Around the world, people are struggling with their mental health as we adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people who are already at risk, such as those with a history of mental health struggles, are finding that they are being triggered into anxious and depressive states. This is understandable. Almost overnight, our routines have turned upside down. The uncertainties of the situation and stay-at-home mandates have presented unique challenges. Humans are social by nature, and when we do not get regular social contact, our mental health suffers.
Pregnant women and new moms may face even more difficulty.
The transition into motherhood is a vulnerable one. Research has found that women are more at risk of experiencing anxiety or depression during pregnancy than at any other time in their lives due to new challenges. We know that as many as one out of five women will experience a postpartum mood disorder—and women who struggle with anxiety or depression may continue to experience symptoms throughout her life.
In the era of social distancing, the support systems that usually promote mental health during the vulnerable transition into motherhood, such as social support from family and doulas, are missing. This makes new mothers even more at risk for mental health issues.
There are other factors that may contribute to increased rates of postpartum mood disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well. They include:
- Stay at home mandates
- Wondering when the pandemic will be over and when life can go back to normal
- Worrying about catching the virus or a loved one catching it
- Worrying about transmitting the virus to your baby
- Hospitals limiting birth support persons
- Having to rethink and re-engineer your expectations about your birth experience and days after delivery
- Being pregnant and having other young children to care for so that you have little time for rest or relief
With all of these factors in place, it's no wonder that women are at an increased risk of developing postpartum mood disorders right now.
But there are steps to take to protect yourself.
First, recognizing that you may be experiencing perinatal anxiety and depression will help you take control of your recovery.
The symptoms of anxiety and depression can include:
- Changes to your sleep
- Eating more or less than usual
- Constant fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Losing interest in things that used to bring you joy
- Worrying about things you did not use to worry about
- Feeling sad or stressed often
- Feeling like you want to hurt yourself or others (please call 911 or go to an emergency room if this is the case)
(To learn more about the symptoms of postpartum depression, take this screening quiz.)
If you are concerned that you may have a postpartum mood disorder, the most important thing to do is to reach out for help. A therapist can make a virtual appointment with you to assess your symptoms, and help you make a plan for feeling better.
We are living in unprecedented times. Even during the best of times, my research team and I encourage pregnant women and new mothers to take extra care to be emotionally healthy during pregnancy. As we go through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever.
In addition to therapy, here are seven ways to start feeling better when dealing with postpartum depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic:
1. Engage in lots of baby cuddles
Holding and stroking babies has been found to decrease the risk of postpartum depression. When you hold your baby, your body releases oxytocin, the love hormone. Oxytocin has a lot of therapeutic benefits, and making us feel better emotionally is a great one.
2. Limit your media intake
Try not to watch the news right when you wake up or when you are about to go to bed and limit the amount of time that you spend each day listening to news reports. Make use of reliable information sources that do not sensationalize the news. If your province or state gives a daily update, that may be the one piece of trustworthy, non-sensationalized news to listen to.
3. Recognize that it is healthy to feel stress
Try not to feel pressured not to have stressful thoughts–it is okay and normal to feel stressed! Give yourself permission to feel your feelings, rather than dismissing them. If you find, though, that you can't think about anything else, that is a good point to reach out for help.
4. Practice gratitude
While you can't control the coronavirus situation, and nervousness and concern are completely natural, you might be able to change some of the negative thoughts. A good habit is to identify when you are focusing on a worry and flip it around to the point of gratitude; gratitude has been found to help relieve the symptoms of depression.
What are a few aspects of your situation that you can feel grateful for? The first signs of spring? Your favorite tv show? The love of someone you know?
Forming a gratitude practice can feel tough at first, but as you start to use new brain pathways, it will get easier. Imagine if you came away from the COVID-19 situation with a healthier brain!
Getting enough sleep is (understandably) harder for pregnant women and postpartum moms who get up regularly throughout the night for feedings and to calm crying babies. Yet sleep is important to not only our daily functioning but to our mental health, as well.
To the extent that you can, try to establish bedtime rituals to relax and develop a sense of routine and calm. And try to prioritize sleep. Nap when your child naps. Even if you are tempted to stay up to clean the house after your child has gone to bed, it is better to unwind and sleep.
6. Challenge yourself to complete one task each day
Anxiety can sometimes be fueled by feeling like you "haven't accomplished anything." You don't have to be "productive" during this time, however, accomplishing small tasks may help your mental wellbeing. What is one thing you can do right now that will make you feel just the slightest bit better? Even if nothing else gets done, you can feel a sense of victory over accomplishing your one big thing for the day.
7. Get creative with enjoying nature
Even with stay home mandates, it is likely possible to get outside in some capacity—and doing so can be extremely therapeutic. Studies have found that spending time outside can decrease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is in part due to the benefits of vitamin D (which we get from the sun).
Sit on your front porch for half an hour and breathe in the smells of spring, feel the sun on your face, and talk to your baby about the birds and flowers you see. Can you grow something? Even if you don't have a garden, urban gardeners are having great success with container gardening.
Nature can be extremely therapeutic, reminding us that seasonal cycles are still occurring.
Taking care of our emotional needs and adapting to new ways to stay socially connected can not only help you stay calm and be happier but can also reduce unnecessary pressure on your immune system. Remember other hardships you have overcome and that you are a resilient, strong and adaptable individual. We are in this together, we will get through it together and some kind of normalcy will eventually return.