Every new mom thinks that there is only one pretty child in the world, hers. Pregnancy is a journey into motherhood that’s considered a time of joy and pleasure. It is believed that an expecting mother has to be happy because having a baby is such a fulfilling experience.
Are you pregnant and need someone to talk to? As a psychologist, I have come across mothers experiencing perinatal depression or anxiety who couldn’t gather the courage to share it with anyone. They felt ashamed or guilty for having such sad feelings, whereas they were expected to be enjoying their pregnancy. Dear mom, it is alright if you experience anxiety, depression, uncertainty, or stress.
Pregnancy brings about many physical and hormonal changes in you. These changes can trigger or aggravate certain mental health problems. I will share the few most common maternal psychological and emotional issues during pregnancy and some practical tips for taking care of your mental health as an expecting mom.
Maternal mental health statistics
According to World Health Organization (WHO), 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder. The prevalence rate is even higher in developing countries, where 15.6% of pregnant women and 19.8% of women after childbirth experience any mental disorder.
The highest prevalence of psychiatric problems for women is during prenatal and postnatal periods. The most common psychiatric problem during pregnancy is depression, which affects approximately 1 in every 5 mothers. In rare cases, prenatal depression can become so severe that the mother commits suicide. This is why it is imperative to timely detect and treat depression.
The second most common mental health condition is anxiety. Expecting moms might also experience a bipolar mood disorder, pregnancy paranoia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress, and an eating disorder.
What causes mental illness during pregnancy?
Pregnancy brings a lot of physical, emotional, and hormonal changes to your body. Morning sickness, feeling low, tired, having back pain, disturbed sleep, fluctuations in appetite, pregnancy mood swings, and a fear of the unknown might leave you overwhelmed, which is quite normal.
You can be worried about the uncertainties associated with pregnancy, such as:
- Changes in your relationships with your spouse
- Increased responsibilities and resultant changes in your life
- Financial implications
- Doubts regarding becoming a good mom
In such a situation, changes in emotions like becoming a bit touchy or irritable are pretty understandable. You can manage it with conscious efforts and social support. Things get serious when symptoms become severe enough to meet the clinical criteria for diagnosing a mental illness.
The following factors can contribute to maternal mental illness during pregnancy:
- Low socioeconomic status
- Lack of social and psychological support during pregnancy
- Strained relationship with your spouse
- Extreme stress and anxiety
- Previous history of psychiatric illness
- Previous history of eating disorders (like bulimia and anorexia)
- Exposure to violence (domestic or sexual)
- Natural disaster
- Exposure to physical or mental trauma (like an accident or death of a dear one)
- Your feelings about the pregnancy (happy or confused)
- Previous experiences with pregnancy (miscarriage, difficult pregnancy, or stillbirth)
How to identify signs of mental health issues
Often, perinatal depression and other psychiatric problems go undetected, which can have severe implications for the expecting mom and the baby. Many symptoms of depression can be overlapping with typical pregnancy-related conditions.
For example, an expecting mother can also have disturbed eating and sleep patterns. She can also feel tired and low during the day; therefore, symptoms of depression and anxiety might go undetected.
There are different screening tools that doctors use in their clinics for deciding if an expecting mom is at risk of depression or anxiety. These screening tools are usually self-reported and help in determining if the patient requires a detailed assessment.
I am listing below some common symptoms, which have been derived from structured screening tools.
- I feel tired for no good reason.
- I often feel nervous.
- I feel so nervous that nothing can calm me down.
- I feel hopeless.
- I feel restless or fidgety.
- I feel so restless that I cannot sit still.
- I feel depressed.
- Everything feels like an effort.
- I feel so sad that nothing can cheer me up.
- I feel worthless.
- I fear being alone with my baby.
- I have intrusive thoughts of harming myself or my baby.
Look at the list carefully. If you feel that in the last 30 days, you frequently have experienced many of the symptoms, it means you need to discuss it with your doctor.
Remember, it’s not a diagnostic tool and in no way indicates that you have a mental illness. It only helps you carefully look at your mental health so you can open up about your condition. Discuss your symptoms with your family members, friends, and medical professional. It will enable you to access professional help promptly.
Impact of mental illness on your pregnancy
Mental illness during pregnancy affects your psychological and physical health. It can also interfere with the physical development of your baby. Extreme depression and stress can even contribute to preterm birth.
Perinatal depression is not limited to pregnancy; it involves major or minor episodes of depression during pregnancy or in the first 12 months after delivery. As we know, very young babies are affected by the environmental factors and quality of care they receive. If a mom has a mental illness, it can impede the quality of care and healthy child-mother bonding.
If not treated in time, mental illness can also disturb your relationship with your spouse, family, and friends.
How to stay mentally healthy during pregnancy
Good health and wellbeing can reduce the risks of mental illness. Try to take good care of your health and find ways on how to think positive during pregnancy.
- Eat a healthy and balanced diet. Prenatal nutrition benefits extend to your baby.
- Get proper sleep. There are ways to help achieve this.
- Incorporate exercise into your routine. Do discuss with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.
- Surround yourself with a solid support system. Let your family and friends help you with household chores.
- Indulge in activities that make you happy. Go for a walk, have an outing with your spouse, read a good book, watch a movie, etc.
- Be open about your feelings and fears. Share your feelings with those near you.
- Seek help. Do not hesitate to discuss your doubts and fears with your doctor.
- Meditate or do relaxation exercises. To calm your nerves and be in control of your feelings.
- Be patient with yourself. It is ok to feel tired or less active, do not feel shy of asking for help.
- Do not use alcohol or drugs. Substance abuse while pregnant exposes your child to harm.
- Get in touch with other expecting mothers. Are you feeling alone while pregnant? Join a support group, so you can share and learn from other moms.
What type of help is available for mental illness during pregnancy?
There are 2 types of help available for mental illness.
- Medication. Do not use any medication without the prescription of the doctor while pregnant. If you were taking any psychotic drugs before pregnancy, visit your doctor to adjust the dose according to your physical condition and requirement. There are different viewpoints when using psychiatric medications during pregnancy. Please avoid having any preconceived notions; let a professional doctor guide you in this regard. He/she can help you better than Google.
- Psychotherapy. Although I don’t like the term, psychotherapies are sometimes referred to as “talking therapies”. This means that without the use of medicine, psychologists can help you overcome your condition through different therapeutic techniques and counseling.
Based on your condition, your doctor may decide to prescribe either or both methods for your treatment.
Having a mental illness doesn’t make you a less strong or less happy mother. You don’t need to compare yourself with other expecting moms. Pregnancy is different for every person. Try to be patient with yourself, accept these changes, and share your problems, feelings and fears with others—especially your doctor.