Recognizing the signs of perinatal depression is the first step to getting the support you need. IMPORTANT SPOILER ALERT: No matter how intense your depression may feel, it is highly treatable and — with support — can be temporary.
What is perinatal depression?
Perinatal depression is one of several perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) that can show up during pregnancy and/or the postpartum year. Perinatal depression includes prenatal depression (aka antepartum depression) during pregnancy and postpartum depression after birth.
While the specifics of this experience look a little different for everyone, below I share seven common signs of perinatal depression to look out for. You don’t have to experience all of these in order to be experiencing perinatal depression and/or to be deserving of support. If you’re noticing any one of these signs of perinatal depression, consider reaching out to a therapist trained in perinatal mental health to help you walk through the hardest parts of this and get to the other side.
Here are 7 signs of perinatal depression:
1. Your mood is “off.”
More days than not, you’re just not feeling like yourself. This can look like feeling depressed (inc. sad, empty, hopeless) a lot of the time. You may be crying or on the verge of tears all day. Naturally, this is what most people think of when they think of depression and what loved ones might notice or look out for.
However, mood changes can also look like feeling much more irritable than usual. Little things that didn’t use to bother you can suddenly leave you feeling annoyed, angry, or even full of rage. Loved ones may notice you have a much shorter fuse.
The tricky part? Sometimes, it isn’t so obvious to the people around you. You may not “seem” depressed at all. From the outside looking in, you may be doing all the things you need to do and “successfully” going through the motions of your life. But internally, it’s a different story. You may silently be feeling overwhelmed, stuck, or numb. You may be feeling uninterested in (or even resentful of) things you used to enjoy. In some cases, this can extend to your pregnancy or new baby.
2. Your appetite has changed.
Sometimes this looks like eating a lot more than usual. Sometimes it means losing your appetite entirely. There’s also a range between the two. Whether your appetite is larger or smaller or larger than usual, any significant changes could be a possible sign of depression.
If your appetite has increased, you may notice yourself using food to cope with intense feelings. You may experience cravings for sugary foods (which — no coincidence — increase levels of serotonin and boost your mood). In the moment, it may feel soothing, distracting, or even numbing. While this meets a need for relief in the short-term, it may be out of alignment with your longer-term goals for your health and/or your relationship with food.
If your appetite has decreased, you may notice that you don’t have the energy or desire to prepare meals that you usually would. If you’re spending a lot of mental energy trying to manage other symptoms of depression, food may become less of a priority and you may unintentionally skip meals without noticing. Or, you may feel hungry, but trying to decide WHAT to eat feels too overwhelming. Aside from unintentional (and potentially harmful) weight loss, undereating may contribute to other depression symptoms such as a low mood, low energy levels, and a lack of focus.
3. You’re exhausted.
In some ways, feeling exhausted seems to come with the territory of becoming a parent. Whether you’re up throughout the night with pregnancy discomforts or to comfort a crying baby, it’s no secret that many of us sleep less during this time. Even under the best of circumstances, decreased sleep will impact energy levels throughout the day.
While it can be hard to tell whether your lack of energy is due to depression or a lack of sleep, the truth is that these two factors are connected and can impact one another. Depression can mess with your sleep and changes in your sleeping patterns (much less OR more) can take a toll on your mood and energy.
When you’re depressed, you may feel so tired that routine tasks — like taking a shower, caring for your baby, or even getting out of bed — feel heavy and hard and overwhelming. This becomes a serious problem when it starts to impact your ability to function in your day-to-day life.
4. You can’t relax.
Mentally, you may feel stuck in a loop of unwanted, unpleasant, or even scary thoughts. Your mind is spinning and you’re spending a lot of energy thinking about the same things over and over without any clear aim or direction. You wish you could quiet the thoughts, but the more you try the louder they get.
Physically, you may feel on edge, fidgety or restless for most of the day. Despite your best efforts it feels really difficult to slow down and rest (even when given the opportunity). Even though you’re tired your body may feel activated or generally uncomfortable.
Because of everything you’re experiencing mentally and physically, you’re moving around a lot more than usual (ex: pacing, tapping, moving objects around with no clear purpose). This is usually noticeable to the people around you.
5. You’ve been really hard on yourself.
Since becoming a parent, your self-esteem has taken a massive hit. It could be related to anything from your body-image to your perception of how you’re doing as a parent to your perception of what others think of you.
You may start to believe stories that sound something like:
- “I’m a bad parent.”
- “I’m not cut out for this.”
- “I’m letting my partner down.”
- “Everyone is judging me.”
- “My family would be better off without me.”
When you get stuck in these stories, it can actually get in the way of connecting with your values as a new parent. These thoughts may be a sign of depression when they become overwhelming, take up a lot of your time and energy, or get in the way of being the kind of person (and parent) you really want to be.
6. It’s hard to focus.
Has it been harder to concentrate lately? Sometimes, depression can impact your memory, attention, and ability to process information. Altogether, this can make it hard to focus.
A lack of focus can cut you off from the present moment, making it hard to connect with yourself and others around you (including your baby). For example, you may notice yourself “zoning out” during conversations with loved ones or even tuning out your baby’s cries.
A lack of focus can also make it hard to make decisions in your day-to-day life. As a new parent, you’re suddenly faced with this mountain of what can feel like really high-stakes-decisions (like how to feed your baby, where baby sleeps, and how to navigate a pandemic). When you’re depressed, even small decisions — like what to have for breakfast — can feel really big and heavy. Ideally, you’d be in a position where you can make decisions for yourself and your family with intention (versus on autopilot). If that feels really hard to do, it could be a sign of depression.
7. You want to escape your life.
When the world expects you to feel nothing but bliss at the arrival of your new baby, it can feel scary to admit (even to yourself) that you’re feeling trapped and having thoughts of somehow escaping your life. Your mind is so creative and cares so deeply for your wellbeing. When you’re having an intense need for relief, it will work SO HARD to think up all sorts of ways to meet that need.
Often, this looks like some version of numbing, distracting, or avoiding. You may have an urge to stay in bed, pull the covers over your head, and just stay there. Maybe you zone out for hours watching TV or scrolling on your phone. You could have strong cravings for food, alcohol, or drugs to self-soothe. You might even have secret thoughts of dropping your baby off with a loved one, driving away, and not coming back.
In more serious cases, you may have thoughts of hurting yourself or hurting your baby. Important note: this is different from experiencing scary thoughts of something unintentionally happening to you or your baby (a common and frightening experience for new parents, which is also deserving of support). If you are noticing urges to hurt yourself or your baby or are contemplating a plan to do so, it’s important to connect with support right away. Click here to learn more about what to do in a mental health crisis.
Are you noticing signs of perinatal depression in yourself or someone you love?
If you’re noticing any signs of perinatal depression, remember: 1) it’s not just you, 2) you don’t have to do this alone, and 3) with support you can start to feel better. Click here to get started with therapy or check out this post to browse additional options for perinatal mental health support online and near you.