Perinatal Mood Disorders: Symptoms, Risks, and Treatment Recommendations
As a culture, we tend to think of pregnancy as one of the happiest times in a woman’s life.
But, being pregnant also brings about a number of changes, including biological and emotional stressors that can easily lead to anxiety and depression.
While postpartum depression may get more attention, what many don’t realize is that anxiety is as likely to be an issue as depression… And the onset of both anxiety and depression are actually much more likely to begin during the pregnancy itself.
In fact, while the Centers for Disease Control estimates that somewhere between 11 to 20% of women who give birth each year have symptoms of postpartum depression (approximately 600,000 women in the U.S. alone), when you take into account perinatal mood disorders as a whole – as well as the likelihood that many women likely don’t report their symptoms for one reason or another – it’s likely that the number of women in the U.S. who struggle with perinatal mood or anxiety disorders in any given year is much, much higher.
So, the problem we need to be addressing isn’t confined to postpartum depression alone, but perinatal mood disorders in general.
Mood disorders is a broader term that encompasses anxiety and depression, as well as obsessive and compulsive disorders, and perinatal takes into account the experiences of the expectant parents both before and after the birth of their child.
Symptoms of Perinatal Mood Disorders
Unfortunately, given the variety of symptoms and the similarity of many of them to the symptoms of being pregnant, expectant mothers often don’t recognize the early indications that they’re struggling with a perinatal mood disorder.
For example, the following symptoms are as likely to brought on by the pregnancy, as they are to be symptoms of a perinatal mood disorder:
- Being more emotional than usual (including feeling sadder or more irritable than is typical)
- Feeling unlike one’s self
- Experiencing noticeable changes in weight and/or appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- A lack of energy (feeling fatigued)
- Lack of sexual desire
However, while the symptoms of perinatal anxiety and depression include the aforementioned, they typically extend beyond those listed above, and become ongoing problems that affect the well-being of both parents and their child, such as:
- Pervasive feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression
- Routine or recurring agitation, anxiety, and even panic
- Difficulty performing normal daily tasks
- Lack of interest in what were once pleasurable activities
- Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- Abrupt changes in energy levels or mood
- Difficulties concentrating or making decisions
- The development of obsessive or compulsive behaviors
- Either a lack of interest in, or extreme over-protectiveness of, your baby
- Fear of being left alone with your baby
- A desire to run away
- Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
Some women have summarized all of these symptoms by simply reporting that they feel, “There’s no joy in anything anymore,” or “I feel like I’ve lost myself.”
Although perinatal mood disorders are readily treatable once recognized, around half of all mothers who experience these disorders are never identified.
To make matters worse, both expectant parents and their care providers frequently overlook not only the conditions themselves, but also the risks to unborn and newborn babies that arise from untreated prenatal mood disorders, including:
- Premature birth;
- Increased rates of alcohol, tobacco, and other substance use during pregnancy;
- Low birth weight;
- Increased ambivalence about the pregnancy;
- Poor maternal attachment;
- Poor attention regulation;
- Difficult infant temperament;
- Emotional and behavioral problems;
- Poor cognitive and motor development; and
- An increased risk of subsequent anxiety and depression.
Untreated anxiety and depression during pregnancy is also one of the strongest risk factors for the development of postpartum depression, and the effects of postpartum depression on an infant can be devastating, including:
- Lower IQ;
- Slower language development;
- Increased risk of attention deficit disorder; and
- Increased risk of behavioral and mental health illness in later life.
Fortunately, the treatments for perinatal anxiety and depression are largely the same as with other forms of anxiety and depression, and the success rates are often higher…
Between 80 and 90 percent of women who receive treatment are helped by medications, individual or group psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.
While it’s understandable that many new mothers can and will be concerned about taking medications during pregnancy, several studies have determined that SSRIs are generally safe for pregnant women and nursing mothers and they may be necessary if the symptoms of one’s perinatal mood disorder are severe.
That being said, if the symptoms are caught early enough and are relatively mild, interpersonal counseling and psychotherapy have been shown to be quite effective on their own, often in as few as 8-12 sessions.
It’s important to remember, if you or someone you love experiences any of the symptoms listed above for more than a week or two – or even if you’re simply finding it difficult to cope with being an expectant or new mother – you should seek professional assistance immediately.
Perinatal anxiety and depression aren’t conditions you can simply tough your way through. And, they don’t just affect you, the mother… they affect everyone around you, including your partner and the health of your baby.
The sooner you get the professional support you need and deserve, the sooner you can get on with enjoying your pregnancy, and your family!
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