Postnatal Distress

What kind of distress might we face after childbirth and how to deal with it?

Childbirth is an important turning point in life, mostly associated with many pleasant emotions and experiences. At the same time, the period immediately after childbirth is also very stressful while young parents get accustomed to a new family member and a number of changes in their biorhythm.

Poporodna depresija - mlade mame

New mothers very often face a shorter period of feeling unwell (i.e., postpartum sadness or “blues”) a few days after childbirth, caused by sudden hormonal changes after childbirth. During this period a new mother needs a lot of support from people close to her, giving her the opportunity to rest and take care of herself. The mother’s well-being usually improves on its own in about a week after childbirth.

Persistent bad mood, irritability, excessive fatigue, insomnia, and anxiety may indicate postpartum depression or other mental disorders associated with childbirth. These conditions may be suspected if the well-being of a young mother is very poor and is having a significant impact on her ability to cope with the requirements of everyday life, including parental duties.

Postpartum Depression

The most common mental disorder after childbirth is postpartum depression, which occurs in about 25% of women after childbirth. Young mothers suffering from postpartum depression describe experiencing the following symptoms:

  • bad mood and irritability
  • sadness and frequent crying
  • a sense of helplessness and emptiness
  • anxiety and panic attacks
  • low self-esteem
  • fatigue and lack of energy
  • concentration and memory problems
  • social withdrawal
  • sleep problems (unrelated to waking up because of the child)
  • changes in eating habits
  • feeling that they are going crazy
  • intrusive thoughts of damaging herself or the child
  • feelings of guilt
  • headaches, abdominal, muscle, or back pain
  • lack of sexual desire

Problems usually occur within the first month after childbirth and can last for several months. Postpartum depression is caused by biological factors (hormonal changes, chemical imbalances in the body), psycho-social factors (e.g., low self-esteem, tendency towards depression, difficult financial situation, problems in a relationship, etc.), and the interactions between them.

Postpartum depression should be taken seriously as it has a significant impact on the well-being of the mother as well as on her relationship with the child, her partner, and entire family.

If you suffer from postpartum depression there are steps that you can take to improve your well-being. It is important to take good care of your physical and mental well-being. Satisfy your basic needs by getting adequate sleep and maintaining a healthy and balanced diet. For exercise, you can take a walk which is helpful for warming up as well as relaxing, all while enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. Talk to someone you trust even if it is initially difficult to talk openly about your feelings. Don’t punish yourself for feeling unwell. Remember that your problems are a reflection of the condition that can be treated.

Postpartum Psychosis

If you are experiencing postpartum distress but your symptoms are not described in the description of postpartum depression, there is a possibility that you are suffering from postpartum psychosis. This is characterized by:

  • loss of contact with reality (e.g., a person sees, hears, or feels things that don’t exist)
  • over activity and euphoric behaviour
  • incomprehensible and confused speech
  • agitation and irritability
  • decreased need for sleep
  • exaggerated distrust and fear

Postpartum psychosis typically occurs very suddenly during the first two weeks after childbirth. It is much less common than postpartum depression, as it occurs in 0.1% of new mothers, but it represents a serious condition. If you think you may have postpartum psychosis, seek professional help and keep in mind that there is a very effective treatment.

Sometimes the distress of mental problems after childbirth can be so severe that thoughts of suicide occur. If you suffer from postpartum depression or psychosis and experience intrusive thoughts of causing harm to yourself or the child, know that these thoughts are a symptom of the disease and not a reflection of your actual intentions. This is an important indicator of your severe distress and you need to immediately seek help of a mental health expert.

What is less known is that men can also suffer from postnatal distress; usually these are fathers of the new-borns. Since postnatal distress in young fathers is much less frequent, it is difficult to identify, but still needs to be dealt with seriously.

If you notice signs of postpartum mental health problems in yourself or your loved one, the identification of the disease and intervention are very important. Early initiation of treatment may significantly shorten the course of the disease and help to achieve better well-being and a higher quality of life for the entire family.

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