Normal, New Father Stress or Paternal Perinatal Depression?
Like most expectant mothers, most expectant fathers would describe the months immediately before and after the birth of their baby as one of the happiest times of their lives.
Unfortunately, what has recently come to light is that, just as that new bundle of joy may bring with it perinatal anxiety or depression for the mother, the new baby may well do the very same for the father!
I’m betting you’ve heard plenty of stories of women who’ve suffered from postpartum depression or perinatal mood disorders, whether those stories came from friends, colleagues, family members, or social or mainstream media.
What you likely haven’t heard about is paternal perinatal depression (PPND) or paternal postpartum depression (PPPD).
Even many parenting experts aren’t aware that fathers can be just as likely to suffer from perinatal and postpartum anxiety and depression as their female partners.
In fact, a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that approximately 10% of new fathers show signs of anxiety or depression, and that number can even get as high as 25% during the three- to six-month period immediately following the birth… That’s more than twice the rate of depression typically seen in men.
So, why have paternal perinatal depression and paternal postpartum depression and anxiety received so much less attention than their maternal counterparts?
Well, at least part of the reason is that our culture and society tends to view men as being stoic and able to simply “tough things out.”
Accordingly, and all too often, when expectant or new fathers start to feel anxious or depressed, they simply don’t discuss their feelings with others.
But, paternal anxiety and depression aren’t things one can simply “tough out,” and they affect not only the father, but the mother and the new baby, as well.
Why Do Men Get Perinatal Anxiety and Depression?
Most of us know that a woman’s hormones get taken for a roller coaster ride upon first getting pregnant… a ride that continues unabated well into the first year of the newborn’s life.
But, what you probably don’t know is that men experience hormone changes, too!
While the reasons for men’s hormonal changes during pregnancy and after birth are still unclear, recent studies have shown that expectant and new fathers typically experience a drop in testosterone levels accompanied by a simultaneous increase in estrogen, cortisol, and prolactin. Some men even develop symptoms such as nausea and weight gain!
This may be nature’s way of making sure the father is prepared to stick around and take care of the baby.
But, whatever the reason, when those hormonal changes are compounded by sleep deprivation and all of the other relationship and lifestyle changes a new baby brings, it’s really no surprise that fathers should be just as susceptible to perinatal and postpartum depression as mothers.
In short, any parent facing the emotional and lifestyle upheavals ushered in by a newborn is at risk for anxiety and depression.
So, why do some fathers suffer from PPND and not others?
As with mothers who suffer from perinatal mood disorders, that question doesn’t appear to have a single answer.
Anxiety and depression can be triggered by any number of events, and having a baby is certainly a challenging and stressful time. All one need do is consider adding the hormonal changes to the pressures of fatherhood, the increased financial responsibilities, the increased workload at home, and an overall decrease in sleep, and it’s not difficult to become concerned about any father’s mental and emotional well-being.
However, there do seem to be one or two predictors that trump all others…
- Relationship Strain – Studies seem to indicate new fathers are more prone to anxiety and depression – both before and after the birth – if their relationship with their partner has suffered during the course of the pregnancy.
- Partner Experiencing Perinatal Anxiety or Depression – Studies have also shown a clear link between men suffering from perinatal anxiety and depression when their partners are suffering form the same conditions.
Of course, an individual father’s unique personality, mental health history, family history, and support systems (or lack thereof) will also affect his chances of developing perinatal anxiety or depression.
So, how can you tell if you or partner is suffering from something more serious than mild anxiety or the “new daddy blues?”
Signs and Symptoms of Paternal Perinatal Anxiety and Depression
Of course, being a new parent IS a challenge…
It’s only natural to experience some anxiety and stress during the pregnancy and in the first months after birth.
Fortunately, mild anxiety and the “new daddy blues” can usually be dealt with effectively simply by getting a little extra sleep, a little exercise, or spending some time with friends.
But, these things won’t work with perinatal anxiety or depression, and the symptoms will be more severe and last for a much longer period of time.
So, just what are the symptoms of paternal perinatal anxiety and depression?
Actually, the symptoms are pretty similar to those found amongst new mothers experiencing perinatal anxiety and depression, including:
- Becoming emotionally distant from one’s partner or the baby;
- Uncharacteristic agitation or irritability;
- Noticeable changes in appetite;
- Routine or recurring headaches or stomachaches;
- Difficulties making decisions or concentrating;
- Suffering panic or anxiety attacks;
- Feeling sad or hopeless on a routine or recurring basis;
- No longer taking pleasure in activities that once brought fulfillment and joy;
- Feeling inadequate or guilty; and
- Obsessive or irrational thoughts about the baby, one’s self, or other family members.
Of course, each new father will experience perinatal anxiety and depression differently, and this list of symptoms is not meant to be comprehensive.
New fathers struggling with perinatal anxiety and depression also exhibit behaviors that most mothers suffering these conditions don’t.
For example, unlike most women, men struggling with perinatal anxiety and depression often attempt to cope by withdrawing into work or finding reasons to spend more time away from home. Men are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as abusing alcohol or drugs, gambling, or extramarital affairs, in unsuccessful attempts to cope with their anxiety or depression.
Because there is some overlap between the normal, routine challenges of becoming a parent and the symptoms of perinatal anxiety and depression, the key is really to watch how you and your partner are feeling about your selves, your newborn, your family, and your life.
If something “doesn’t feel right,” it’s time to seek some help…
Getting the Help You Need
As mentioned at the outset, one of the biggest problems father’s face when it comes to paternal perinatal anxiety and depression is simply talking about the issue.
Accordingly, if I could give new fathers just one piece of advice, it would be to open up and communicate with their partners, friends, family members, and or a professional counselor or therapist.
Sharing your feelings doesn’t have to be seen as a sign of weakness or complaining… It simply means acknowledging there’s a problem that you’d like to resolve.
As the numbers indicate, if you’re a new father who’s struggling, you’re far from alone!
Fortunately, help for new fathers is becoming more readily available as more men come forward with these issues, whether that help is in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy, anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications, professional counseling or talk therapy, or some combination of these.
Support groups for fathers – both local, in-person groups and those online – are also becoming more and more prevalent and can be a great place to share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences with others who know exactly what you’re going through. A couple of great online support resources for new fathers are SadDaddy.com and PostPartumDads.org.
Remember, paternal perinatal anxiety and depression are not something you can just will away.
In fact, if left untreated, symptoms typically worsen over time and can have lasting negative repercussions not just for the father, but for the mother, their relationship, and the baby.
So, if you or your partner has tried to help your self but you’re still feeling anxious, depressed, or “just not right” seek professional assistance.
Paternal perinatal anxiety and depression CAN be overcome with treatment and support.
Again, needing and getting help isn’t a sign of weakness… It’s a sign of strength to know you are struggling and to get the help you need … Not just for you, but for your partner and your baby!
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If you have any questions regarding the article above, or if I may be of any other assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me at 503-961-9200 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to helping in any way I can!