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Mental health explained: what are perinatal anxiety and depression and how can I get help?

A new mum and dad lie either side of their baby.
The first years of parenting can be exhausting, so how do you know if what you're feeling is a sign of perinatal anxiety or depression?

Perinatal anxiety and depression are common health conditions that affect people who are expecting or have recently had a baby. Mums, dads and non-birth parents can all get perinatal anxiety and depression. These conditions are temporary and treatable, but sometimes because of lack of awareness or stigma, not everyone gets the help they need when they need it.

Read on to find out what perinatal anxiety and depression are, what causes these conditions and how to get help if you or someone you know needs it.

What are perinatal anxiety and depression, and who may experience these conditions?

Anxiety and depression are common, treatable health conditions. 1 in 4 Australians will experience anxiety during their life, and 1 in 7 will experience depression. We’ve explained what these conditions are in our blog posts Mental health explained: what is depression? and Mental health explained: what is anxiety disorder?

Perinatal anxiety and depression happen around the time a person has a baby, either during pregnancy or after the baby is born. These conditions can affect mums, dads and non-birth parents. Perinatal anxiety and depression are really common; every year in Australia, almost 100,000 expecting or new parents experience perinatal anxiety and depression.

You might have heard many different words used to describe perinatal anxiety and depression. Antenatal anxiety and depression can happen during pregnancy, while postnatal or postpartum anxiety and depression happen after birth. When we say perinatal anxiety and depression, we’re talking about the whole journey of pregnancy and the time after birth, too.

Yes, perinatal anxiety and depression can affect dads, too

Around 1 in 20 men whose partners are pregnant experience anxiety or depression during the pregnancy, and 1 in 10 men experience anxiety or depression after their baby has been born. But, nearly half of Australian men don’t know that this can happen.

Men experience these conditions for most of the same reasons women do. Even though they haven’t carried their baby through pregnancy or given birth, they can still experience hormonal changes that might affect their mental wellbeing. As well as that, their responsibilities, routines and relationships can also change dramatically during pregnancy and after birth.

More information for dads and people supporting dads can be found in our blog post Dads can get postnatal depression too and on the website How is dad going?

A dad does a yoga class with his baby playing beneath him on the mat.

What does perinatal anxiety or depression feel like?

Everyone will experience perinatal anxiety and depression a little differently; there’s no wrong or right way to feel when it comes to these things. It’s important to remember that some people might only experience symptoms of anxiety and not depression, or the other way around, while others might experience symptoms of both anxiety and depression.

Symptoms of perinatal anxiety and depression can include:

How you’re feeling emotionally:

  • overwhelmed
  • guilty
  • irritable
  • frustrated
  • lacking in confidence
  • unhappy
  • indecisive
  • miserable
  • sad
  • tense
  • wound up
  • edgy

How you’re feeling physically:

  • having panic attacks
  • hot and cold flushes
  • racing heart
  • tight chest
  • quick breathing
  • feeling restless
  • feeling tense
  • tired all the time
  • sick or run down
  • headaches or muscle pains
  • trouble sleeping
  • churning or upset stomach
  • loss or change in appetite

What you’re doing:

  • not socialising when there is the opportunity
  • withdrawing from family and friends
  • not getting everyday tasks done (when reasonable – if you’ve just had a baby, the dishes might not get done every night and that’s okay!)
  • relying on alcohol and sedatives
  • not enjoying activities you used to like
  • having trouble concentrating
  • avoiding situations or activities that make you feel anxious or worried

How you’re thinking:

A change in the way you’re thinking can indicate depression or anxiety. Thoughts like: “I’m a failure”, “This is my fault”, “Nothing good happens to me”, “I’m worthless” can be an indication of perinatal depression, while excessive worrying, obsessive thinkingor catastrophising (thinking that things are worse than they actually are) might indicate anxiety.

Symptoms of perinatal anxiety and depression can be hard to pick up on because, as you can see above, they may look quite similar to how we expect people who are pregnant and new parents to feel; who hasn’t had a baby and then felt tired, irritable or worried? If these feelings happen often, are overwhelming, stop you from doing everyday activities, or don’t go away, they could be signs of perinatal anxiety or depression.

Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia have checklists you can fill out online, to help you work out if your feelings might be caused by perinatal anxiety or depression at any stage in your pregnancy or parenthood journey.

Checklist for expecting mums

Checklist for expecting dads and non-birth parents

Checklist for new mums

Checklist for new dads/non-birth parents

Checklist for partners and carers

What causes perinatal anxiety and depression?

Like a lot of things to do with health, it’s really difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of perinatal anxiety and depression. For most people, a number of different things come together to cause these conditions.

Having a baby is one of the biggest changes you can make in life. Even if you’ve got other kids, every new baby will change your life in a massive way. As well as a new person coming into your family, changes in your body like shifting hormone levels, lack of sleep, discomfort or pain if you’ve given birth, and different exercise, eating and resting patterns can all also affect your mental wellbeing.

When does perinatal anxiety and depression happen?

For mums, dads and non-birth parents, perinatal anxiety and depression can start during pregnancy (prenatal) or after having the baby (postnatal). There’s no set time for these conditions to begin; they can set in very early on, or they can begin months after you’ve had your baby.

Some people might start feeling unwell gradually, over days or weeks. Others might wake up one day and feel like everything is different. If you’re expecting a baby or you’ve had a baby in the last year, and you’ve noticed a change in how you’re feeling, it’s time to talk to someone about whether it could be perinatal anxiety or depression.

A mum plays with her baby and toddler on the floor.

Isn’t it just the baby blues?

After a woman has a baby, changes in her hormones can affect her emotions. Usually this will kick in around 3-10 days after giving birth, and can make women feel tearful, irritable or very sensitive. Some people call this experience the ‘baby blues’ or ‘three-day blues’.

This is a normal experience after giving birth – it affects up to 80% of birthing mothers! Usually these feelings will pass within a few days. But if they stick around after a couple of weeks, these feelings could suggest perinatal anxiety or depression.

When should I get help for perinatal anxiety or depression?

If you think that you or someone you know might have perinatal anxiety or depression, the time to do something about it is now. You don’t need to wait to prove that it’s serious, and you don’t need to give it time to see if it goes away by itself. Everyone deserves support, especially around the time they have a baby, and it’s never wrong to ask for help or offer to help someone else.

How can I get help for perinatal anxiety or depression?

The first thing you should do if you think you have perinatal anxiety or depression is tell someone. This could be your partner, a family member, a friend, colleague, your GP or midwife. You could also start off by calling a free helpline, like Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia’s National Helpline (1300 726 306) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636).

During pregnancy and after birth, it’s really important to tell your GP or midwife how you’re feeling. They can help you figure out exactly what is going on and can suggest different types of treatment that might be useful. Lots of different things can help with perinatal anxiety or depression, from lifestyle changes to talking therapies or medications. The sooner you speak to a medical professional, the sooner you can get started on a treatment plan to help you feel better.

How can I help someone if I think they have perinatal anxiety or depression?

If you think someone you know or care for has perinatal anxiety or depression, you can support them by talking with them about how they’re feeing. Ask how they’re feeling, then listen to what they have to say. Then you can offer your support and talk about whether it’s time to seek further help.

Beyond Blue has tips on how to have a conversation with someone you’re worried about and what to do when someone you care about won’t seek support.

A grandma and new mum lean over their pram.

Can my perinatal anxiety or depression harm my baby?

When your baby is young, their needs are simple: they want to be fed, cleaned and kept safe, and to know they are important. Even though it won’t always feel simple, as long as you’re providing the basics and responding when your baby communicates, they’ll be just fine. But this doesn’t mean you should put off looking after your own health when your baby seems happy and healthy.

Just like on an aeroplane when they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before you help anyone else, making your own health a priority will be good for your baby, too. Seeking support to move through perinatal anxiety or depression is an important way to look after your own health that will benefit your whole family.

If you ever feel like you or your baby is in danger, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance.

More information

You can find more information about perinatal anxiety and depression at the websites below.

Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia

How is dad going?

Beyond Blue

Pregnancy, Birth and Baby

Raising Children

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Last updated: 20 January 2020