8 People Share What Really Helped Them With Peripartum Depression"Just because you feel bad doesn't mean you are bad."
If you’re going through it, peripartum depression can seem like a thing no one really warned you about, but it’s actually pretty common. About 9% of women experience depression in pregnancy—and around 7% go through a depressive episode within the first 12 months after giving birth, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). (It’s worth noting here that people of different gender identities can give birth, but these stats from the DSM-5-TR were gathered in a way that doesn’t seem to have taken that into consideration.)
For those unfamiliar with the term, peripartum depression refers to depression that happens during or after pregnancy. You may have also heard it called postpartum depression or perinatal depression, or, more generally, referred to as part of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs). In the DSM-5-TR, it’s listed as “major depressive disorder with peripartum onset.” The phrasing may change a bit depending on who you’re talking to, but the overall gist is the same.
Peripartum depression can feel like you’re “paddling as hard as you can to keep your head above water. You're just waiting and waiting and waiting for someone to throw you a life preserver and pull you out on the shore and save you,” says licensed social worker Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, founding director and chief external relations officer at The Motherhood Center of New York.
The exact symptoms can vary from person to person, though you may feel sad, worthless, or fatigued, and your sleeping schedule and appetite might also be off. That might sound like it’s just par for the course of being a sleep-deprived new parent, but, in the case of peripartum depression, these symptoms are debilitating and long-lasting, going far beyond what most consider to be the “baby blues.”
In a lot of cases, there’s also an added layer of guilt since you’re in charge of this brand new human at a time that’s “supposed” to be THE best (whatever that means), says perinatal psychologist Katayune Kaeni, PsyD, PMH-C. Remember this though: “What you're going through [does not mean anything] about who you are. It's about being under high stress during this major life transition. Just because you feel bad doesn’t mean you are bad,” Dr. Kaeni assures.
Many people’s peripartum depression symptoms begin during pregnancy or within the first four weeks following delivery, according to the DSM-5-TR, but they can start up anytime within the first year of giving birth, and, if left untreated, may last for years, says Dr. Kaeni. Other types of PMADs can happen alongside depression, whether that’s OCD, an anxiety disorder, or postpartum psychosis, Dr. Kaeni explains. (And just so you know, partners of people who’ve given birth can experience postpartum depression too, says Dr. Kaeni.)
The recovery process may be slow, but treatments like therapy and antidepressants, along with support from your loved ones and those who’ve been there, can help. “When you’re on the road to recovery, it's never a straight line to the finish line. But there comes a time where you look back and say, ‘I'm past it,’" Bellenbaum says. She knows because she’s been through it—and so has Dr. Kaeni. Ahead, you’ll hear from both of these mental health pros and other parents about what helped them navigate this type of depression.
Heads up: There’s some discussion around suicidal ideation below.
1. Therapy and meds.
“When my daughter was about 12 months, I started feeling it. There was so much excitement and new changes with her that I relished in. Then, there was a shift—whether gradual or overnight I couldn't say—where I would look at her do something cute and know I should smile or photograph this and be excited, but I just couldn't. Then guilt and shame would set in because all I wanted was to be a mom and now it seemed like I didn't like it.
Luckily, my general practitioner listened to me when I broke down in his office. He gave me a prescription for antidepressants and encouraged me to go back to counseling. The medication gave me a boost and the counseling helped change my perspective. I was doing a lot of circular thinking by comparing myself to other moms (including celebrities) and feeling like a failure. Counseling helped me practice gratitude for what I had, celebrate what I was doing, and not do the comparison thing. I could feel myself reconnecting with some of the simple moments. I found my rhythm and balance of life. I no longer felt like an outsider to our family.” —Amanda T., 45
2. Faking it till I made it.
“After my first pregnancy, I had suicidal thoughts and was going through severe anxiety and depression, but I didn’t realize what was going on. When I expected my second child, I prepared with regular therapy sessions. I thought I avoided postpartum depression until I hit rock bottom when my baby was 5 months old.
What has helped me is dialectical behavior therapy—specifically a skill I learned from it, called opposite action, where you do the opposite of what your emotions urge you to do. For example, I was terrified of traveling because it felt like a mountain of things could go wrong and hurt my kids. I checked the facts, made a safety plan with my husband, and traveled. At first I didn’t enjoy it. I was stressed, tired, and numb. But after a few trips, I started feeling joy again.
The exposure is the key. If I fear something, I check the facts about it. If my fear is not justified, then I do the opposite. It’s like faking it until you make it.” —Anonymous
3. Doing things I liked.
“I experienced depression both during and after my pregnancy. During my pregnancy, feelings crept up on me. I would experience heavy thoughts one day, a normal day or so would pass, and then I would feel a desire for extreme isolation away from everyone. In mentioning these thoughts and feelings to my therapist and doctor, they advised that this was clinically diagnosable as depression.
After birth, the depression hit me like a train. My sleep was impacted; my mood was impacted; and the ability to feel like a present mother, friend, sister, and employee all became a struggle. So did attending social events and simple tasks such as getting dressed or brushing my hair.
