what is perinatal depression and how does it affect a woman

Everybody feels sad sometimes — it’s unavoidable. For expectant and new mothers, each day comes with unique challenges. It’s when those blue feelings persist, and they begin to interfere with everyday life, that it could mean something more serious is going on. What is perinatal depression and how does it relate to these symptoms that women experience?

What Is Perinatal Depression?

After hearing the term, many may have asked themselves, “what is perinatal depression?” Depression during and after pregnancy, known as perinatal depression, is more common than most realize. Affecting one in seven women, it’s one of the most common medical complications mothers-to-be face.

The risk of depression is even higher for mothers who are also dealing with poverty or high-stress situations. In some of the most severe cases of suffering, women may even commit suicide.

Causes of Perinatal Depression

To better understand what perinatal depression is, it’s best to break it down into the two separate conditions: prenatal and postpartum depression.

Many women have heard of postpartum depression, but it’s not uncommon for them to experience depression during pregnancy as well, referred to as prenatal depression. Studies suggest the disorder is common, with up to 23 percent of all women experiencing depression during pregnancy.

Postpartum depression, on the other hand, occurs within the first 12 months after childbirth. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for women to experience both prenatal and postpartum depression.

The changes to a woman’s body that occur during pregnancy, which wreaks havoc on hormones and increases stress, is one major cause for perinatal depression. This continues after giving birth, when estrogen and progesterone levels plunge and postpartum depression can occur.

One hidden factor that can affect reproductive health is a woman’s paycheck, or her financial security. Other risks include lack of a support network, being a mom to multiples and having a hospitalized baby.

Someone at risk of experiencing depression should be aware of what perinatal depression is and what symptoms to look out for.

Symptoms of Perinatal Depression

Depression is one of the most common female health problems, with a risk that increases during and after pregnancy. Here are some of the symptoms to be aware of:

1. Prenatal Depression

A recent study suggests that women who develop depression before or during their pregnancies — as opposed to those who experience it after — suffer more severe symptoms, including intense feelings of sadness and even rare instances of paranoia.

Other common symptoms of prenatal depression include:

  • Trouble feeling connected to the growing baby
  • Trouble sleeping that’s not due to frequent urination
  • Loss of enjoyment in activities once enjoyed
  • Low energy and increased feelings of fatigue

For those who have a history of depression prior to pregnancy, pre-existing symptoms can become more pronounced.

2. Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression looks exclusively at the symptoms that develop after childbirth, when a woman’s hormone levels fall and she becomes susceptible to complications.

Common symptoms of postpartum depression include:

  • Feeling worthless, hopeless or guilty
  • Feeling intensely anxious or overwhelmed
  • Uninterested in hobbies or the newborn
  • Extremely sad and weepy all the time

Someone suffering from postpartum depression is not alone. Many women experience depression after childbirth. If symptoms are affecting a woman’s life, she should speak with her doctor about treatment options.

Treatment of Perinatal Depression

The first step in treatment is knowing what perinatal depression is and what symptoms to be concerned about. There are several treatment options available for perinatal depression, including medication, psychotherapy and other alternatives. The good news is that about 90 percent of pregnant women and new moms find relief through these treatments.

  • Medications: Antidepressants, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are a standard treatment option for perinatal depression. While some women may have concerns about antidepressants causing birth defects, experts agree there is generally no need to taper off medications during pregnancy. In fact, untreated mental illness can pose risks to a developing fetus.
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy, where a woman speaks with a professional counselor regularly, has also shown to be an effective treatment of perinatal depression, especially in combination with other treatments. This a designated time when a mom-to-be or new mother can voice concerns and create goals for making progress.
  • Alternatives: Some women use a combination of traditional and alternative treatments to aid perinatal depression. Many have found relief through massage therapy. One study even found that 63 percent of women who received depression-specific acupuncture treatment experienced a reduction in symptoms.

Without treatment, perinatal depression can last for months or years. In addition to affecting physical and mental well-being, it can also interfere with a mother’s ability to connect with and care for her baby.

How to Prevent Perinatal Depression

The most common advice for preventing perinatal depression is similar to the prevention of all types of depression. These tips include eating a healthy, nutritious diet and exercising regularly. However, living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t always mean everyone is safe from this condition.

Due to a variety of factors, some women have an increased risk of developing perinatal depression. Experts say counseling can help these women by preventing depression before it starts. Instead of traditional talk therapy, perinatal counseling focuses on providing education, building support, finding resources and being aware of personal vulnerabilities.

Hopefully we’ve answered the question “what is perinatal depression,” and women should be aware of the symptoms and speak with a doctor about available treatment options if they are suffering. If left untreated, a mental illness during or after pregnancy can have serious long-term consequences.

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