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Perinatal mental health – understanding the impact of pregnancy and childbirth

Pregnancy and childbirth are among the most transformative phases in a woman’s life. This phase is usually marked by anticipation and joy but can also be accompanied by challenges. In particular, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the perinatal period can also bring about various mental health challenges. Understanding what these challenges and the impact they can have on you and baby are key to navigating this time in your life.

Common perinatal mental health problems

Approximately 1 in 5 women experience a mental health condition during pregnancy or within the first years after childbirth.

The most common perinatal mental problems are:

  • Anxiety. Excessive worry, restlessness, and irritability characterise perinatal anxiety. Mothers may experience intense fears related to health and well-being for themselves or their babies.
  • Depression. Perinatal depression goes beyond typical mood swings usually associated with hormonal changes during pregnancy and can last up to one year after baby is born. Persistent sadness, feelings of hopelessness, lack of interest or pleasure in daily activities are among typical symptoms of perinatal depression.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Perinatal OCD involves intrusive, unwanted thoughts and repetitive or ritualised behaviours. Mothers may experience persistent and exaggerated fear or worries, leading to compulsive rituals.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Traumatic birth experiences can lead to postpartum PTSD. If untreated, flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety can persist long after baby is born.

Who is at risk of developing perinatal mental Health problems?

Perinatal mental health can be impacted by many factors. There are some factors that may have more of an impact your mental well-being during pregnancy and the early stages of motherhood.

Fertility issues

If you are facing fertility challenges, the emotional rollercoaster may be a familiar one. IVF can take a toll on your mental health. Acknowledging these emotional twists and turns and seeking support can help you to navigate this aspect of becoming a parent and manage stress effectively.

Miscarriage and pregnancy loss

If you’ve experienced a miscarriage or pregnancy loss, the emotional impact on you can be profound. Studies have shown that many women experience depressive symptoms (Lok & Neugebauer, 2007) as well as anxiety (Carter et al., 2007) following a miscarriage. The grieving process is complex and seeking understanding and support can be crucial to finding your way through.

Physical health conditions

If you have a pre-existing physical health condition, managing this alongside pregnancy can feel overwhelming. Integrating your physical and mental health care can contribute to a holistic approach and reduce stress.

Traumatic birth experiences

If your childbirth experience felt traumatic, it’s important to recognise the impact it may have on your mental health. Feelings of anxiety, struggling to bond with baby, and symptoms of PTSD are common following a traumatic birth (Beck, 2006). Seeking professional support to help you deal with these symptoms can be an essential part of recovery.

    How can CBT help with perinatal Mental Health issues?

    Identifying mental health issues as soon as possible is essential to getting the right support you need. Can Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) be helpful? Yes! CBT is a powerful tool that can be tailored to support you and help provide practical strategies that you can use to deal with any perinatal or postnatal mental health struggles you may face.

    CBT is particularly effective in addressing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and OCD. It provides a structured and evidence-based approach to managing these conditions, giving you a deeper insight into your emotions and develop practical skills to improve your mental wellbeing. Trauma-Focused CBT is a specialised treatment recommended for the treatment of PTSD.

    CBT works in the following ways:

    Identifying negative thought patterns. CBT can help you to recognise and understand negative thought patterns that may be contributing to feelings of stress, sadness, and anxiety. Together with your therapist, you will explore thoughts and beliefs that shape your emotional responses to various aspects of your pregnancy and motherhood.

    Building coping strategies. One the most powerful tools in CBT is its emphasis on practical coping strategies. CBT equips you with problem-solving skills to approach challenges. Breaking these challenges down into manageable part will give you confidence in your ability to address and overcome obstacles.

    Promoting resilience. Resilience is a key component in the maintenance of our emotional well-being. CBT focuses on enhancing your capacity to bounce back from stressors and tackle ongoing challenges. With your therapist, you’ll explore and cultivate your strengths, boosting a resilient mindset that can help you tackle challenges of pregnancy and parenthood.

    Navigating traumatic experiences. If you’ve experienced a traumatic pregnancy or birth, Trauma-focused CBT (TCBT) is the gold standard treatment for PTSD. It helps you to understand and manage the traumatic impact of your experiences and provides skills you need to tackle your symptoms.

    How can we help?

    CBT is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s tailored to you, your specific needs, and unique experiences, as well as to your personal goals. Your therapist will collaborate with you to create a treatment plan that is both supportive and empowering, giving you the skills and insights to be able to embrace the joys and challenges of pregnancy and early motherhood.

    Here at CBT Networks, our Clinical Lead, Dr Sian Thrasher is specialised in assessing and treating perinatal mental health conditions.

    “The physical and emotional challenges of pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood are often overlooked, and the pressure to be full of the ‘joys’ can make mothers who are struggling feel unheard, or alone. Having someone to work through the issues with can be valuable in making the journey one during which you can build strength, and properly protect yourself and your child.”

    Dr Sian Thrasher

    If you would like to find out more about how we could help you, our consultant psychologist, Dr Sian Thrasher, offers a free 15-minute telephone consultation specifically for you to discuss CBT and treatment options.

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