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Coming to grips with depression and anxiety during pregnancy

by Melissa Jane Cook
How to Cope with Anxiety and Depression During Pregnancy
Reading Time: 4 minutes

What should be the most wonderful time of a mother’s life can quickly descend into inky blackness, fringed by episodes of psychotic madness, irrational thoughts and an overwhelming whirling spiral as you lose control of your sanity.

Sometimes the baby blues become far more frightening than a mere couple of weeks of tears and uncertainty. We delve into this harrowing imbalance with Lauren Shapiro, who urges others to speak out.

Lauren Shapiro was simply ecstatic to be having a third baby. However, the joy of carrying this bundle of love soon turned against her into a nightmare of epic proportions, overshadowing what should have been a magical time.

What the experts say

Dr Bavi Vythilingum, Specialist Psychiatrist states, “Many people have heard of postnatal depression. What they don’t all know is that in psychiatric circles there are moves to relabel it perinatal distress: ‘peri’ as the condition can occur at any time both during and after pregnancy; and ‘distress’ because it can take the form of both traditional depression or heightened anxiety.”

Vythilingum continues, “PND is a recognised medical condition caused by hormonal fluctuations, as well as psychosocial stressors associated with the huge change of life that comes with having a baby. Approximately one in three women (and their families) in South Africa suffer from PND.”

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Anxiety, depression and stress in pregnancyLauren says, “Nobody speaks about PND, so it continues to tear apart lives and families across our nation. But PND is treatable and curable.”

Her first two pregnancies were absolutely blissful, so it was assumed that the third would be just the same.

“I was so excited to be pregnant again. But I was not prepared for how different this pregnancy was going to be. I began to feel different. Not joyful. Not content. I kept telling myself that the strange feelings and emotions will pass. But instead of improving, it got worse. I realised something was very wrong when the bottom fell out of my world and I was no longer able to care for my family and, most importantly, myself,” she explains.

Lauren was under the impression that the first trimester is always a challenge and feelings of depression and anxiety were to be expected. As time went by, she descended into a deeper, darker space and fear took over her life.

“I was petrified and didn’t know how to verbalise what I was thinking. I was unable to tell people how I felt,” she shares. “Once the dangerous thoughts and terrifying visions started clouding my mind, I realised that I was unable to sustain this journey and had to seek help.”

“My husband was a superstar through all of this and he realised I was burdened with something unspoken. I was incredibly reluctant to seek professional help because I was afraid of the doctors, the drugs and the judgement. But with my husband’s encouragement, in the end I knew there was no other way.”

Lauren was desperately clutching to a slice of sanity. Being completely consumed by paranoia, fear, uncontrollable sobbing, panic attacks and dangerous thoughts of killing her children, she sought help. She was hospitalised for a week, about four months into her pregnancy and underwent thorough testing.

Treating the illness

“My psychiatrist wanted to rule out any factors that could possibly be causing this anxiety,” Lauren adds. After more than a week of observation and an intensive drug regimen, she was told she that a chemical imbalance was causing her depression. “As I lapped the hospital corridors, I could feel the judgement as if it was being branded on my forehead like a scarlet letter.”

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“I had no cast, no crutches, no IV stand trundling alongside me. And yet I was ill. It was a daily fight against the disease. I was released after slowly coming to grips with myself and the glimmer of hope that I could possibly return to my family – my two precious little boys who did not understand their mother’s illness and my husband, who wore many hats with such devoted love during this harrowing time.”

Although Lauren underwent intensive therapy and medication on her long road to recovery, there was a real fear that the disease would rear its ugly head again post-birth. She is determined to get her story out there as an advocate for those suffering to get help.

“There is a serious stigma regarding those who experience postnatal depression – I saw and felt it first-hand. There is nothing to feel guilty about. I was ill. It would certainly not be my first choice to become so isolated and fearful of such a beautiful creation happening within me.”

Lauren was incredibly lucky to have the support of her husband and believes that they are stronger now than ever before. “I believe communication is the most important tool and this whole experience certainly showed me who my real friends were. My hubby arranged a roster so I was never left alone and I had friends popping in just to be with me.”

Pregnancy Anxiety - BabyYumYum

What to do if you feel depressed

Nobody knows you better than you do. If you have an inkling that something is off kilter and you just know that you don’t feel right, there is help out there. Don’t be ashamed, reach out.

Vythilingum says, “In 2017, PNDSA was incorporated into the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). SADAG was established in 1994 to serve as a support network for the thousands of South Africans who live with mental health problems.

“SADAG is at the forefront of patient advocacy, education and destigmatisation of mental illness in our country. The more we talk about mental illnesses like PND, the healthier our society will become.”

Lauren concludes, “Fear has a voice, but it should never be louder than your own.” She hopes that promoting awareness of PND means other women will not have to suffer as she did. To this end, she has written about her experience in a book titled Through the Window: How I Beat PND, available in hard copy and e-book from her website.

Lauren concludes, “Fear has a voice, but it should never be louder than your own.”

If you relate to Lauren’s story, do not hesitate to reach out to a family member, a support organisation such as SADAG or your physician.

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