The perinatal period – which lasts from pregnancy until a year after childbirth – is a time of great psychological vulnerability, which has only been heightened due to COVID-19.
Approximately one in seven perinatal women will experience depression, anxiety or another significant mood concern. Postpartum depression and anxiety can occur anytime within the first year after the baby is born, but many women who suffer from this condition experience symptoms earlier, during pregnancy. And even before COVID, few of them got help.
“Only 30% of people who should be treated are treated,” said Ann Smith, CNM, the New York City coordinator for Postpartum Support International, which helps parents struggling with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
It’s too early to quantify if more new mothers are experiencing perinatal mood symptoms because of the pandemic, but doctors who work with them say that the increased stressors have taken a toll, even though the movement toward online services has given many of these women easier access to sources of support.
“The biggest anxiety that I’m hearing about from moms is that they know their babies are really fragile when they’re first born and want to make sure they don’t do anything that could expose them to getting COVID-19,” said Priyanka Rao, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and instructor at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan. In these unprecedented times, we cannot ignore that the psychosocial stressors borne from the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to heighten the intensity of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
While parents adjust to life with a new baby, they are also learning to tolerate uncertainty about the future, the loneliness of social distancing, parenting older children who are attending virtual school, and maintaining partner relationships. Many parents have missed out on the normal rituals after childbirth due to social distancing (like baptisms or brises) and are coping with feelings of loss. It’s normal to feel some level of anxiety about all of this.
But when anxiety becomes excessive, it can interfere with overall wellness and functioning. Some signs that’s happening include:
- Worries that border irrationality and cannot be soothed
- Intrusive thoughts – e.g., disturbing thoughts/images that repeat over and over in your mind and cannot be controlled
- Hypervigilance and feelings of panic
- Loss of pleasure, trouble concentrating, social isolation
- Irritability, hopelessness, and crying spells
- Unable to sleep when the baby is sleeping
When any of these things feel overwhelming, consider seeking professional help, anything from private therapy to support groups that you can now attend from home while maintaining social distancing. PSI, for example, holds support groups every weekday. Or, if those steps feel too overwhelming, talk to your child’s pediatrician, since you’re guaranteed to see them regularly.
“For a lot of families, the only reason they’re leaving the protection and bubble of their home is to come to the pediatric office,” Dr. Rao said. “I’m not a mental health professional or an OB-GYN, but I do know how to help moms connect to resources if I start to notice signs or symptoms that have me concerned.”
Besides reaching out for help, there are things postpartum mothers can do to help stave off depression and anxiety going forward. They include:
- Self-care: rest, eat well, exercise
- Limit isolation: find ways to interact with relatives/friends virtually or in a safe, socially distanced manner
- Don’t consume disturbing social media or news. That might mean asking friends and family to not send you alarming messages, or opting out of groups that share them.
- Find ways to relax: practice yoga or mindfulness, take a walk, binge-watch a new show, etc.
And no matter how you’re feeling, know that it’s temporary, and that support is available. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are the most common complication of childbirth in the US, and no one should have to go through it alone.
Other resources for new parents include:
- Postpartum Support International – PSI
- 2020 Mom
- Postpartum Progress
- Postpartum Resource Center of New York
- Women’s Mental Health Consortium
Dr. Pria Alpern is a clinical psychologist in New York City specializing in perinatal mental health and trauma. She is an EMDRIA-certified specialist in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Dr. Alpern is a special adjunct clinical professor at LIU Brooklyn and the founder of Center Psychology Group in New York City.