Delivered from depression

How to overcome the gloom that sometimes accompanies the birth of a child

Woman holding her newborn baby

A newborn baby is a reason for joy and happiness for everyone in the family, and the happiest of them all, without doubt, is the mother. Sometimes, however, for a new mother, the time that she was most eagerly awaiting becomes a time of stress, disappointment, and depression.

If you’re a new mother or know one who has been experiencing these feelings, these may be signs of post partum depression [PPD].

Baby blues v/s PPD

Often, the symptoms of PPD get ignored as they are pushed under the umbrella of ‘baby blues’ or ‘mood swings’. If left undiagnosed and untreated, they can lead to morbid consequences. Hence, it’s important to differentiate between the two.

Baby blues are experienced by a majority of mothers post delivery. Baby blues include crying spells, irritability, anxiety and tiredness prevailing for a few days up to two weeks after delivery. These symptoms do not interfere with the daily functioning of the mother and usually fade away with proper rest, adequate nutrition and family and social support.

PPD is a serious problem where the mother experiences multiple symptoms like exaggerated mood swings, loss of pleasure in day-to-day activities, negative feelings like guilt over inability to take care of the baby, anger towards the baby or the family members, fear of harming the baby and extreme lack of concern towards the baby. The mother also suffers from disturbed sleep, excessive crying, feeling of helplessness or hopelessness, fatigue, lack of concentration, emotional and physical numbness, hyperventilation, anxiety, loss of appetite and intrusive thoughts.

More serious symptoms include homicidal or suicidal ideas. These symptoms could start in the first four weeks or within a couple of months post delivery. The symptoms could put the mother, baby and the entire family through emotional and physical turmoil.

Risk factors

The cause for PPD differs from woman to woman. Most studies attribute genetic vulnerability, drastic hormonal [oestrogen and progesterone] changes and variations in serotonin and norepinephrine [neurotransmitters in the brain] as the main contributors to the disorder.

However, some risk factors play an equally important role in the onset of this disorder. These include:

  • Family history of psychological disorders such as anxiety or depression in the mother.
  • Lack of partner, family and social support.
  • Marital discord, single motherhood, unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, death in the family, stressful life events and premenstrual syndrome.

Premature child birth or child born with mental or physical disability, difficult temperament of the new born baby, financial difficulties, high expectations from oneself, low self-esteem, feeling of unattractiveness and loss of identity are other contributing factors.

Are you experiencing PPD?

Have you delivered a baby recently and

  • Feel low, hopeless or depressed?
  • Feel absolute lack of interest in carrying out day-to-day activities?
  • Experience fatigue or inability to take care of your child?

If you have answered yes to the above questions, you might be experiencing PPD; consult a mental health professional for diagnosis and support.

Overcoming PPD

  • Once diagnosed with PPD, educate yourself about it. This will help you identify the symptoms and deal with unhelpful behaviours. Include bibliotherapy in your healing process. Read books about the disorder. American actress Brooke Shields has shared her experience with PPD in her book Down Came the Rain. Reading about the experiences of others will give you the feeling that you are not alone.
  • Understand that having a baby is not the end of your identity. It is a new facet to your persona.
  • Share your feelings and fears with your spouse, family and friends.
  • Spend quality time with your partner and maintain a supportive circle of friends.
  • Get a house help to assist you with household chores or taking care of the baby.
  • Don’t try to be a super woman—share your responsibilities with others. Have realistic expectations and reasonable demands on yourself.
  • Take up at least one pleasurable activity such as listening to music or reading a book every day.
  • Don’t plan major transitions during pregnancy or post-delivery such as a new job or moving houses as it adds to the stress.
  • If you have a history of depression or other mood disorders, consult a psychiatrist or psychologist before delivery to keep your mood in check and to take preventive measures like therapy.
  • Get yourself treated for physiological problems like hormonal imbalance, thyroid, and vitamin deficiencies as they too could be responsible for making you feel down.
  • Acknowledge and accept your feelings.
  • Stay active. Go for pram-walking with other moms from your neighbourhood.
  • Learn to relax. Deep breathing exercises and yoga soothe the mind.
  • Take small naps while your baby is sleeping.
  • Maintain a schedule to help you complete tasks. Life seems easier, once tasks are manageable.
  • Engage in positive self-talk: say to yourself, “I can handle this, well!”
  • Don’t blame yourself.
  • Write your thoughts down; journaling can help you vent difficult feelings and thoughts.
  • Do things that make you feel good about yourself. Pamper yourself with a pedicure or a massage.
  • Contact your doctor immediately if you start getting suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming your baby.
  • Enlist the help of a professional. Therapy and medication together can work wonders and the sooner you get it the faster you’ll be out of this phase. Antidepressants help in PPD. However, talk to your doctor about the side-effects on you and your baby if you are breast feeding. A therapist can help you deal with the new role of a mother and the stress factors that come along with it. Therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy, interpersonal therapy, marital therapy, family therapy, group therapy, and support groups have proved to be helpful.
  • Follow the instructions of your health care provider.

New mothers could also be affected by other mental disorders such as postpartum panic disorder and postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder. But the good news is that these are curable. In the words of Kahlil Gibran: “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest soul.” So don’t give up the fight until you triumph.

How family can help

  • Understand the disorder and its implications
  • Understand the warning signs
  • Provide help
  • Set realistic expectations
  • Be supportive. Don’t blame the new mother for her behaviour. And don’t label her as a ‘bad’ mother; it’ll only worsen things for her
  • Keep the lines of communication open
  • Create a stress-free environment for the new mother
  • Provide time for rest
  • Make her feel special.

This was first published in the March 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Reshma Nathani
Reshma Nathani, MSc, Mphil, is a professional counselling psychologist based in Pune, India. She works with individuals, children, couples, and families suffering from a vast array of psychological difficulties. In the past few years, she has been involved in teaching life-skills, coaching, social work, research and supervising.

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