Many of the commonly known signs and symptoms of perinatal mood disorders are related to emotional and psychological changes, but there are also physical symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders that can affect the lives of new parents in ways people might not expect.
Researchers believe depression is one of the most common pregnancy and postpartum complications, according to UNC School of Medicine's Center for Women's Mood Disorders, and prenatal anxiety affects up to 21% of all new moms, according to National Perinatal Association. While there are certain factors that can increase a person's chance of experiencing a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder — a history of mental health issues, substance abuse, a lack of family, friend, and community support, problems with a previous birth or pregnancy, etc. — it’s important for all soon-to-be parents to be aware of the signs of perinatal mood disorders so that they can seek out and receive the help they both need and deserve as soon as possible.
To learn more about some of the often misdiagnosed and overlooked physical symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, Romper spoke with Dr. Erica Djossa, a psychotherapist, Dr. Ashurina Ream, a clinical psychologist, and, Emma Bennett, a licensed therapist and social worker.
A headache can be a sign of depression during and after pregnancy, according to UNC School of Medicine's Center for Women's Mood Disorders. “Often women will notice physical symptoms before associating these symptoms with changes in mood,” Ream says.
“Many of these symptoms get overlooked or misdiagnosed because of the overall fatigue and pains that many pregnant women experience,” Djossa says. And if these pains continue in the postpartum period, definitely speak with a health care professional.
Ream says physical symptoms are alarms telling us “something is not right.” So if a lack of sleep becomes excessive and starts ti impact your ability to function, seek help. “[These symptoms] need to be given appropriate attention, otherwise they may persist, progress, and become more complex,” Ream adds.
3. Sore Stomach
“It is never too early to seek help, you have nothing to lose by discussing your symptoms with your provider,” Djossa says. "So if your sore stomach is interfering with your daily life, find out if it’s a sign of a deeper issue. It might just be an upset stomach with no underlying causes. But it could be a sign that you have a perinatal mood disorder."
4. Night Sweats
If you find yourself waking up in a sweat more often than usual, make sure you bring it up at your next appointment. Especially if it’s accompanied by other physical or psychological symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
5. Changes In Appetite
This can mean either an increase or decrease in your appetite.
“Some women don’t feel like eating at all while others may binge or rely on food when their mood is low," Djossa says. "As a clinician, what I assess is whether there has been a change in regular eating habits for that particular client."
6. Sensory Overload
The sensory input that motherhood demands can lead to stress and other issues for new moms, Ream says, and our personalities can even impact how we respond.
“Introverts desire time alone to recharge and find balance," She says. "However, motherhood is accompanied by busy schedules, loud noises, little-to-no alone time, and high demands. This places greater stress on those moms who are unable to find the space to recover from this sensory overload and can cause a worsening of mood.”
Irritability is a typical thing that new parents experience. But when it starts to overwhelm you, that can be a sign of something serious. And when you don't have ways to cope and calm your mind, things can get worse.
“This irritability can lead to anger and be triggered by all kinds of stimuli: noise, whining children, when things don’t go according to plan, and so on. The outward expression is often anger, frustration or rage, but the inward symptom is irritability or a sense of overwhelm,” Djossa says.
8. Consuming More Sugar And/Or Starchy Food
For new parents experiencing increased appetite, increased sugar and carbohydrate cravings can be common, according to Ream. “When you think about it, sugar serves a purpose for those experiencing a mood disorder," she says. "Sugar provides a quick dopamine response that makes us feel good."
9. Difficulty Breathing
Hyperventilation is a sign of perinatal depression and anxiety, according to UNC School of Medicine's Center for Women's Mood Disorders. This is something to take really seriously since this symptom could be associated a number of potentially dangerous health issues.
10. Increased Heart Rate
Like difficulty breathing, this issue is associated with many different health issues. But if you’re experiencing increased heart rate, don’t ignore that symptom because whether or not it’s associated with a perinatal mood disorder, you should make sure you’re OK.
Fatigue is a common symptom of pregnancy, which is why it can often be overlooked as a sign of a perinatal mood disorder.
“If you’re noticing that you’re not feeling better with all of your best efforts, seek help,” Ream says, before explaining that all of these symptoms can come and go.
“Someone with mild symptoms may be able to will themselves through physical symptoms like lethargy, but for more moderate or severe perinatal depression, ignoring symptoms can often make them get worse over time,” Djossa says.
The good news is that you can get help and develop coping skills so that these symptoms can be managed without significant issue.
Nausea is another symptom that is frequent in pregnancy, particularly early pregnancy, but can also be a sign of a perinatal mood disorder. So if you’re feeling nauseous more often than usual, be sure to tell your doctor during your visits. It could be unrelated to a perinatal mood disorder, but it’s a good idea to make sure.
“Some women have several factors that put them at risk for prolonged anxiety and depression, while others may not have a family history of mood or anxiety disorders,” Djossa says. And to give your doctor a complete picture of the state of your health, mentioning symptoms like nausea can help them determine how to help you, especially if you have other risk factors.
Hypersomnia is marked by excessive tiredness and, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, it’s more than just feeling tired because of lack of sleep or sleep that’s interrupted. People with hypersomnia have difficulty waking from deep sleep, feel disoriented, and may fall asleep while at work or during conversations. This can lead to serious consequences for people taking care of children or trying to take care of themselves during pregnancy.
If you find yourself shaking, trembling, or twitching, you could be experiencing a symptom of a perinatal mood disorder. And if you are unable to take part in simple, routine tasks, Djossa says it's time to seek help.
15. Poor Concentration
Djossa says that, as a therapist, she focuses on teaching the skills new parents need to cope with symptoms, that way when they do arise they are equipped to know how to deal with them. So the sooner you notice that issues with concentration, it’s best to get help so it doesn’t interfere with your life in harmful ways.
A Sleep journal study revealed that some new moms experience terrifying dreams involving their children that can lead to anxiety while they’re awake. It can also lead to interrupted sleep with further impacts their mental health. Some may even avoid sleep due to nightmares. If you find yourself constantly checking on your infant, you could be responding to anxieties experienced while having nightmares, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about these behaviors.
17. Hot Flashes
A study in Fertility and Sterility detailed why some pregnant people and new parents experience hot flashes. Since they’re a symptom of perinatal mood disorders, it’s important to be aware that experiencing hot flashes regularly can be a sign of a serious issue.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.