Depression in pregnancy

Why am I experiencing depression in pregnancy? Why am I not connecting with my baby? 

People congratulate you, everyone is asking about your bump, maybe touching it and enquiring about the baby’s gender… You know you “should” feel happy, feel blessed and grateful. You know that many people are struggling to become pregnant. Yet you feel flat and depressed. Most likely you are also feeling guilty and shame. Because you “should” feel excited, right?

Symptoms of depression in pregnancy

Feeling low during pregnancy and depression in pregnancy is probably more common than what you expect. It is a hidden experience as many pregnant women feel guilt or sadness. It’s estimated to affect between 7% and 20% of pregnancies. Yet many will feel low, sad and simply not feeling pregnant or bonding with baby/babies without out it being diagnosed in the anxiety and depression category. 

The symptoms can be anything from feeling overwhelmed, confused, not “feeling pregnant” (as in how one think one “should” feel) to more severe experiences as compiled by NICE below:

  • Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problems at this time.
  • Women can experience anxiety disorders, including obsessive‑compulsive disorder (OCD), tokophobia (extreme fear of giving birth) and post‑traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Changes to body shape can be a particular concern for women with eating disorders.
  • Women with a severe mental illness such as psychosis, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are more likely to have a relapse (become unwell again) than at other times.
  • Severe mental illness may develop more quickly immediately after childbirth than at other times and can be more serious.

Why do we experience pregnancy depression?

It isn’t not fully understood why we get depressed. Even less so in pregnancy as physical factors, hormones, as well as our expectations and stigmas around mental health, can make it even more challenging to recognise the symptoms.

Some research suggests the prenatal depression can be caused due to “maternal increased levels of cortisol that have been associated with depression, anxiety and stress”. Also “inadequate nutrition and weight gain, increased alcohol consumption, substance abuse and smoking” are thought to be attributing factors.

“The quality of attachment and a woman’s relationship with her own parents is another important risk factor. For example, childhood abuse has been recognised as a clear risk factor for depression and anxiety specifically during pregnancy.” Another reason could be a lack of support from one’s partner.

Having said of all that, everything can seem completely “normal”. There may be absolutely no recognisable reasons why one might feel low, depressed or not having any sense of bonding with one’s baby/babies. 

Pregnancy yoga and prenatal depression

There is some encouraging research when it comes to yoga and prenatal emotional wellbeing. Some research suggests that:

“Yoga reduces anxiety, depression and pregnancy related uncomfortable experiences”. Besides, yoga can be safely used for pregnant women who are depressed, at high-risk. And “may be a viable approach to addressing antenatal depression”.

Anxiety in pregnancy

In Ayurveda anxiety is often associated with an imbalance of the air and space elements – or Vata Dosha. Because Vata Dosha is so quick to change (for everyone) this is always monitored during pregnancy. Ayurveda always aims to make sure Vata is in a balanced state for the specific individual. Apana Vayu (the downward movement of Prana) is the energy that is responsible for childbirth amongst other things. It is situated in the pelvis and will be affected during pregnancy. In Ayurveda, we will try to avoid anything that disturbs Vata – especially in pregnancy. If Vata is out of balance everything will start to get affected. So we try to find balance.

Getting grounding, slowing down, staying warm, being present in the body will all help to reduce Vata Dosha and its association with anxiety.

Learning to breathe and breath awareness is important to regulate Vata – and Prana.

If the mind is very busy we can practise meditations such as Antar Mouna (Inner Silence) where you watch the thoughts – without judgement and analysing. Yoga Nidra and guided meditations may also be supportive. Connecting to the physical body through yoga and touch can be helpful. 

In Ayurveda, there is an emphasis on oil massage for our general health and wellbeing.

Practising self-massage or going for a prenatal massage is not a luxury but an investment in your physical, mental and emotional health.

Depression in pregnancy

Depression from an Ayurvedic perspective has qualities of heaviness, dull, sticky and slow – all associated with deranged earth and water elements, or Kapha Dosha. It is Tamasic energy. In pregnancy the woman’s body is growing, she is growing a new human being/beings and a new organ; the placenta. The water element increases with the increase of plasma volume, amniotic fluid and potentially fluid retention or oedema. The changes in the body may also affect our digestions slowing it down which in Ayurveda is called Mandagni. 

Obviously, growing and expansion are normal. That is what a pregnant body is doing. But it is the excess that may manifest in the mind, emotions and energy rather than physical that can cause low and heavy feelings.

To get any excessive slow and heavy qualities of Kapha to shift we need to move dynamically, breathe, and be active. Sun salutation variations, flowing movements/vinyasas, strong standing poses create more lightness and ease. They also support the Agni or fire.

Deep breaths perhaps associated with movement, moving mudras, fluid arms help moving body, breath, energy and Prana. 

Pregnancy Yoga

Finding balance in prenatal health

In anxiety, we are all in our mind. Usually overwhelmed. So we need to move to shift the energy. Then we can focus on calming down and find stillness. Creating a routine is a great way to find stability. In depression, we are dull and heavy. We need to shift the energy and be more dynamic, changing our routine and move. 

In either situation, we can always focus on breathing. 

Our body breath and mind/emotions are connected. In yoga, we have tools and techniques to access either and all. For some, the connection to body through asana shifts breath and mind. For others the awareness of breath and learning to breathe shift how they feel in body and mind. And others access meditation and stillness through the mind which then affects body and breath. In yoga class, we can address it all.

Getting support for prenatal health

Depression in pregnancy, and any other time, is an important topic. I will share more posts on our mental and emotional wellbeing so please watch this space (or get the newsletter and get my updates on Facebook and Instagram). In Ayurveda digestion is key to our all over health and we will discuss this soon. Essential oils are also extremely powerful and I am looking forward to share my top oils and how to use them in another post. 

However, when feeling low or depressed please speak up, seek support, share your story. Be insistent that you get help from your GP, midwife or consultant. Get in contact with a support organisation or check out International Forum for Wellbeing in Pregnancy.

Want to explore pregnancy yoga? Online yoga here and about my classes and one-to-ones.

This articles has been extracted and rewritten from my Pregnancy Yoga Teacher Training Manual. Copyright Anja Brierley Lange. If you are a teacher and want to learn more about teaching yoga to pregnancy yoginis please have a look here.