Discovering you are pregnant can be a very special and exciting time for many women but this is not always the case. The whole experience of pregnancy, giving birth and then becoming a parent can be a very emotional time. It is, afterall, a series of big life events. Despite the natural journey of highs and lows, there is still a stigma associated with antenatal and postnatal mental health which we think it’s about time is broken.
Many of our clients at The Recover Clinic have experienced some form of trauma and through our work, we continue to spread the message that trauma can be any event (big or small, singular or plural) you have found traumatic – this could even be finding out that you’re pregnant, the pregnancy itself or childbirth. This trauma can lead to other mental illnesses such as antenatal anxiety and postnatal depression. This is a prime example of how important it is for us to treat not just the symptoms of the illness but the underlying reasons behind it too.
Today we’re diving into what antenatal and postnatal mental health problems are, including some of the causes and examples of trauma, symptoms of each illness and treatment options available to help you or a loved one get the help needed…
What Is Antenatal Anxiety and Postnatal Depression?
Antenatal anxiety happens during the pregnancy and postnatal depression happens after the birth. It is completely possible to have antenatal depression and postnatal anxiety too.
A woman’s body undergoes many hormonal changes both during and after pregnancy. During pregnancy the body produces estrogen and progesterone in much greater amounts but then, in the first 24 hours after giving birth, these levels drop rapidly down again to where they were before getting pregnant. You also have to deal with changes in your body which can be empowering or challenging. With all this going on it is not surprising that your emotions are affected. If you are feeling sad all the time for weeks or months during your pregnancy you may be suffering with antenatal depression/anxiety.
During the first week after giving birth, it is common for many women to feel overwhelmed. As a consequence they feel a bit down, anxious and tearful. This is known as the “baby blues” and normally lasts for a week or two. If your symptoms last longer or start later, you could have postnatal depression. It can start any time during the first year after giving birth and the symptoms, which come on gradually, range from being mild to severe and can affect women in different ways.
Causes of Antenatal and Postnatal Mental Health Problems
- History of mental health problems before, particularly depression/anxiety
- History of mental health problems during a previous pregnancy
- Previous miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion
- Being an unplanned pregnancy
- Rape or other sexual/physical/emotional abuse
- Domestic or family violence
- Experienced other stressful/traumatic life events (anything you have found traumatic)
- Hormonal changes
- Having no support system
- Fear and uncertainty
- The “baby blues” (short term).
Common Symptoms of Antenatal and Postnatal Mental Health Problems
It is common to experience depression and anxiety together.
Common Depression Symptoms:
- Feeling teary, sad and low mood
- Feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope
- Feeling irrational
- Feeling restless and agitated
- Loss of confidence
- Difficulty making decisions
- Lack of concentration
- Loss of interest in life (things you usually enjoy)
- Uninterested in your partner
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Fear of being alone and hurting your baby
- Thinking your baby doesn’t love you and would be better off with someone else
- Feeling worthless and like a failure when things go wrong
- Fear of asking for help
- Feeling hopeless about the future
- Social withdrawal
- Self neglect – hygiene, not eating
- Lack of energy
- Sleep problems – fatigue, insomnia (more than expected as a new parent)
- Guilt and self blame for feeling so negatively
- Self harm/suicide
Common Anxiety Symptoms:
- Light-headedness or feeling dizzy
- Nervous tension
- Pins and needles
- Fast, pounding or irregular heartbeat
- Faster breathing
- Higher blood pressure
- Panic attacks
- Churning in the pit of your stomach
- Feeling negative all the time
- Feeling numb
- Lack of concentration
- Racing thoughts
- Feeling like people are looking at you
- Difficulty sleeping.
Treatment for Antenatal and Postnatal Depression/Anxiety?
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is recommended to treat antenatal and postnatal mental health problems.
CBT focuses on techniques to challenge negative patterns of thought and behaviour, problem solving in a more confident way and finding practical ways to improve your emotional health.
Medication such as antidepressants (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors – SSRIs) are commonly used to treat depression both during pregnancy and after the birth. This can be prescribed on its own or alongside CBT. Anxiety medication may also be prescribed. (As with any medication there may be risk factors and side effects).
Self Help Tips
- Resource yourself – self-help books, blogs, videos, podcasts and classes are great at helping you to understand what you can expect, what you are going through and what you can do to help yourself.
- Talk and ask for help if you need it. There is nothing to feel ashamed or guilty about. Experiencing antenatal or postnatal depression/anxiety is very common. Talk to your partner, family and close friends so that they can give you the help and support that you need. Talk to your midwife, health visitor or GP so that any extra support that you need through your pregnancy or after the birth can be provided too. You might also like to contact a professional organisations which deals with depression/anxiety and/or meet other women who have been or are feeling the same way.
- Accept offers of practical help with the housework, shopping, childcare, cooking. We can often be reluctant to let others help us as we don’t want to show any weakness or vulnerability but as pregnant women and new parents in particular, we need to protect our energy and take advantage of any opportunities to rest or do something which makes us feel refreshed again.
- Eat a well balanced, varied diet to give you the nutrients you need to feel physically energised. When we struggle with mental health, it can be hard to bring ourselves to find the resources within to get out and walk (let alone participate in any other exercise) so we need to consume what will give us that extra bit of strength and of course, what we enjoy. When you feel up to it, then gentle exercise such as swimming or yoga is something you can do both when pregnant and after childbirth with or without your newborn.
- Practice self-caring activities and shift your focus by learning and practicing breathing exercises, meditation and other relaxation techniques.
- Show yourself compassion. Even a smooth sailing pregnancy and birth is a lot to go through. Women inspire us everyday who experience this and so much more with their mental health. It’s time we start being a little kinder to ourselves as we face these new things in our lives.
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