Aside from prescribed medication, fresh air, and alone time, participating in activities that I enjoyed before pregnancy, such as watching gymnastics and coaching when physically able, helped. I returned to coaching a few months after giving birth, and it did help my mood significantly. Being active and outside of the house made a world of difference when I had the strength, because it gave me an opportunity to do something I love and be around people.” —Indira, P., 27
4. Reaching out for help.
“My symptoms started during pregnancy, but it wasn't until about six weeks postpartum where I really crashed. I became increasingly anxious and convinced that something terrible was going to happen to my son. At the apogee of that anxiety, I also became incredibly depressed. I stopped taking care of myself. I wasn't able to sleep at all. I stopped eating. I felt hopeless. I felt helpless. I felt like I'd made a huge mistake. I felt like I didn't like my baby and I didn't want him. I wanted to run away somewhere and never come back. I had nothing to look forward to. I was convinced that this is what my life was going to look like forever.
The critical point for me was when I was pushing my son in a stroller one day. I hadn't been outside in a long, long time. As I was approaching the corner, I just felt like I was surrounded by this gray, depressing fog. I saw this bus starting to pass in front of me, and every part of my body wanted to just end my life. I remember looking at the reflection of myself in the glass and not recognizing who I saw. That's when I made the decision to get the help I needed.
I had been in therapy, but I found a therapist who specialized in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. I had been on an antidepressant prior, and I went back on one. As with any medication, I started to feel better slowly. At one point, I went to a support group for women experiencing postpartum depression, which I thought to be incredibly empowering and validating and normalizing—to realize I wasn't alone.” —Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, 49
5. Leaning into self-compassion.
“The thing that was the scariest for me about experiencing postpartum depression with my first child was that it didn’t show up like ‘normal’ depression. I didn’t notice that the intrusive thoughts had taken a permanent residence in my brain. I thought crying all day and berating myself for not being a better mom was just a normal part of being a new parent. I think this was compounded by the messages I was receiving in American culture about how this should be the best time in my life.
The biggest lesson during my first round of PMAD was that I needed to be kinder to myself. Motherhood is an ancient practice that takes time and tenderness to learn. I expected to master sleep schedules and keep my career going while raising a baby full time. When those things didn’t happen as planned, it felt like my life and my identity in the world was crashing all around me. But, in reality, I was building a new life. I was learning new priorities, new routines, and how to live with a brand new person in the world.
The second time, I had to learn to cope with anxiety and panic attacks as well as my depressive episodes. One practice that’s helped me is to talk to my anxiety and tell her that everything is OK and ‘I got this.’ Once I allow her the space to feel safe, I feel more grounded and able to move through the panic attack quickly or avoid it altogether.” —Erin B., 35
6. Getting support.
“I experienced depression and anxiety following the birth of both of my girls, and, as I look back, there’s an incredible amount I didn’t know. The most heartbreaking thing was that I didn’t think anything was wrong and I definitely didn’t feel comfortable speaking up about it. That truly almost cost me absolutely everything when I went through postpartum psychosis and spent two weeks in a psychiatric unit. I went completely outside of reality and, at times, didn’t recognize my husband.
Essentially, being forced to get help enabled me to understand how important self-care, being honest, and asking for (and accepting) help was. Having a support system and people to help you is absolutely imperative.
My husband had to work during my episode and immediately became the full-time caregiver to our two kids (age 2 and 5 months at the time) and to me. Our families would alternate weeks to come help, and I wouldn’t have made it without everyone’s support.” —Kristina D., 37
7. Approaching the day in bite-sized bits.
“I developed my postpartum depression nine months after I gave birth to my daughter. I chalked my symptoms up to life stressors. But once those events passed, I was left feeling so alone and sad.
Every morning was grueling. I knew I needed to get up to take care of my baby and myself, but my body was fighting my mind. It felt like every little task and chore was so overwhelming. It was exhausting knowing everything I needed to do to provide for my little one but feeling so sad and wanting to cry. It was also incredibly hard to ask for help—from anyone. I opened up to my husband a little bit, but he had his plate full too and he was already so incredible in helping me whenever he could. I felt guilty adding anything more. Secretly, I was screaming for help in my head and wishing anyone would offer any ounce of help at all.
I really took some time at the start of the day to mentally prepare. That meant waking up an hour earlier than I normally would to allow myself to lay there, watch a show, and hype myself up. Another small thing I did was break down my day into 10-minute increments. I wouldn’t think about all the things I needed to do that day all at once. I would say to myself, ‘In the next 10 minutes, all you need to do is change her diaper.’ It helped in the long run.” —Joy K., 27
8. Challenging my thoughts.
“It took me about a year to realize what was going on because, as a therapist, there was this additional layer of pressure that I should have been able to figure this out. There’s also a little bit of denial. I did not want to be depressed. So, for me, the light bulb came on when I decided to just honestly sit down and fill out a depression screening myself so that I could objectively see: OK, yeah, you are actually dealing with something. Seeing that objectively on that piece of paper really made me see that I needed help.
So I went back to therapy. They were helpful, but it wasn't a great fit, so I decided to use the skills that I know—and help people learn—to change my thought process.
I had a colleague that used a catchphrase to describe this process: ‘Catch it, check it, change it.’ The first part is essentially building an awareness of your own thought process and trying to catch your negative self-judgmental thoughts. Checking it is: Is that really a true statement? Is it a true thought or feeling about something that's happening? And then changing it is offering yourself an alternative. So let's say I’m feeling like I'm a bad mom, and I catch myself saying that to myself. I check it: Am I really a bad mom? What are the things I'm doing to help my child? Then, change it to something that's either neutral or positive like, I'm doing my best right now. Or even a positive one would be, I am a good mom.” —Katayune Kaeni, PsyD, PMH-C, 44
These quotes have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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