How To Identify And Navigate Postpartum Depression

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 06/27/2022

For those who have never experienced it before or never known someone who has experienced it, you might be wondering: what is postpartum pregnancy?

The Latin word, postpartum, means nothing more than “after giving birth.” So, let’s discuss the meaning of postpartum depression.

What Is Postpartum Depression?

Postpartum depression is a very common condition that afflicts many women after childbirth. Throughout pregnancy and during childbirth, emotions can be higher than usual, and hormonal levels are in flux. Of course, the “light at the end of the tunnel” is often the born baby. Therefore, postpartum depression can be a scary and disappointing condition to experience.

The term postpartum depression is sometimes heard in conjunction with “baby blues syndrome.” This perhaps acknowledges the spectrum in which postpartum depression can vary from case to case.

Postpartum Depression, The Body, And The Mind

Chemically, postpartum depression tends to be an imbalance within the neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are otherwise known as the brain’s messengers, and without proper functioning, neurotransmitters can cause drastic changes in mood and behavior.

For women with postpartum depression, the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine are imbalanced. In common speech, serotonin is often regarded as the “happy chemical.”  In other words, without balanced serotonin and norepinephrine, an individual might have trouble with mood stabilization and experience low energy levels and low motivation.

Emotionally, postpartum depression usually insinuates feelings of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. It can be a strange sensation to those who do not expect it. The nostalgia for being pregnant, rather than enjoying the baby's presence, might feel alarming or even awkward.

As previously mentioned, the severity of postpartum depression symptoms can vary on a spectrum, often categorized chronologically as follows:

  • Prenatal Depression:This references the feelings of sadness and confusion that begin occurring during pregnancy. Prenatal depression can be especially distressing because as the body begins to change and typical expectations of excitement and happiness are not met, the entire pregnancy can be stressful for emotional reasons outside of the “usual.”
  • Postpartum Depression:This references the time frame after the baby is born. A woman can experience sadness and confusion due to similar personal expectations of excitement and happiness for the baby’s arrival, not being met. “Postpartum” can also be often interchanged with the phrase “postnatal” -- they both refer to post-pregnancy. Still, postpartum typically is used about the mother and postnatal about the baby.
  • Perinatal Depression:This references the feelings mentioned above, both during pregnancy and afterward. For many women, perinatal depression can be severe because the hope of feeling “normal” or “happy” can be extremely disappointing at any point during an extended period of time.
  • Baby Blues: Many pregnant women, both prenatal and postpartum, can experience mood swings, restlessness, anxiety, infrequent energy levels, or low concentration. The “baby blues” is another word for circumstantial depression. However, it is not as severe as prenatal, postpartum, or perinatal depression because the symptoms do not last as long.

Statistics For PPD

According to the American Pregnancy Association, 70%-80% of pregnant women can experience baby blues after the pregnancy is over, and 1 in 7 women will experience postpartum depression.

In the United States alone, this amounts to approximately 600,000 women experiencing postpartum depression every year.

Symptoms Of PPD

Postpartum depression symptoms can manifest in a litany of ways, but some standard symptoms of postpartum depression are seen across the board.

  • Feelings of…
    • Hopelessness
    • Guilt
    • Anger
    • Fatigue
    • Emptiness
    • Panic
    • No appetite
  • Behaviors such as…
    • Restlessness
    • Crying
    • Irritability
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Aloofness from family and friends
  • In the body…
    • Weight fluctuation
    • Insomnia
    • Obsessive thoughts

Additionally, women with postpartum depression can feel a disassociation from self, a lack of connection with the baby. They can sometimes struggle to take care of the child by the expected means.

Postpartum depression was acknowledged by the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (DSM 5) in 2013 as Bipolar Disorder or Depression with Peripartum Onset, with the criteria of a Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) associated with giving birth, and the time thereafter.

Signs of postpartum depression can be more or less obvious depending on the person it afflicts. If feelings of guilt and shame are the most prevalent, a woman might feel the need to mask the postpartum depression with a “happy face” for the sake of seeming “maternal.”

