While pregnancy can be a time of great excitement and joy it is also increasingly recognised as a time of physical and psychological challenges. We know from research that physical functioning and emotional wellbeing decline during pregnancy, particularly in late pregnancy and the first six weeks postnatally. However for most, a mother’s physical and psychological functioning generally improves over the first six months of the baby’s life.
What Psychological Changes Occur During Pregnancy?
During pregnancy, it is inevitable that a woman will experience some ‘pregnancy-specific anxieties’ which are characterised by the worries, concerns and fears a pregnant woman may be experiencing relating to her pregnancy, childbirth, the health of her baby, and her future role of mothering her baby.
Sleep quality and quantity also change during pregnancy, with sleep deterioration increasing as the pregnancy progresses, culminating in the poorest sleep quality and quantity in the third trimester and the immediate postpartum period. Furthermore, we know from research that sleep disruption and sleep deprivation during pregnancy are associated with greater levels of postnatal depressive symptoms.
It is estimated that between 6 – 20% of pregnant women will experience significant symptoms of depression in the prenatal period, while about 6% of pregnant women will experience significant symptoms of anxiety. Research indicates that about one-fifth of women will experience significant levels of anxiety in each trimester, while less than a tenth of women will experience depressive symptoms in each trimester.
Experiencing prenatal depressive and anxiety symptoms significantly increase the likelihood that a woman will experience postnatal depressive and anxiety symptoms. There is also a growing awareness of the importance of psychological wellbeing during pregnancy with regard to a mother’s experience of childbirth and subsequent mental and physical wellbeing in the postnatal period.
Women who have a pre-existing mental health difficulty are more at risk of experiencing low mood and anxiety during the prenatal period. Unsurprisingly, anxiety levels are at their highest in the third trimester due to fears and worries regarding the imminent birth. These anxiety levels subside significantly for the majority of women following a successful birthing experience and healthy baby.
Symptoms of Distress (anxiety and low mood) During Pregnancy:
- Poor sleep (sleep disturbance is considered an early symptom of a mood disorder)
- Daytime lethargy
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Loss of interest in socialising with friends/family
- Racing thoughts
- Excessive worries about the baby, the pregnancy, and childbirth
- Feeling tearful
- Feeling unable to cope
- Feeling helpless
- Physical pain
- Fear of seeking out information regarding the childbirth/labour
Certain factors can support psychological wellbeing during pregnancy. These include a good support system, sufficient rest and adequate sleep, marital satisfaction, high levels of self-esteem, low levels of life stress and worries, and no previous mental health difficulties. Indeed, promoting psychological wellbeing during pregnancy promotes the health and wellbeing of both a mother and her baby in the days, weeks, months and even years after birth.
Tips for Maintaining Mental Wellness During Pregnancy
- Discussing your worries and concerns with your partner or a close friend/family member can help alleviate your concerns
- Talking to women you know who have been pregnant and with whom you feel comfortable discussing your experience of being pregnant is an important source of support
- Strive to get as much rest and sleep as possible. Sleep deprivation has a significantly negative effect on your mood and general ability to manage and cope with life events and daily hassles
- Taking time out each day in a quiet, comfortable place to rest and/or nap
- Remember that pregnancy is a challenging time and it is not unusual for you to feel more worried and anxious about things during this time
- Gentle exercise such as walking, swimming, yoga and Pilates are excellent ways of promoting your physical and psychological wellbeing
- If you have a pre-existing mental health difficulty (such as Depression, Anxiety disorders, psychosis) it is important that you maintain regular contact with your GP or mental health team in order to support you during your pregnancy.
If you have a pre-existing mental health difficulty, or you are experiencing feelings of low mood, anxiety and sleep deprivation, to the degree to which they interfering with your daily life, you cancontact the Psychologist for strategies and coping mechanisms to support you during your pregnancy and beyond.