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When TV personality Lauren Lee gave birth last year, she was excited and happy about the arrival of her firstborn son. But as she prepared to return to work 12 weeks later, those positive feelings began to fade. Instead, the prospect of taking her three-month-old to daycare led her to feel “hysterical.” She found herself texting her husband at least five times a day to discuss her fears and concerns about the baby. Physically, “It would feel like the skin on my scalp was crawling,” says Lee. “My heart would pound and I had a very sore neck and shoulders.”
It was her frequent, panicky text messages that eventually prompted Lee to seek help. Under the care of a physician, she soon learned she was suffering from postpartum anxiety, a common perinatal mood disorder. With the support of her husband and family, Lauren is now recovering. But what she experienced isn’t unusual.
What are mood disorders?
One in seven women struggle with perinatal mood disorders, during pregnancy or within the first year after giving birth, according to Postpartum Progress. Those disorders, as identified by Postpartum Support International, include depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bi-polar disorder, psychosis (the most rare and most serious), or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The onset of a perinatal mood disorder is usually gradual and can go unrecognized for several weeks or months. Often, a woman attributes her anxiety to sleep deprivation, fluctuating hormones, or being overwhelmed with the arrival of a newborn. These issues are very different from the baby blues, which surface within the first two to three weeks after delivery and pass quickly.
The good news is, all of these are temporary and can be treated effectively with help.
Amanda Smith*, who is on active duty with the military, gave birth to her first child while her husband was deployed in Iraq. Her experience with postpartum depression affected her relationship with her baby, making it difficult to bond. “I didn’t have time to be sad, but I couldn’t come down from my emotions,” she says. Her hormones were “completely out of control,” and she experienced symptoms that included sleeplessness, a tightness in her throat and chest, and shoulder pain. “My brain was constantly going. I couldn’t get it to stop.”
Amanda says medication and therapy were “crucial” to her recovery. “You cannot take care of your kid and be the best mom you can be if you aren’t well.”
According to Postpartum Support International, an estimated 10 percent of women will experience symptoms of depression or anxiety while pregnant.
Hannah Frank’s feelings of excessive worry and stress started around the fifth month of pregnancy. The 38-year-old worried that her age could impact the health of her fetus. Despite getting detailed genetic testing and an ultrasound, her fears were unabated and she spent sleepless nights researching potential problems and outcomes on the computer.
She hated herself the entire pregnancy and spoke with her midwife about her dark feelings. She was then referred to a psychiatrist. With medication and support from her husband, friends, and midwife, she was able to somewhat decrease the symptoms. The anxiety disappeared once her baby was born healthy. Her symptoms did start to resurface six months later, though a mild anti-depressant brought relief.
Life gets better, with help
The lack of understanding about perinatal mood disorders causes women who struggle to feel isolated. New mothers often feel conflicted, caught between how society says they’re supposed to feel (having a baby is great, right?) versus how they actually feel. Many suffer in silence, fearful of being perceived as inadequate or crazy.
If you or someone you know is possibly experiencing a perinatal mood disorder, get help. Speak to your OB/GYN, a psychologist, a friend, or your child’s pediatrician. Know that life will get better. You are not alone.
*Some names have been changed
Symptoms can include:
• Being unable to concentrate or focus
• Feelings of guilt. Ex: You “should” feel happy but you don’t and you feel guilty
• Inability to sleep. Lack of appetite or excessive eating
• Panic attacks; a constant feeling of dread or fear that something bad will happen
• Excessive worry, always wanting to “check” if you did something
• Deep, painful sadness • Lack of energy or desire to do activities you once enjoyed
Women with a history of mood disorders, limited support, poverty, and/or a difficult birth experience are at greatest risk.
Learn More About Perinatal Mood Disorders
Postpartum Progress provides award winning blogs, online support, and access to local resources. • postpartumprogress.org/
Postpartum Support International offers a phone chat service, resource listings, and information for care providers and individuals. • postpartumprogress.org/