Most people have heard of postpartum depression. It’s a very real and often devastating problem that many women experience during their pregnancy. While in the past it was something that women didn’t talk about, and would suffer in silence over, in more recent years, it’s something that people talk about more, and women are more aware of. Which is wonderful.
However, what about antenatal depression (or prenatal depression.) According to BabyCenter.com, until recently, experts thought that pregnancy hormones helped prevent depression during pregnancy. However, it is now believed that not just the rapid decline in hormone levels after birth can cause depression, but the rapid increase during pregnancy can disrupt brain chemistry, resulting in depression. In fact, recently, a panel has called for depression screening not only after pregnancy, but during, because of it’s prevalence.
My Experience with Depression during Pregnancy
I always wanted to be a mom. Growing up, I always felt like that was what I was meant to be – a mother. Whenever we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, I always would write down mom. Even though I never knew when I would become a mother, I knew it was what I wanted to be.
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Fast forward to July 4th of 2011. Forrest and I had just been married about six months, and we were both in the middle of classes. Some of my family had been visiting from Colorado, and had just left our home to go about an hour north to stay with one of my sister’s. Right after they left, I found out I was pregnant.
Despite always wanting to be a mom, I didn’t think this was the time. It was a surprise pregnancy. Instead of feeling joy and excitement, I felt scared and alone. I went up to my sister’s house later that day, and I was on the verge of tears the entire time. My family all thought I was just being weird and overly sad that Forrest had to work that day instead of coming with me. I was sad he wasn’t there, but mainly because I felt like I had no idea what was about to happen to my life. The icing on the cake was when my mom jokingly said, “Now none of you better have a baby in March, because I definitely can’t come out” (my dad does taxes, so that’s a rather stressful time.) Even though she was saying it all in fun, it just about made me burst into tears. I remember my brother-in-law, AJ, made some joke about how I was probably pregnant, since all my sisters were. Little did he know.
Over the next few weeks, my mood didn’t improve. I woke up in the middle of the night having serious panic attacks. I never experienced anything like that before, and I felt like I had no control over how I was feeling. I worried that my family would be mad at me for being pregnant (don’t ask me why, I have a very loving and supportive family), and I was sure my life was over (it didn’t help that half the things I would read online would say my life was over — note to self…don’t trust Yahoo answers for anything!) I thought about how I would never finish college, have a career, or get to travel with Forrest (never mind you I’ve never wanted a hard-hitting career, and I never really had a huge desire to travel anyways.) I felt like a completely different person — as my mom describes it, I went from happy, bubbly Katie, to *picture my mom making a deer in the headlights face.*
Around seven weeks, I started having horrible nausea and morning sickness, which lasted most of my pregnancy. Needless to say, that didn’t help matters. Most days I just walked around, feeling like I was in a daze. When I went to my first doctor’s appointment, I sat there and sobbed to the nurse. She was my saving grace that day, as she calmly sat there and listened to my (mostly irrational) fears. At that point, the only people who knew I was pregnant were Forrest, the doctor’s office, and a random lady who cut my hair a few weeks previous. Needless to say, at a time that I needed support the most, I didn’t have it (which was obviously by choice at that point.) Thankfully, Forrest is the most supportive husband ever. I’m not quite sure he survived those long nine months with me, but I’m forever grateful that he did. I think that took a lot of faith on his part!
I ended up dropping the two classes I was taking that summer because it was just too overwhelming. Most of my time that summer was spent in my room, while Forrest worked as a lifeguard at weird hours. I was working part-time at a museum, trying my best to cover up my nausea and general disinterest in life.
When I was 12 weeks pregnant, Forrest convinced me that we should finally tell our family members. I was still convinced that everyone would be mad at me (again with the irrational thoughts). As I should have expected, they were all excited and supportive. My three sisters were pregnant at that time too and were thrilled that we would all have a baby around the same time. Despite all their support, I was still feeling so lost.
Over the next 28 weeks, I tried my best to get over my depression and anxiety. I had a lot of guilt — there were so many women I knew who would do anything to be in my position, and here I was, pregnant without even trying and feeling completely distressed about it. I was constantly beating myself up about it. Despite it all, I knew I loved the baby that was preparing to come to our family. I loved him so much, that I felt guilty that he was going to be coming to a person like me — someone who was selfish, who was depressed. I knew he was going to have the best dad in the world, but when I was pregnant, I felt like I was worthless, impatient, and unworthy to be the mother of such a perfect human being.
