Demystifying Prenatal Depression & Anxiety

I sit in my cozy living room, the sun shining through the windows, the smell of freshly baked birthday cake taking up the whole house, Adele playing in the background, and the round of my pregnant belly gently rising and falling as if in beat to the music. My healthy and happy 3.5 year old daughter and supportive and loving husband are outside enjoying the fresh air in our safe and beautiful neighborhood on this non-rainy spring day. And I feel absolute despair.

Antenatal (also known as prenatal) depression and anxiety is a common, and rarely talked about topic. In more recent years, healthcare policies have encouraged maternal healthcare providers to ask questions and be aware of an individual’s mental health during and after pregnancy, especially with increased awareness of how periods of severe stress, depression and anxiety can affect the pregnancy as well as the development and wellbeing of the child.

There is much to be grateful for the increase in the demystification of postpartum depression and anxiety, much of which has come to light through stories shared by celebrities like Chrissy Teigan, Adele, Gwenyth Paltrow and Drew Barrymore to name a few. Still quite hush-hush is the reality that many individuals feel down in the dumps during what is “supposed to be” a magical and joyful period of their life.

In my personal experience, there is a great deal of guilt (and even shame) associated with having sad and bad and mad feelings when one is expected to be glowing and excited and joyous (after all I am blessed to be able to conceive and birth a child). But the worst feeling of all is feeling lonely in it all.

“According to The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), between 14-23% of women will struggle with some symptoms of depression during pregnancy.” So approximately one out of every four or five women are struggling with this. But why are we not hearing about it? Is it the sheer power of the stigma associated with depression and anxiety, and the aforementioned guilt and shame that a pregnant individual may experience?

When I google the terms ‘prenatal/antenatal depression and anxiety’, I find myself even more depleted since the most common articles written about the topic mostly discuss that it is common and that the state is also strongly linked to the high possibility of experiencing depression and anxiety in the postpartum period. Well… great! Not exactly what I  want to hear when I’m already down in the dumps.

In my personal experience, there is a great deal of guilt (and even shame) associated with having sad and bad and mad feelings when one is expected to be glowing and excited and joyous (after all I am blessed to be able to conceive and birth a child). But the worst feeling of all is feeling lonely in it all.

When I became pregnant, I initially felt the complete joy of a dream come true. And during the 18 weeks when I vomited too many times to count and felt like a shadow of myself, I tried to remind myself that in my last pregnancy I had started to feel the so-called “pregnancy glow” in the second and third trimester, and that lovely, vibrant and joyous feelings were just around the corner.

But as I had heard many times, no pregnancy is the same and those feelings have not come along (not yet, anyhow). I do not feel glowing and when people comment on my supposed glow it actually makes me want to punch them in the face. Terrible, I know… I have very little energy or desire for the romanticized pregnancy experiences like prenatal yoga classes, long walks, baby meditations, getting dolled up and celebrating my new curves, all of which I enjoyed immensely in my first pregnancy. Most days I want to be invisible as I walk around town. With awareness that this is a phase that will end eventually, I stay present and hopeful, remembering that “this too shall pass”.

I have some great, happy moments. Certainly I have grateful, grounded moments. Like cuddling in bed with my toddler and husband, or having a random dance-party on a Sunday morning, or a deep and clearing meditation. But I also have lonely, sad, anxious moments. Many of them.

The smallest incident can make me feel completely devastated: someone comments on my weight or belly size by saying something they assume is an innocent observation like, “Wow, you sure are growing, aren’t you?”, or I go out for a bike ride and feel totally out of breath and weak going up a slow hill, or the most common of all things, someone asks me “How are you?” in a high-pitched, excited tone that expects me to answer something like “I feel awesome. I am so happy.” And the need to fake how I feel in that moment makes me so deeply sad that all I can do is answer, “Fine, thanks” and try to end the conversation as quickly as possible.

When I first started writing this piece, I felt such enormous shame, that I took back my submission. I am sharing it now, because my silence is only reinforcing the shame and guilt, sadness and loneliness associated with this mental health concern that impacts me, my unborn child, my family and my entire life experience. My silence reinforces the stigma.

So, what do I do? Here is a list of things I have thought of doing that have supported me from time to time:

  1. Seeking professional support which may include seeing a reproductive mental health specialist, psychologist or counsellor: sessions may provide support through being listened to, asked to practice good self-care, as well as possibly being prescribed medication.
  2. Practicing the aforementioned good self-care: surrounding myself with positivity and healthy people and activities, exercising (whatever kind is even remotely enjoyable), eating healthy foods, getting a massage, etc.
  3. Practicing gratitude: this can be in the form of a meditation or journaling, and can help re-wire and refocus my energy and thought patterns.
  4. Practicing meditation: by noticing what arises in each moment without attachment, I am able to cultivate mindfulness, and remember that change is the only constant in life.
  5. Reading supportive material: different people have different ideas of what is supportive. I personally find reading Buddhist literature, that allows and welcomes all emotions and experiences without judgement, most supportive. For example, Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart.
  6. Seeking the company of non-judgemental parents: How do I find this? By being brave and reaching out, breaking the stigma of the topic and being honest with those I trust. Or even creating a support group.
  7. Reaching out to my partner, friends and family: this could be reaching out to talk about how I am feeling, or asking for dates, distractions and other fun things to bring a boost in energy or joy.
  8. Telling the truth when someone asks me how I am feeling: this is a super anti-culture thing to do, and requires great bravery. And it is a radical act of demystifying a topic that impacts many individuals across our communities.

Well, here is to the guts it takes to be honest. To break stigmas surrounding mental health. To support oneself and others. Here is to the expectant parent who feels alone, but isn’t. Here is to you, and to me, who may feel pregnancy blues, but are open to the pregnancy yellows and reds and all the other colors of life. If you are reading this, and you are experiencing depression or anxiety, my friend, you are so, incredibly not alone.

Photo by Eyoalha Baker

Taraneh Erfan King is a writer, yoga and meditation teacher, mother of one (soon to be two), personal and leadership development professional and registered counsellor. She is passionate about creating spaces for people to be at peace with the full range of human experiences and supporting them to cultivate their ability to live mindfully - in response to life, rather than in reaction to it.