Dealing with perinatal anxiety and depression

Did you know that up to one in ten women experience anxiety, depression, or a mixture of both, during pregnancy? That number increases to as many as one in seven women during the first year after birth. Unfortunately, the pregnancy hormones that make pregnancy so wonderful for some, can trigger or exacerbate mental health issues for others.

While postnatal depression is now more openly discussed, mental illness during pregnancy (antenatal anxiety and depression) is still a somewhat taboo topic. Some women not only find it difficult to talk to friends and family about what they are going through, but may be reluctant to seek medical help.

“It’s important to recognise that pregnancy and the year following are challenging times,” says Dr Nicole Highet, Perinatal Psychologist and founder of COPE: Centre of Perinatal Excellence. “Just like it is not a personal failing or a weakness if you have high blood pressure or anemia in pregnancy, so too is the case with common conditions like depression and anxiety.”

Dr Highet has found that many women often feel alone in their struggle and encourages women to talk openly about the topic with their friends.

“It’s amazing how when women do open up, this gives confidence for others to open up too – creating a special connection and vital support.”

Symptoms of perinatal anxiety or depression

A certain amount of heightened worry and mood swings are normal during pregnancy and shortly after giving birth. After all, having a baby is one of the biggest changes that can happen in a woman’s life and causes major changes to her body and hormones.

If you find the worry and mood swings becoming excessive or start finding it difficult to go about your daily tasks, you may be showings signs of anxiety and depression disorders. You are also considered to be more at risk if you have a family history of depression or anxiety.

Signs of anxiety include:
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Excessive amounts of worry that feel hard to control
  • Being unusually irritable
  • Feelings of restlessness
  • Disrupted sleep or insomnia
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Panic attacks.
Signs of depression include:
  • Less interest in the things or people around you
  • Feeling low or numb
  • Lack of energy
  • Feeling isolated or disconnected
  • Changes in sleep including inability to sleep or feeling like you need to sleep all the time
  • Feeling like you can’t cope
  • Feeling hopeless or useless
  • Having thoughts of harming yourself or your children
  • Thoughts of suicide.

Where to find help

Experts recommend a visit to your GP as a first step, as they can rule out any physical conditions that could be contributing to the feelings of anxiety or depression. Your GP may then refer you to a psychologist.

The Australian Government offers subsidies and rebates for a range of mental health services. You can find out more about these subsidies on the COPE website.

If you would like to speak to someone anonymously, you can call the PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression) national helpline on 1300 726 306 (Mon to Fri, 9am-7.30pm AEST).  PANDA also runs an online forum where you can share your thoughts in a secure, anonymous environment. The forum is moderated 24 hours a day by trained mental health professionals.

Remember, the Beyondblue website offers many helpful resources including a list of organisations and helplines.

Types of treatment

Once diagnosed, there are a number of treatment options.

“The type of treatment will depend on how severe the symptom are,” explains Dr Highet. “Early detection means that we can treat the symptoms before they escalate and become more severe.”

There are a range of psychological treatments for mild to moderate anxiety and depression, including those that target negative and anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviours. If the symptoms are overwhelming and the condition is moderate to severe, there are antidepressant medications (SSRIs), which are safe and recommended for use during pregnancy as well as in the postnatal period.

Anxiety and depression during pregnancy shouldn’t be ignored

If you develop depression or anxiety while you are pregnant, it is likely to continue after the birth of your child, and can be even more difficult to manage with the pressures of a newborn baby.

“Getting the symptoms under control and helping the woman restore emotional, physical and mental health and wellbeing is the goal of any treatment,” Dr Highet explains. “You don’t need to suffer or wear yourself down. Help is available.”

If you or someone you know is in need of urgent help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or in an emergency call 000.