The truth is that 1 in 5 women will experience mental health complications, primarily anxiety and depression, either during pregnancy or the first year after having a baby. These illnesses, known as perinatal mood and anxiety disorders or PMADs, are the MOST COMMON complication of pregnancy and childbirth.
What makes a woman at risk for having a PMAD experience? Many factors come in to play, including changes in biology, psychology, and circumstance. Let’s look at a few:
HORMONES are a significant factor for some women. A pregnant woman’s body is awash in hormonal changes, with estrogen and progesterone increasing throughout pregnancy and plummeting to pre-pregnancy levels within days of giving birth. At the same time, prolactin and oxytocin rev up to promote lactation and breastfeeding. These significant hormonal changes are believed to contribute to the “baby blues” which is a transient condition, lasting about 2-3 weeks, during which time new mothers may experience mood swings, irritability, and tearfulness.
MENTAL HEALTH HISTORY is important to consider. Women with a previous PMAD experience are at higher risk for experiencing PMADs again, as are women who have either a personal or family history of mental health issues.
SLEEP – or lack of it – can have a big impact on some women. Waking every 2-3 hours for weeks or months on end to feed baby can take a huge toll, especially for women who are sleep-sensitive.
A mother’s inherent PSYCHOLOGY can have an impact. Women who have unrealistic expectations (about pregnancy, labor and delivery, breastfeeding, motherhood, etc.) or have perfectionist tendencies or struggle with transitions may be at increased risk for experiencing PMADs.
CIRCUMSTANCES in life can contribute. Perhaps mom had a traumatic birth, or the baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit, or baby has colic, cries all day or doesn’t sleep well. Normal life stresses – change in job, moving to a new house, sickness of a parent – can seem overwhelming when dealing with a new baby. Often women work until baby is born and find themselves isolated and alone if they don’t have friends or family available for support.
Fortunately, there is a tried-and-true path to wellness that includes self-care (focusing on sleep, good nutrition, light exercise, and time off to rejuvenate), social support (talking with others who have survived PMADs), talk therapy, and medication when necessary. Some combination of these four ingredients will help all women recover.
Postpartum Support Virginia provides direct support to new moms and families experiencing PMADs by staffing a statewide “warmline” with volunteers responding to calls and emails within 24 hours, offering FREE peer-led support groups throughout the state, and making referrals to mental health professionals with expertise and training in treating PMADs.
Our motto to new/pregnant moms experiencing PMADs: You are not alone. You are not to blame. With help, you will be well.
Learn more about PMADs and Postpartum Support Virginia’s programs at www.postpartumva.org.
Contributed by Adrienne Griffen, Executive Director of Postpartum Support Virginia and a PMAD survivor.