By Pooja Lakshmin|may 27, 2020
"New and expecting moms are facing pandemic-related fears on top of social isolation."
Photo: Mikyung Lee
"After going through a harrowing bout of postpartum depression with her first child, my patient, Emily, had done everything possible to prepare for the postpartum period with her second. She stayed in treatment with me, her perinatal psychiatrist, and together we made the decision for her to continue Zoloft during her pregnancy. With the combination of medication, psychotherapy and a significant amount of planning, she was feeling confident about her delivery in April. And then, the coronavirus hit.
Emily, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, called me in late-March because she was having trouble sleeping. She was up half the night ruminating about whether she’d be able to have her husband with her for delivery and how to manage taking care of a toddler and a newborn without help. The cloud that we staved off for so long was returning, and Emily felt powerless to stop it.
Postpartum depression and the larger group of maternal mental health conditions called perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are caused by neurobiological factors and environmental stressors. Pregnancy and the postpartum period are already vulnerable times for women due in part to the hormonal fluctuations accompanying pregnancy and delivery, as well as the sleep deprivation of the early postpartum period. Now, fears about the health of an unborn child or an infant and the consequences of preventive measures, like social distancing, have added more stress.
As a psychiatrist who specializes in taking care of pregnant and postpartum women, I’ve seen an increase in intrusive worry, obsessions, compulsions, feelings of hopelessness and insomnia in my patients during the coronavirus pandemic. And I’m not alone in my observations: Worldwide, mental health professionals are concerned. A special editorial in a Scandinavian gynecological journal called attention to the psychological distress that pregnant women and new mothers will experience in a prolonged global pandemic. A report from Zhejiang University in China detailed the case of a woman who contracted Covid-19 late in her pregnancy and developed depressive symptoms. In the United States, maternal mental health experts have also described an increase in patients with clinical anxiety.
In non-pandemic times, as many as 14 percent of women will suffer from pregnancy-related anxiety, which refers to fears that women have about their own health and their baby’s over the course of pregnancy and delivery, and up to 20 percent of women will experience postpartum depression.
Samantha Meltzer-Brody, M.D., M.P.H., who is the chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the director of the Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, said, “The natural vulnerability of this major life transition is exacerbated when you just have sort of global anxiety, and things like going to the grocery store to pick up diapers suddenly become a much more anxiety-producing event than it ever was before.”
In my clinical practice and in a Covid-19 maternal well-being group I co-founded, women have voiced their fears about a number of possible distressing scenarios: delivering without a support person; being one of the 15 percent of pregnant women who is asymptomatic for Covid-19 and facing possible infant separation; and recovering during a postpartum period without the help of family or friends to provide support. There’s also grief about the loss of a hopeful time that was meant to be celebrated with loved ones."
By: Karen Kleiman
"The awesome responsibility of caring for a newborn naturally warrants a heightened sense of vigilance. Sometimes this necessary state of watchfulness can be confusing. At every turn, a new mother believes a crisis is looming. Afraid of slipping and dropping the baby, she holds them extra tightly while she goes down the stairs. Afraid of a disaster in the night, she keeps herself awake to hear the silent sounds of breathing. If she falls asleep from sheer fatigue, she dreams of causing the baby harm through her own negligence.
Here are some reasons why postpartum women don't share these scary thoughts:
1. The ambiguity factor
One reason why postpartum women don't talk about the thoughts that are having is that they are not sure what is "normal" and what may be problematic. This is due to the overlapping experiences between women with postpartum anxiety or depression and women with no such diagnosis.
For example: fatigue, loss of libido, moodiness, weepiness, changes in weight, sleep disturbance, and low energy can all be attributed to anxiety and depression, yet they are also considered to be within normal expectations for postpartum adjustment. Because moods and other internal experiences are expected to fluctuate following childbirth, women sometimes decide it is best to brave any discomfort and hope it goes away by itself.
Unfortunately, scary thoughts are not easy to ride out. What's more, without proper assessment, a woman's worry about these thoughts can rapidly disintegrate from initial concern to panic.
2. The critical inner voice
The shame that can accompany upsetting thoughts is unbearable. What is wrong with me? How can I be thinking these things? Good mothers don't think such terrible thoughts. Often, the only explanation that makes sense to a mother who is trying to reconcile this disturbing experience is that there is something profoundly wrong with her, something is broken inside. Maybe she is close to insanity. Or maybe she is not fit to be a mother. Either option, or anything in between, is a nightmare. This nightmare stuns many women into silence. They hope that if they can just hold their breath and carry off this role-play, their awful thoughts will somehow go away. In some instances, the thoughts actually do go away. Usually, they do not.
Other women tirelessly try to push the thoughts out of their minds, but are distraught when the thoughts return in full force. Some women can express the horror of their thoughts along with the abysmal shame that accompanies them, but, for many, the actual articulation of the specific thoughts, the words they fear would somehow make the thoughts come alive, remain locked inside.
Women say they are embarrassed, ashamed, mortified, humiliated and guilty beyond description. They say they feel hideously exposed, naked, repulsive, raw, nauseous, ugly and sickened by their own thoughts. Some say they feel so appalled by the nature of their thoughts that they feel inhuman, as if only a monster could possess and admit such atrocities.
An important point here is that high level of distress indicates that the scary thoughts are ego-dystonic, or incompatible with the woman's sense of herself. Although it is never easy to experience such high levels of distress, there is considerably more concern when a woman expresses no such distress or displays no strong affect attached to this worry. Thus, a woman's agitation is often a signal that anxiety is the mechanism at work and not something more worrisome, like psychosis. Knowing this can reassure both the distressed mother and her healthcare provider.
Shame-based barriers to disclosing one's thoughts can be fueled by the critic inside one's own head. With regard to the critical inner voice, mothers report they are reluctant to reveal scary thoughts because they: