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The Sad Reality about Prenatal Anxiety and Depression
Finding out that you are expecting a child can be one of the most exciting moments of your life! However, it can also be a time filled with worry, stress, and even fear. Worrying about potential health risks for you and the baby, stressing about the financial strain of raising a child, and even fear of the many unknowns can become overwhelming.
In late March, my husband and I were shocked to learn that we will be welcoming our first baby in late November! Our joy and excitement was immediate, but as the weeks went on, I began to experience extreme feelings of anxiety and sadness. We contributed my anger outbursts, irritability, and many tears to hormones. But by week 14, I knew these extreme emotions were beginning to affect my ability to function as an employee, daughter, sister, friend, and most importantly, a wife, and future mother.
I began doing some research on my symptoms and learned that prenatal, or antepartum, depression and anxiety are two common mental health conditions that can affect pregnant women. According to The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), nearly 14-23 percent of pregnant women experience depression. When you include anxiety into that number, it is believed that up to 70 percent of expectant mothers experience bouts of anxiety and/or depression. Having struggled with anxiety and depression in my past, one of my biggest concerns (second only to the health of my baby) was becoming one of the 600,000 American women who are affected by postpartum depression each year. I dreamt about the day I would hear my child’s heartbeat for the first time and feel him or her move in my belly. I never imagined I would feel overwhelming sadness and constant worry while experiencing these priceless moments. I didn’t know that prenatal depression or anxiety even existed until I began to experience it firsthand.
While having a history of depression or anxiety within your family or yourself is a large risk factor for developing prenatal and postpartum depression and anxiety, shifts in hormones, relationship conflicts, previous pregnancy loss, stressful life events (including your current pregnancy), pregnancy complications, and history of abuse are all potential risk factors. Often times just one of these triggers can be more than you can handle.
Depression during pregnancy is a mood disorder just like clinical depression. Mood disorders are biological illnesses that involve changes in brain chemistry. In a segment about prenatal depression on Good Morning America, Dr. Stephen Quentzel, a psychiatrist with Beth Israel Hospital, explains that without proper treatment, the mother and child can suffer from a host of issues. Some of these issues include poor nutrition, drinking, smoking, and suicidal behavior, which can then cause premature birth, low birth weight, and developmental problems. A woman who is depressed often does not have the strength or desire to adequately care for herself or her developing baby. Depressed mothers also find it more difficult to bond with their baby. While some stress during pregnancy is normal, extreme stress and anxiety can cause subtle differences in brain development that might lead to behavioral issues as the baby grows. Because of these risks, seeking help at the first sign of anxiety or depression is critical.
Symptoms of prenatal depression can include:
Sleeping too little or too much
Loss of interest in activities that are usually enjoyed
Recurring thoughts of death, suicide, or hopelessness
Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
Change in eating habits
Symptoms of prenatal anxiety can include:
Feeling that something bad is going to happen
Disturbances of sleep and appetite
Inability to sit still
Physical symptoms like dizziness, hot flashes, and nausea
Once I realized something was not quite right, I decided to contact my OBGYN and schedule an appointment to discuss my concerns. After our appointment, she referred me to a mental health professional who has experience working with pregnant women with mental health challenges. I was relieved to learn that what I was feeling was relatively common and since I caught my symptoms early, I have a lot of options for treatment. Some of the options included talk therapy, medication, animal therapy, yoga, meditation, support groups, exercise, nutrition, or a combination of two or more of these.
When deciding which treatment path you want to take, especially when it comes to medication, it is critical to ask yourself one major question; do the benefits outweigh the risks? If you answer yes, medication may be a good option. If you answer no, you may want to consider some of the other treatment options first. Be sure to discuss all of your options with a doctor or mental health professional you trust and feel comfortable with. Ask a lot of questions, be honest about your thoughts and feelings, and never begin or stop medication without consulting with your doctor or mental health professional.
“In order to be the best mother and wife you can be, you need to be the healthiest and happiest version of yourself,” said my mental health practitioner (who I chose to report anonymously). “The fact that you are here asking for help tells me that you know your own limits. You need to continue making your wellness a priority especially after you become a mom.”
Her words stayed with me and I left my appointment feeling comforted and even empowered. I think too often women (and sometimes men) put too much pressure on themselves to give 100 percent all the time and never allow themselves a break to relax and practice self-care. After all, when you drive a car all week, don’t you eventually have to stop and fill your tank? Why aren’t we doing the same for ourselves? It’s amazing how much tension and anxiety can be eased simply by talking or exercising. After all, in order for us to be the best mom, wife, employee, friend, coach, etc. we can be, we must be the healthiest and happiest version of ourselves.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing mental health issues while pregnant, do not wait to reach out for help. Contact your primary care physician, OBGYN, or locate a local provider at https://www.thekimfoundation.org/html/finding_help/bylocation.html.
Jill Hamilton, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation
Jill Hamilton has been the Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations from The University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, Nebraska State Conference Planning Committee, is Chair of the Nebraska LOSS Teams Conference Planning Committee, and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.