I didn’t know where to turn. I channeled all my energy to making sure I did everything with my pregnancy right — I thought if I took anti-depressants, it would hurt my son. I refused to eat anything that might possibly hurt Jack (no lunch meat, hot dogs, or even cantaloupe.) As it turns out, overly worrying about things is a symptom of anxiety/depression during pregnancy.
There were a few moments throughout my pregnancy where I felt hope, all of which surrounded my sweet Jack. Feeling him kick for the first time, and seeing him in ultrasounds. I held onto those moments, because they gave me a glimpse of hope.
The moment I held Jack for the first time was a moment I never will forget. I felt like all the sadness and despair I had been feeling for the nine months prior disappeared. Those first few days in the hospital were perfect. When I went home, I did experience a little bit of postpartum blues, but after a few weeks, that was gone, too. Even though I had embarked on the hardest journey of my life, it was already the most worthwhile. Despite all I had gone through, it was all worth it — all my irrational thoughts were just that, and I was (and still am) completely in love with Jack.
Causes & Who is at Risk
While there are triggers for depression during pregnancy, someone who was happy every day of their life up until the day they got pregnant can still be overcome by depression. While there isn’t a firm cause, either, it’s likely because of the sudden surge of hormones, causing the chemistry in the brain to go awry. Below are some situations that may put a woman at a higher risk for experiencing depression while pregnant.
- History of depression or anxiety (either person or family)
- Difficulties with relationships (marital, family, etc.)
- Fertility issues
- Previous miscarriages or loss of child
- Stressful life events
- Past or present abuse
- Unplanned pregnancy
- A particularly challenging pregnancy (specifically due to health issues)
Deborah Gilboa, M.D. reinforces a few things about depression during pregnancy in this quote:
We’ve not identified one ’cause’ of prenatal depression any more than we can say there is one cause of depression in general. However, we do know what makes it more likely and other contributing factors. Women with a history of mood disorders — depression, anxiety, bipolar — are at higher risk of experiencing depression during pregnancy.
Symptoms of Prenatal Depression
Many women feel periods of sadness throughout pregnancy, and while those are definitely very tough, about 7 to 20 percent of women will experience prolonged depression during pregnancy. Many of the symptoms are emotions that pretty much every woman experiences while pregnant. However, if you find yourself experiencing this on a prolonged basis, and not just occasionally, you may be experiencing prenatal depression. Here are some symptoms of prenatal depression (from BabyCenter.com)
- A sense that nothing feels enjoyable or fun anymore
- Feeling blue, sad, or “empty” for most of the day, every day
- It’s harder to concentrate
- Extreme irritability or agitation or excessive crying
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping all the time
- Extreme or never-ending fatigue
- A desire to eat all the time or not wanting to eat at all
- Inappropriate guilt or feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
- Panic attacks
- Frequent, recurrent concerns about your or your baby’s health or a frequent feeling that something terrible is about to happen.
- Feelings of guilt, anxiety or worthlessness
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Impaired concentration
- Changes to eating habits
- Weight gain (beyond normal pregnancy weight gain) or weight loss
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Lack of interest in activities that you usually enjoy
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
As I read through this list, I had a lot of these symptoms on a regular basis. While I was pregnant, I didn’t really address the fact that I was, indeed, depressed. I just felt like I would be sad, exhausted, and anxious forever. I remember telling Forrest that Jack wasn’t going to like me because he was just going to have a terrible mom who couldn’t take care of him. Looking back, I know that I was very depressed, but it was hard to accept during my pregnancy. I never really thought anyone noticed, but Forrest and my mom both will tell you that I was a completely different person than I was before pregnancy, or that I am now. It’s hard to recognize in yourself!
What To Do
I’m not a therapist or a doctor, obviously, but if you are experiencing symptoms of depression during pregnancy (or if you suspect someone you love is), the most important thing you can do is get help. I didn’t really do this, and I wish I had. I suffered in silence, when I didn’t need to. We came home to Colorado for Christmas, and that was the first time I really opened up to someone besides Forrest about how I was feeling, and it helped. I remember sitting in my parent’s living room, just sobbing uncontrollably to my mom and a few of my siblings. I think that was honestly the first time I cried since that first time in my doctor’s office, and after that, I did feel better. Not 100% (that didn’t come until about two weeks after Jack was born), but better. And after that, people knew I was hurting, and they helped me.
