Dr Gini Harrison from the School of Psychology and Counselling researches perinatal anxiety. Here she offers some guidance on maternal mental health with links to more information.
As it’s Mothers’ Day, I wanted to write a blog focusing on maternal mental health. We all know that having a baby can be an exciting time; but it can also feel like an emotional rollercoaster that is both stressful and overwhelming. Indeed, research suggests around 1-in-5 women may experience significant levels of anxiety in the perinatal period (perinatal just means ‘around childbirth’, so during pregnancy and through the 12 months after birth). While some degree of anxiety is normal at this time, some people have symptoms that are difficult to control, that they find distressing or intense, or that significantly interfere with their day-to-day lives. When this happens, it is important to seek help as research suggests untreated perinatal anxiety may be associated with a variety of negative outcomes in both the mother and infant, including: premature delivery, excessive infant crying, bonding issues, and adverse developmental and mental health problems in children.
Unfortunately less than 50% of women experiencing perinatal anxiety will seek help or be identified as needing treatment; and of those who are identified, few will receive efficacious treatment.
There are several reasons why women with perinatal anxiety may not receive help. While there is public awareness about postnatal depression, knowledge about other aspects of perinatal mental health is lacking at both a public and healthcare professional level. As such, symptoms may go unrecognised. For those who do recognise their symptoms; reduced flexibility may prevent them from going to healthcare appointments, and concerns about being regarded as a ‘bad mother’ and the perceived stigma attached to mental health issues in this period may mean women are reluctant to disclose how they are feeling.
An online solution
The internet may be a valuable source of support for women experiencing perinatal anxiety. ‘eHealth’ tools can be effective, low cost, available 24/7 and offer a level of anonymity that might help to overcome the stigma sometimes attached to seeking help. However, a review of websites that provide information and support for perinatal anxiety (conducted by researchers at the OU) found that resources were often inaccurate, confusing and incomplete, frequently confusing perinatal anxiety for depression. While postnatal depression and perinatal anxiety can go hand-in-hand, often they don’t. This means that women experiencing anxiety without depression many not relate to symptoms outlined on these sites, meaning they are unlikely to recognise the problem or seek help.
To address this issue (and with the help of some perinatal women who we interviewed about their experiences with anxiety), we have now developed an open-access website designed to provide evidence-based information explicitly about perinatal anxiety. So if you want to find out more about perinatal anxiety, you can find information, screening tools, and evidence-based self-help guides at www.openPAWS.co.uk
Other quick tips to help keep perinatal anxiety at bay
Talk to a healthcare professional –Many women don’t want to tell people how they are feeling as they are worried others might think they are a bad mum, or that social services will take their baby away. Some may avoid telling doctors because they think they will be prescribed medication that might put their baby at risk. This unlikely to be the case. If you tell your GP, midwife or health visitor how you are feeling they will want to help you get better. This means they will work with you to find a treatment or support option that is safe and that you feel happy with.
Talk to other mums –Our research showed that talking and listening to other mums significantly reduced their anxiety. Just hearing others talk about their own (less than perfect) experiences with motherhood helped to breakdown unrealistic notions of motherhood, and helped mothers to realise that they were not abnormal, inadequate or alone in their experience.
Take social media with a pinch of salt– We can’t help but compare ourselves to others, and social comparison theory suggests that we use these types of comparisons to evaluate how we think and feel about ourselves. Social Media, by its nature, actively encourages social comparison – which can be problematic when faced with constant images of other mothers appearing to be ‘the perfect mum’, while we are struggling to get out of our pyjamas in the morning. Try to remember, it’s not real! People often only post an extremely edited ‘highlight reel’ of their lives, giving the false impression that others lead a more perfect life than our own, which, in reality has its fair share of ups, middles and downs. So try not to let it get you down.
Breathe – Our breath is a powerful tool that can help us to manage muscle tension and stress. It is always with us, so it is a useful relaxation method that we can turn to whenever we need it.
So how can breathing help? When we feel anxious, we tend to alter our breathing. Instead of taking slow, deep breaths (diaphragmatic breathing), we often take shallow rapid breaths using mainly our chest, which can sometimes lead to hyperventilation and/or cause anxiety to escalate. To help us to calm down and relax, we should aim to try and slow down our breathing; and take long, deep breaths.
Try this guided breathing exercise, and see how it makes you feel: https://youtu.be/XMVgnBaczQY
For more tips on how to manage perinatal anxiety, visit the self-help tools section at www.openPAWS.co.uk