Health Matters: Post-partum Depression and Anxiety in a Pandemic
Having a newborn changes everything, whether it is a first baby, an addition to an active toddler, or one of many children. Bringing new life into the world is an enormous responsibility, and it comes with enormous emotions—both good and bad. For centuries, communities have gathered around new parents to provide emotional and practical support before, during, and after the birth of a new baby. But the pandemic has prevented people from coming together, isolating many new moms in the process.
One of the reasons this isolation is so dangerous is because in the days after their babies are born, many women suffer from mood swings, crying spells, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping, collectively called the “baby blues.” For some, these symptoms are more intense and can last several weeks or even months—this is a more serious condition called post-partum depression or post-partum anxiety. And isolation can make these worse.
Depression and anxiety tend to spiral without treatment and support. During the pandemic, both depression and anxiety have increased in the general population and significantly among new mothers. Sadly, many new mothers have been reluctant to reach out for the help they need from their own social supports for fear of putting themselves or their babies at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Even in the best of times many people find it hard to reach out for help. They believe they should be able to use their own ability and will to navigate their way out of depression or anxiety, but these problems have nothing to do with intelligence or strength. Reaching out for help does not mean someone is weak or unfit. Asking for help actually takes a lot of courage and being vulnerable is really hard. We all go through crises, and we all need and deserve help from time to time.
When I work with patients, we go through a process of discovery to better understand their concerns and how can we make things better. Everyone is different. Some people feel much better after they learn some grounding and mindfulness exercises to counteract unhelpful, runaway thoughts fueled by anxiety. Others benefit from medication to prevent dark moods from spiraling into the abyss. Still others benefit from being connected with community resources to address challenges like housing and food insecurity.
Although each person is unique, everyone can benefit from a little self-care. This can include simple things like taking a moment to take a deep breath when feeling overwhelmed or taking the time to be mindful in everyday activities. Self-care does not have to be another task we failed to do, but rather something that is integrated in how we move about every day. Self-care can also be an awareness around negative self-talk. It’s amazing how hard we can be on ourselves. We say things to ourselves that we would never say to people we love. I often find myself assisting patients in reframing a situation, trying to see things without self-blame and judgement. Rather than, “I’m a terrible mother and a failure,” say, “This is really hard. I’m taking care of what’s most important and I’m doing a good job.” It’s important to recognize the truly amazing feats new moms are pulling off each day. If you have a newborn and you were able to shower, dress, eat, and help your baby do the same, that’s a win. A lot of judgement comes from comparing the reality of a situation to some idealized version we have in our heads. It is important to reset expectations.
The process of learning to manage depression and anxiety takes time and sometimes it is difficult for others to understand what post-partum depression and anxiety look like. Sometimes these feelings are further complicated with trauma or grief, whether related to the pregnancy and birth or not. I often remind new moms to be gentle with themselves and I help them find additional support if needed. For some patients, it might only take a few sessions to provide first-level help—to validate and normalize their feelings and provide some treatment and support. Breathing exercises, grounding with the five senses, connecting with other adults, getting outside from time to time, and simply allowing for some grace can help new moms feel better.
Anna Hendricks is a primary care counselor in the women’s health department at MCHC Health Centers a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. Learn more at mchcinc.org.