurturing caregivers to thrive. If we can begin to identify and treat perinatal mental health issues earlier and provide expectant families with the support and resources they need, we will in turn support the well-being of our future generations.

Identifying Perinatal Mental Health Issues

Pregnancy can be an exciting time, but it may also bring a lot of negative emotions and a rollercoaster of hormones. Not to mention, diagnosis of mental health issues during this time can be tricky as pregnancy or postpartum symptoms can sometimes hide other symptoms or indicators that something is wrong. Those who have a history of depression, anxiety, or trauma, or have experienced a miscarriage or loss of a child, are also more likely to experience perinatal anxiety or depression. Here’s how you can learn to identify the different types of mental health issues that arise before, during, or after your pregnancy:

Perinatal Anxiety

It’s natural to worry about the birth of your little one, or about the fragility of your newborn. In fact, it’s a sign of your already-deep love for your newest addition. But sometimes worrying can get out of hand, keeping you up all night or on edge most of the time. Excessive worrying can also lead to physical symptoms, which can be bad for your baby in the womb. 

Perinatal anxiety is a lesser-known mental health condition primarily due to postpartum depression receiving most of the public attention, but it is still estimated that at least 18% of pregnant people experience perinatal anxiety, and that number could be even higher if more individuals were to speak up.

Symptoms of Perinatal Anxiety:

  • Constant or near-constant worry that cannot be eased
  • Feelings of dread about the things you fear will happen
  • Sleep disruption (particularly during the times when your baby is sleeping peacefully and you cannot)
  • Isolating from loved ones or fear of going outside in case something happens to yourself or your newborn
  • Fatigue, heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, shakiness, or hyperventilation are all physical symptoms related to perinatal anxiety

 

There are a couple of even more specific types of perinatal anxiety, including perinatal panic disorder and perinatal obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Their symptoms match those of their non-perinatal counterparts, though they may relate more to your role as a new parent.

Antepartum Depression: Depression During Pregnancy

Many of us have heard the term “baby blues,” for when a mother feels tired, worried, or down for a few days after having a baby. But while the baby blues and postpartum depression may receive the most public attention, 14-23% of women also suffer from some type of depression during pregnancy.

Depression during pregnancy, also known as antepartum or prenatal, can significantly affect mothers and developing babies. Pregnant people who are depressed are more likely to develop complications such as high blood pressure, and depression during pregnancy has been linked to preterm birth and low birth weight– all of which are more costly to treat and likely to cause developmental delays. As mentioned, what makes this period of time even more complicated is the fact that several symptoms of depression are similar to the changes associated with pregnancy.

Symptoms of Antepartum Depression:

  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Persistent feelings of sadness and frequent crying
  • Excessive anxiety about your pregnancy, baby, or ability to parent
  • Poor adherence to prenatal care including not gaining enough weight
  • Withdrawing from loved ones
  • Engaging in impulsive or risky behaviors such as drinking alcohol, smoking, or using illicit drugs
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

 

Postpartum Blues or “Baby Blues”

The “baby blues” impact between 50 and 75% of people after delivery. If you’re experiencing the baby blues, you will have frequent bouts of crying, sadness, and anxiety. Remember, babies require around-the-clock care, so it’s normal for mothers to feel tired or overwhelmed at first. This condition usually begins in the first few days after delivery and usually subsides within two weeks without treatment. The best thing you can do is rest and ask for support from friends, family, or your partner.

Postpartum Depression (PPD)

Postpartum depression is a mood disorder that occurs after a recent birth and is a more serious condition than the “baby blues.” PPD affects 1 in 7 new mothers, and the risk is higher for people of color who are less likely to have access to or afford treatment. Individuals with a personal or familial history of depression are also at a higher risk for PPD. It’s worth mentioning that PPD can affect fathers, surrogates, and adoptive parents, too.

Symptoms of Postpartum Depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, irritable, or hopeless feelings
  • Difficulty remembering, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Aches, pains, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease with treatment and have no clear cause
  • Persistent doubts about your ability to care for your new baby
  • Trouble bonding or forming an attachment with your new baby
  • Thoughts about death, suicide, or harming oneself or the baby

 

Postpartum Psychosis (PP)

Postpartum psychosis is a severe mental illness that occurs after childbirth and is considered a medical emergency. Individuals with PP may be at risk of harming themselves or their children. Individuals who have personal or family history of bipolar disorder or a previous psychotic episode are at the highest risk. If you or a loved one experience any of the following symptoms, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

Symptoms of Postpartum Psychosis

  • Delusions, paranoia, or confusion (thoughts or beliefs that are untrue)
  • Hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or smelling things that aren’t there)
  • Mania (high, elated mood that seems out of touch with reality)

 

In general, if feelings of depression or anxiety persist for a few weeks or interfere with daily activities, it’s time to ask for help.