Though it might not always feel this way, postpartum depression does not make a person less of a mother or a valuable human being. Postpartum depression is not necessarily caused by anything specific, as the causes are generally unknown, so it can, in fact, affect anyone.

Postpartum Psychosis

In addition to the symptoms listed above, signs of postpartum depression can appear as postpartum psychosis.

This is the rarest form of postpartum depression. It includes visual and audible hallucinations, delusions, manic and depressive behaviors, fear, loss of inhibitions and typical characteristic behaviors, and general confusion. An individual experiencing postpartum psychosis should seek help as soon as possible.

Postpartum psychosis can be treatable by a medical professional. For additional help, please seek assistance from a licensed medical professional. Like postpartum depression, the causes of postpartum psychosis are unknown, but a person with a predisposed genetic history of mental illness may be more at risk.

Birth Trauma

Again, the causes of these conditions are medically unknown. Speculation for at-risk women is the best way to assess how likely a person may experience these conditions. Still, besides a family history of mental illness, birthing trauma can be a potential factor.

This can include either what actually physically happened during the birthing process or the emotions felt during and afterward. Labor can be traumatizing, regardless of how many times a woman has experienced it prior. Planning for a day like that is essential, but it does not always go as expected in many cases.

Unexpected Realities

Like how the birthday can stir up unexpected events and emotions, postpartum depression can also lead to unexpected realities.

A frequent question that arises with postpartum depression is: how long does postpartum depression last?

Unlike the baby blues, which usually dissipates after 1-2 weeks post-childbirth, postpartum depression is commonly acknowledged after experiencing these feelings 6 weeks post-childbirth. For some, it can last longer.

Another unexpected reality: postpartum depression can extend to any childbearing woman.

Postpartum depression is when a person goes from being pregnant to no longer being pregnant. Therefore, postpartum depression can affect women who experience abortions, stillbirths, or miscarriages. In many cases, these women might seek assistance immediately after the fact but can continue to struggle with the condition long after. Similar feelings of guilt or shame can internally discourage these women from asking for help, but it is common for this circumstance to occur.

Likewise, feelings of depression or irritability can extend to the partners of these women. Regardless of whether the end of the pregnancy was planned or not, these feelings can arise and be, in some cases, even debilitating. Handling these feelings when an individual does not feel as though they are entitled to the emotions can make the experience much more taxing. Often, that is also a reason why an individual in this situation might not seek proper assistance.

PPND And MDD

Perhaps you’ve heard of sympathy pain. It can often occur between couples when one is pregnant, and one is not. Physical and psychological symptoms are experienced by the non-pregnant partner. It is a neurological response from the brain and can extend into feelings of postpartum depression.

PPND is short for Parental Postpartum Depression. Mothers and fathers alike can experience postpartum depression, though it is not commonly diagnosed in men as it is in women. In these circumstances, the man will experience a similar major depressive disorder associated with the pregnancy or childbirth.

Remember that male post-partum depression also exists and should be treated with the same level of respect and seriousness. If the baby's mother is experiencing postpartum depression, it is more likely that the father will experience post-partum depression. So, if you have these feelings, be sure to reach out to your partner and speak openly about the way you feel because you may be able to help each other through the fray.

Preventative Measures And PPD Management

Though there is no given way to prepare for PPD or prevent it, there are generic steps an individual can take to ensure they are taking care of their physical and mental health.

For example, getting ample sleep, maintaining a balanced diet, and exercising when possible are great ways to increase health across the board. Additionally, an individual nervous about postpartum depression should discuss the condition with their partner, their doctor, and their nurses.

For those looking to manage their postpartum depression, take this short, free, and confidential online quiz to assess your potential needs. However, keep in mind that this is not meant to replace an official diagnosis, and instead as a first step that can help you learn about your symptoms and direct you to resources that may help you.

If you think you are experiencing any previously mentioned condition symptoms, including but not limited to postpartum depression, seek professional assistance and screening for proper treatment and management.

In the meantime, many mothers seek support via family, friends, and can often find support groups with women experiencing similar symptoms and conditions.

Most importantly, it’s good to be patient and kind to oneself. Postpartum depression is common, and ample help can be available for those who seek it.