Perinatal anxiety and depression: signs and support

This week (8-14 November) marks the 15th annual Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week, the purpose of which is to raise awareness, including the signs to look for and where to seek support.

2020 has been an unusual and incredibly challenging year, so it’s more important than ever that expecting and new parents are supported. The theme for PANDA Week is ‘Tell someone who cares’, so if you (or someone you know) are struggling with mental health challenges, please know that you are not alone.

You might be having concerns about your thoughts, feelings, or behaviours during pregnancy and the postpartum period, or perhaps it’s your partner or someone close to you. Let’s first look at how these feelings might differ from expected stresses or ‘matrescence’ that come with pregnancy and new parenthood.

Signs and symptoms of perinatal anxiety and depression

Both women and men can experience perinatal (meaning during pregnancy and the year after birth) mental health issues, and these can vary in symptoms and intensity. It can be broken down into the antenatal period (pregnancy) and the postnatal period (the first year after birth).

When anxiety or depression occurs during pregnancy, it is referred to as antenatal anxiety or antenatal depression. Up to 1 in 10 women and 1 in 20 men struggle with antenatal depression. Anxiety is just as common with many expecting parents experiencing both at the same time.

According to PANDA, signs and symptoms can include:

  • Panic attacks (a racing heart, palpitations, shortness of breath, shaking, or feeling physically ‘detached’ from your surroundings).
  • Persistent, generalised worry, often focused on fears, for the health or wellbeing of the baby.
  • The development of obsessive or compulsive behaviours.
  • Abrupt mood swings.
  • Feeling constantly sad, low, or crying for no obvious reason.
  • Being nervous, ‘on edge’ or panicky.
  • Feeling constantly tired and lacking energy.
  • Having little or no interest in all the normal things that bring joy.
  • Sleeping too much, or not sleeping very well at all.
  • Losing interest in sex or intimacy.
  • Withdrawing from friends or family.
  • Being easily annoyed or irritated.
  • Finding it difficult to focus, concentrate, or remember.
  • Engaging in more risk taking behaviour.
  • Having thoughts of death or suicide.

When anxiety or depression begin in the year after birth, it is referred to as postnatal anxiety or postnatal depression. It’s not uncommon for women to experience the ‘baby blues’ in the first few days after birth. However, this is not considered a mental health concern requiring treatment, and will usually resolve in a few days. More than 1 in 7 new mums and up to 1 in 10 new dads experience postnatal depression. Postnatal anxiety is just as common, with many new parents experiencing both at the same time.

According to PANDA, signs and symptoms can include:

  • Panic attacks (a racing heart, palpitations, shortness of breath, shaking, or feeling physically ‘detached’ from your surroundings).
  • Persistent, generalised worry, often focused on fears, for the health or wellbeing of the baby.
  • The development of obsessive or compulsive behaviours.
  • Increased sensitivity to noise and touch.
  • Change in appetite: under or overeating.
  • Sleep problems unrelated to the baby’s needs.
  • Extreme lethargy: a feeling of being physically or emotionally overwhelmed and unable to cope with the demands of chores and looking after the baby.
  • Memory problems or loss of concentration.

Factors that contribute to perinatal anxiety or depression

  • History of depression or anxiety
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Previous reproductive loss
  • Difficult or complex pregnancy
  • Birth trauma
  • Premature or sick baby
  • Challenges with feeding or settling
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Pre-existing physical illnesses
  • Financial stress
  • Relationship stress
  • Family violence
  • Lack of social support
  • History of childhood trauma or neglect
  • Isolation and lack of social connections
  • Loss and grief issues
  • Absence of your own mother or mothering figure

‘Tell someone who cares’: Where to get help for a perinatal mental health issue

It can be difficult, but it’s vital not to let guilt or shame get in the way of seeking the help you need. Receiving help early leads to a faster recovery with less impact on you, your relationship with your baby, partner, or family.

Treatment options range from pregnancy-safe medication, counselling, social support, peer support, exercise, and a healthy diet. Here is where to go for further information and help:

  • Confide in your partner, a trusted friend or family member.
  • Let your GP or other trusted health professional know what you’re experiencing.
  • Talk to others who have recovered from perinatal anxiety or depression.
  • Call the PANDA National Helpline on 1300 726 306 (Mon-Sat 9am-7.30pm AEST). If you are worried about someone close to you, you can also phone PANDA for further guidance on how best to support them.

Be assured that you’re not alone. Many other women and men have come through this experience of perinatal anxiety and depression to find joy and fulfillment as a parent.

 

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