Psychological and Social Risk Factors for Perinatal Depression + Anxiety

Words  by our Practice Director and Clinical Psychologist, Alysha Coleman

Perinatal anxiety and depression can be experienced by all types of mothers regardless of age, experience and cultural background. For some women, mental health difficulties during the perinatal period are due to biological and hormonal changes. For others, an interaction between biology, psychological and social risk factors can lead to depression and anxiety. Below we describe some of the identified psychological and social risk factors:

  1. A history of Depression, Anxiety or mental health difficulties

Having a pre-existing history of depression or anxiety can make you more susceptible to developing perinatal depression or anxiety. It’s therefore especially important to work on boosting your wellbeing and mental health as early on as possible so that you’re prepared for the changes that lie ahead.

  1. Experiencing a Major Stressor, change or loss in the past 12 months

Women who have also had to deal with stressful events, changes or loss such as moving house, the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or financial worries tend to be at greater risk of perinatal mental health challenges.

  1. Negative thinking styles

We’re all prone to negative thinking styles, it’s simply the way our minds operate. Women who tend to think in the following ways during pregnancy and following birth tend to be more at risk of experiencing perinatal anxiety and depression:

  • Emotional reasoning (e.g. “If I feel anxious it must mean that something is going to go wrong”),
  • Black and white thinking
  • Catastrophising (e.g. believing that forgetting one thing will lead to a disastrous impact on your unborn child), and
  • Mind reading (e.g. “They will think I’m not good at this”)
  1. Perfectionism

Having high, unrealistic expectations of oneself and needing control and order can make it difficult to adjust to the experience of pregnancy, childbirth and early parenting especially difficult. The experience of fertility, pregnancy and babies aren’t fully within our control and hence, we aren’t able to adhere to the high expectations our mind has set up. Some examples include:

  • Expecting one’s body to stay small when hormonal processes send your body signals to store weight and water.
  • Wanting a natural birth but the circumstances of your labour and your baby require an emergency caesarean.
  • Expecting to have a calm baby when your baby cries frequently due to digestive issues.
  • Expecting your body to bounce back after birth when in reality it needs time to heal and you barely have enough energy to take a shower let alone exercise.

Psychological flexibility and resilience are tools that can protect against this difficulty in adjusting.

  1. Lack of support

Whether the lack of support is social, emotional, or practical; any sense of isolation or not having someone to lean on during the tough times can amplify the anxiety, stress and low mood that is common in the perinatal period. This is particularly a risk factor if a new mother has a partner who is not supportive.

  1. A history of emotional abuse or attachment difficulties

Emotional abuse or challenges with our own parents has an impact our own attachment style and interpersonal patterns. This can in turn influence the way we think and behave during our own parenthood journey.

How to find help

The good news is that there are effective methods for helping expectant or new mums with Perinatal Depression and Anxiety. A good starting point is to talk to a GP, obstetrician, or psychologist. If you’d like to work with us to build skills to help navigate this period of significant change, then contact us to make an appointment.

Useful resources that expand on this topic can also be found at The Gidget Foundation, Beyond Blue and Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Australia.