So, if you are experiencing depression, here are a few things you can do:
- Talk to your doctor. They can help you see what options there are for controlling depression, including recommending you talk to a therapist. It’s very important to tell your doctor how you are feeling, so you can determine the best course of action. If left untreated, depression in pregnancy can lead to lower
- Find someone to confide in. Feeling like you have no one to talk to or confide is the worst feeling, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to suffer alone. For me, having Forrest be as supportive as he was made a difference. I told him everything, and he was always understanding and there to encourage me (even when I would say ridiculous things, like I knew Jack was going to hate me.)
- Surround yourself with positive situations. I know, this is easier said than done. But if you recognize that you are depressed, think about the triggers. For me, staying up late reading articles about how babies ruined your life really wasn’t a good thing…crazy, right? Instead, I should have been looking at my real life examples — my siblings and parents — to see how having a child can (and will, if you let them) change your life for the better.
- Take one day at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Take each day and try to do something that lifts you up.
- Exercise. Whenever I took the time to exercise, I did find that it lifted my spirit. There were many days where I didn’t want to
- Join a support group — either an in person, or an online one. There are a lot of women who have gone through depression, and want to help others. Sometimes it’s just nice to talk to someone who knows what you are going through. I do caution about online support groups — you can find great, uplifting information…but very negative, depressing information as well. Just be careful.
- Eating the right foods can help. Make sure you are eating healthy foods, plenty of amino acids, and healthy fats. And don’t forget your prenatal vitamin. (See more tips for a healthy pregnancy here.)
- I’m sure there are tons of different natural remedies and treatments…but I’m not sure what those would be! I imagine there’s some kind of essential oil out there.
- Get out in the sun! Most of my pregnancy took place in the dreary winter. Where we live, pregnant women are advised not to spend prolonged periods of time outside during the winter, because the pollution was so bad. So, I was pretty much inside all the time. We were also living in a not-so-nice apartment, which was depressing to be in hours on end.
Since I wrote this, I have gone through another pregnancy. I was so worried about struggling with depression again with another pregnancy. I didn’t know how I would cope if I did, since I now had a very busy three-year-old. During that pregnancy, I was nervous about having a second child, I did not experience the depression I had with Jack. I’m not entirely sure why – perhaps because this pregnancy was more planned, we were more financially stable, and I knew how to be a mother. But I was okay.
So if you are afraid of getting pregnant because of experiencing depression again, please know that it may not happen. That’s not to say that it won’t – and you, your partner, and physician need to be aware of the possibility. But not every pregnancy is the same.
To Anyone Suffering from Antepartum Depression
I want you to know that you are not alone. And that while feeling so much despair is hard, and oft times seems hopeless, it is surmountable. Don’t be like me — I wish I had asked for help, and talked to people more about how I was feeling. It is not something you have to go through alone. Even if you feel like you have no one, I truly believe that we are never alone, even in our darkest moments. I’m a very religious person, and some of my only solace came from prayer, and reading quotes and talks from religious leaders. I found this wonderful article about managing postpartum depression, though I found it very applicable to prenatal depression as well.
To end, I wanted to share a few quotes that always bring me hope. I know some people think that motivational quotes are silly, but for me, they bring me a lot of peace. And, to any of you who may be suffering, even if you don’t know me, feel free to send me an email. I’m more than willing to be a listening ear 🙂
This first one has been a quote I’ve turned to often since the first time I heard it in high school.
Each of us will have our own Fridays—those days when the universe itself seems shattered and the shards of our world lie littered about us in pieces. We all will experience those broken times when it seems we can never be put together again. We will all have our Fridays. But I testify to you in the name of the One who conquered death—Sunday will come. In the darkness of our sorrow, Sunday will come. No matter our desperation, no matter our grief, Sunday will come. In this life or the next, Sunday will come. – Joseph B. Wirthlin
And this one gives me just so much hope. It reminds me that everyone around you is fighting a battle, whether you realize it or not.
At times there appears to be no light at the tunnel’s end—no dawn to break the night’s darkness. We feel surrounded by the pain of broken hearts, the disappointment of shattered dreams, and the despair of vanished hopes… We feel abandoned, heartbroken, alone. To all who so despair, may I offer the assurance of the Psalmist’s words: ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning’ (Psalm 30:5). Whenever we are inclined to feel burdened down with the blows of life’s fight, let us remember that others have passed the same way, have endured, and then have overcome. — Thomas S. Monson