It’s normal for us to worry under the best of circumstances and these concerns are amplified when you’re bringing a new life into the world. So, despite the exhilaration and excitement of pregnancy, it can be a stressful time for many women. Prolonged exposure to high stress and anxiety can greatly increase the risk of mental illness in many expectant mothers.
It’s important to understand the risks so that you can take preventive action or be better prepared. After all, mental illness affects not just you, but also your unborn child. Before diving into the subject of maternal mental health during pregnancy, let’s address the elephant in the room.
Stress and Anxiety about COVID-19
These are difficult times for all of us, but it’s even more terrifying for pregnant women. During the current pandemic, the risk of infection is one of the biggest causes of stress (not to mention the loneliness of social distancing). Considering the threat posed by the Zika virus some years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic has set off alarm bells. While these fears are understandable because of the impact of maternal wellbeing on fetal health, here’s what you should know.
While it is true that we need more research to understand the potential risks for pregnant women and their developing babies, what we do know is encouraging. A study that recently appeared in the journal ULTRASOUND in Obstetrics & Gynecology, points out that there is no evidence to suggest greater vulnerability to COVID-19 infection during pregnancy. Pregnant women who have been infected are also at no greater risk of complications as compared to other patients. Similar observations can be found in a WHO report on the outbreak in China. Most pregnant women did not suffer from severe symptoms, with just 8% experiencing severe illness, and 1% critical illness.
Mental Health Risks During Pregnancy
Everyone’s experience of motherhood and pregnancy is different. For some women, feelings may be mixed or even negative. This is understandable as we all have unique personalities and different coping skills. Some find it hard to adjust to the physical changes and the responsibilities of pregnancy. The lack of support, past experiences, and other circumstances can contribute to uncertainty, stress, and other negative emotions. When such negative emotions are persistent and often irrational, they could be indicative of an underlying mental illness.
Mental health problems during pregnancy and after birth are more common than most people realize, affecting an estimated 1 in 5 women. Generalized anxiety disorder and depression are the most common illnesses to affect women during pregnancy. These conditions are believed to affect around 25 to 30 percent of women respectively. As is the case for other individuals at other times, pregnant women are vulnerable to a variety of mental disorders and the severity of these conditions can also vary significantly. In some cases, a pre-existing mental illness may only be identified during pregnancy.
The impact of mental wellbeing and emotional health on pregnancy, labor or childbirth, and subsequent motherhood is also widely recognized today. Studies show that prenatal depression and anxiety can be linked to a higher risk of postnatal depression and anxiety. Similarly, past mental health problems could put you at a higher risk of suffering from depression, anxiety, and other disorders during pregnancy. It is also worth noting that anxiety and stress levels tend to rise, reaching their highest during the third trimester. This is understandable as childbirth can be scary, especially for first time mothers.
Warning Signs of Mental Illness During Pregnancy
While its normal to experience some of these symptoms in isolation or sporadically, they can be indicative of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders if you experience more them persistently:
- Fatigue or daytime lethargy
- Appetite loss
- Loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed
- Increased tendency to isolate yourself (not as a social distancing measure)
- Mood swings with increased irritability
- Heightened feelings of anxiety, fear, and helplessness, especially with regard to the pregnancy and your baby
- Difficulty focusing and chaotic thoughts
Coping with Mental Illness During Pregnancy
If you suffer from pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of mental illness, it is imperative that you first manage the underlying condition. For example, chronic pain disorders like fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and IBS are associated with greater prevalence of depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental illnesses. Sleep impairment and sleep disorders can be both a cause and symptom of mental illness too. In some cases, treating the sleep disorder also helps relieve symptoms of mental illness. No matter the cause, mental illness can be treated with a variety of approaches.
Medication – Although some psychiatric medications can pose a risk during pregnancy, you should speak to your health care provider before stopping or starting any treatment. Not all medications pose a risk and your doctor can decide on the best course of action depending on your symptoms, past history, and other factors.
Therapy – Non-medicated approaches to managing mental illness can be particularly effective for chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. Such approaches can include counseling, behavioral therapy, and support groups, where you talk with a skilled therapist or other women who have had similar experiences.
Not every therapeutic practice requires specialized care and treatment. Studies show that meditation, prenatal yoga, exercise, and physical activity can help lower stress levels and promote feelings of wellbeing. Even talking to loved ones and spending time doing things you enjoy can help improve your mental wellbeing.
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