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In a review published in Trends in Neurosciences, psychologists discuss the unique neurobiology of postpartum depression (PPD) and anxiety.
“Motherhood really can change the mother, which is something we often overlook,” says Jodi Pawluski, behavioral neuroscientist, University of Rennes. “And we forget about examining the neurobiology of maternal mental health and maternal mental illness, particularly anxiety.”
The investigators examined the neurobiology of PPD by comparing the MRI scans of women with PPD to MRI scans of people with major depression who had not given birth. The scans of new mothers with PPD showed distinct patterns, such as having a less activated amygdala. In people with major depression or anxiety, the amygdala, a part of the brain involved with emotional experience, is typically over-active.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a text that gives the standard criteria for mental health conditions, lists PPD as “perinatal depression,” a subset of major depression. However, though one out of seven new mothers has symptoms of postpartum anxiety, that disorder is not in the DSM-5. Because mothers with postpartum anxiety may not be depressed, their condition can be overlooked.
About 10 to 20 percent of women will experience depression and/or anxiety during pregnancy or after child birth, yet there are only about 20 papers that present research information on these conditions. This is unfortunate since postpartum mood disorders also affect a newborn’s well-being.
New mothers struggling with a mood disorder are more likely to be impatient with their child, and may have difficulty forming a bond with the baby. “The depressed mothers can be more intrusive or irritated by their infants, but they can also be more detached or withdrawn, and this is also seen with anxiety postpartum,” says Pawluski.
Since women are expected to welcome and embrace motherhood, those with postpartum mood disorders are often reluctant to discuss their feelings, so may not get the help and support they need. “[Postpartum] is not always a happy time,” notes Pawluski. “...we need to understand that, talk about it, and figure out why it can trigger mental illnesses in so many women.”
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