Do I Have a Postpartum Mood Disorder or Am I Just Sad about COVID-19?

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What with social distancing, self-isolation, and worries about the coronavirus (COVID-19), it’s a tough time in the world, especially if you have had a baby recently. While it’s normal to be disappointed that this time after your baby was born is different than what you expected, it’s also possible that any tough moods you’re having mean that something more is going on. In this blog post, we’ll discuss how you can tell if you have a postpartum mood disorder or whether you’re experiencing typical new-parent emotions against the backdrop of the grief and challenge of this pandemic.

According to Dr. Ann Dunnewold, a psychologist specializing in mind-body issues and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders in Dallas, Texas, these disorders can happen any time during pregnancy or during the first few years of baby’s life. If you are within this time window, it could happen to you. Your hormones are so changeable throughout this time period—particularly if you are breastfeeding—that it’s possible that they’ll trigger depression, anxiety, or both. Sleep deprivation and family history of mental illness can also increase your risk for mental health challenges.

That said, Dr. Dunnewold explains that it’s typical to have strong feelings during pregnancy and after your baby is born. The majority of people will experience emotions—including crying, irritability, anger, fatigue, negative mood, appetite changes, emotional changeability, and feelings of doubt and overwhelm—and they are so common that they are considered normal.

If you have any of these feelings, how do you know whether you’re experiencing them at a normal level? A helpful gauge for this is to reflect back on the past week or two. If you have had more bad days than good days, it is possible that there is something more going on than normal prenatal or postpartum adjustment. And if any of these feelings are so strong or intense that you feel as though you cannot overcome them to function, that’s another signal that you might have a perinatal mood disorder.

There are also some other indications of possible perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. You might struggle to return to sleep after waking up with baby or have a decreased need to sleep overall. Intrusive thoughts, which are often unwanted and scary and might focus on doing harm to yourself or your baby, are surprisingly common in the postpartum period, but in people with a perinatal anxiety disorder called postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), those thoughts are so persistent as to be extremely distressing. Extreme irritability, not justifiable anger, is another hallmark of perinatal mood disorders. If this is your experience, it’s likely you feel as though you cannot control your irritation and you may take out your feelings of rage on loved ones.

While everything we’ve talked about so far is centered on your emotional experience, according to Dr. Dunnewold, physical symptoms with no known cause can also indicate a perinatal mood disorder. If you are experiencing headaches, stomach aches, nausea/vomiting, back pain, burning or tingling in your extremities, or difficulty breathing, these physical symptoms could point to anxiety, depression, or another mood disorder.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms discussed above, it’s a good idea to reach out to your doctor or midwife and a mental health professional. Particularly now that people are being asked to keep physical distance from their supportive communities to avoid spreading the coronavirus, we are all at greater risk of impact on our mental health. Whether you have a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder or whether you are experiencing mental health challenges because the threat of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the coronavirus) is too much, you don’t have to suffer.

Talking to a professional is a great place to start. You can also do some things to take care of yourself and cope with your anxiety and mood. In this blog post, you can learn more about ways to deal with coronavirus-specific anxiety, including exercise and mindfulness meditation. It’s also important to make sure that you are fully hydrated, especially if you are breastfeeding, and well-nourished—we share great recipes on The Pulse each Friday to help with that. Finally, remember that nothing lasts forever. Anything that is hard right now, whether that’s caring for your baby and yourself or adjusting to life in the time of coronavirus, won’t last forever.

Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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