Mental health symptoms can impact the bond you have with your baby. Fortunately, treatment is available.

Treatment

Mental health conditions typically don’t go away on their own. Perinatal anxiety and depression are treatable, and with the proper treatment and resources, most people will feel better and see their symptoms improve, though treatment and recovery time vary depending on the severity of symptoms.

Psychotherapy

If you have previously experienced anxiety or an episode of depression and are planning to become pregnant, you can reduce your risk and improve your outcomes. Talk with your primary care provider or mental health professional for help. Just like any other medical condition, there is nothing to be ashamed of and you should never have to handle these feelings alone.

The use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has been shown to help people with depression and anxiety challenge and change unhelpful patterns of thinking and behavior. Connecting with a local support group can also help new parents gain insight into community resources and feel less alone in their endeavors.

Medication

Perinatal depression can be treated with antidepressants, which can help improve the way the brain uses certain chemicals that control mood or stress. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should notify their health care provider before starting antidepressants to minimize the baby’s exposure to the medication. Though the risk of birth defects and other problems for babies of mothers who take antidepressants during pregnancy is very low, all parents should work with their health care provider to weigh the risks and benefits of treatment with antidepressants.

Additionally, it is worth noting that antidepressants take time–usually 6 to 8 weeks– to work, and some symptoms may improve before your mood lifts. It is important to give medication and chance before deciding if it works or not. Pairing antidepressants with psychotherapy can help relieve symptoms sooner.

Self-Care

You cannot self-care your way out of perinatal anxiety or depression. The most effective way to diagnose and treat perinatal anxiety and depression is by visiting your health care provider. However, there are things that you can do at home to help cope with depressive symptoms.

  • Exercise when you can – in particular, walking with a baby in a stroller is a great way to get some steps in and enjoy the fresh air.
  • Maintain a healthy diet – keeping your body well nourished can help give you the energy you need to get through the day.
  • Create time for yourself – even if it’s only for an hour, everyone needs a break from their stressors.
  • Make time to rest – whenever the baby sleeps, you should also try to rest. Individuals who get little sleep also see an increase in stress and depressive or anxious symptoms.
  • Resist isolation – the days can easily blend together when you’re at home with a new baby. Regularly speaking with loved ones or other parents can help you feel supported and less alone, thereby improving depressive symptoms.

 

Community Resources

There are a number of factors that may contribute to the increased rates of perinatal anxiety and depression, including lack of access to care or not being able to afford it, and shame in asking for help. Identifying and understanding these factors may be a lifesaving measure for many individuals.

Public Education and Awareness

Public education and awareness campaigns can help educate the population as a whole, as well as raise awareness and attention among lawmakers and health care professionals. Strategies to address perinatal depression include increasing coverage of and access to treatment; educating the public about the relationship between childbearing and mental health; improving support from prenatal care providers; and expanding programs to support new parents during the postpartum period.

Social Support

Spouses, partners, family, and friends may be the first to recognize symptoms of perinatal anxiety or depression. Loved ones can encourage new parents to seek treatment with a mental health professional, offer emotional support, offer to run errands, and assist with daily tasks around the home.

Safe Abortion Access

Not everyone wants a child, and a forced pregnancy can be incredibly distressing and traumatic. A person’s mental health issues may be exacerbated even further if the pregnancy resulted from rape or if the baby or pregnant person has physical or medical complications. People who do not have the option or access to terminate their pregnancy may have a higher chance of postpartum mental health issues. Some parents may choose to give their baby up for adoption, but this too can lead to stress, guilt, and mental health issues down the road. Parents who choose to keep their baby may feel resentful in addition to experiencing depressive symptoms, which can lead to a neglectful or unhealthy home environment. It goes without saying that access to safe, legal abortions, is essential to the health care of our communities.

Conclusion

Anxiety and depression before, during, and after pregnancy can have lasting negative effects on new parents and their young children. Access to mental health screenings, services, and treatment is a healthy start, but we must continue to support improved resources, infrastructure, and education for our communities to ensure better outcomes for our future generations.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues and are considering getting pregnant, call us 1 (505) 884-1114. Our multidisciplinary team is ready to help you create a customized treatment plan that meets your unique needs.

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