By Connie Matthiessen
You only glanced at the headlines on a local tragedy, yet you find yourself weeping. A sappy movie that should have made you cringe with embarrassment makes you nostalgic. With barely any provocation, you find yourself barking at your partner. Pregnancy is an emotionally volatile time, so it's no surprise that you're on a roller coaster. Hang on and don't worry. You're not crazy, and it isn't permanent. Mood swings are a normal part of pregnancy.
What causes mood swings during pregnancy?
While sudden shifts in mood during pregnancy can be traced to fatigue, physical stress, and changes in metabolism, hormones are a major cause of seesawing emotions during this period. After you conceive a child, your body is flooded with pregnancy hormones, including estrogen and progesterone. Hormone shifts, which are most dramatic between the sixth and 10th week of pregnancy and in the final weeks before your baby is born, can significantly affect your brain chemistry -- and your moods.
Hormones aside, pregnancy is bound to trigger intense emotions -- both positive and negative. You are experiencing a major life change, and such transitions are usually accompanied by emotional upheaval. Even if you are overjoyed to have a child, there may be moments when you mourn your loss of freedom or your exclusive relationship with your partner. If you are facing financial pressure, relationship problems or job instability, you are likely to be worried and distracted.
Some women have trouble accepting their changing bodies; others find that their physical discomfort makes it difficult to sleep, which adds to their feeling of disorientation. Your partner's reaction to the pregnancy will also have an impact on your moods and level of stress. If he feels jealous of the baby, or isn't as supportive as you'd like, you're likely to find it harder to remain upbeat.
The mood changes may be more extreme if you're single. Not everyone going through pregnancy has a partner. If you've decided to have the baby without a partner, the concern about being a single mother can make you feel stressed and isolated.
What can I do about my mood swings?
It may help to realize that your mood swings are a normal part of pregnancy, like morning sickness and an expanding waistline. In addition, there are some simple steps you can take to minimize the intensity of your mood swings -- and help you put them in perspective:
- Stay as healthy as you can. Nurture yourself with lots of sleep and a healthy, wholesome diet. Becoming rundown and ragged will only make you more vulnerable to shifting feelings.
- Exercise has been known to lift moods. Check with your doctor about what exercise is best for you, and try to work in exercise at least every day.
- Pamper yourself. If you can, take a trip with your partner, visit an old friend, or join a prenatal yoga class. Purchase a couple of flattering maternity outfits. (Secondhand stores are a great place to find low-priced, gently used maternity clothes.)
- Check in with your partner. Make regular time for each other before the baby comes and do all you can to nurture this important bond. If you can, take that vacation you've been talking about. If you are having serious relationship problems, schedule time with a couples counselor right away. Don't fool yourself into believing that everything will get better once the baby comes. In fact, the new baby is only going to add to the pressure on your partnership.
- If you're single and you don't have relatives or friends you can call on, consider joining a support group for pregnant moms. Check with local hospitals, public health clinics, or health care organizations about when they meet.
- Look for kindred spirits. "Isolation is something you should avoid at all costs," says San Francisco psychotherapist Leah Seidler. "Even if you aren't a group person, this is the time to join a support group or take a prenatal class." Seidler encourages women who don't have a partner to find a friend or close relative who is willing to provide special support before, during, and after the birth. Doulas -- women trained to provide prenatal, labor, and postnatal care -- can also serve in that role for women who can afford to hire someone.
- Talk with your doctor about feelings of depression, especially if they last for more than a couple of weeks. It's important to treat depression in pregnant women when it occurs. Sometimes medications are necessary, and your doctor can help you find a treatment that is safe during pregnancy.
Women with a history of depression are at especially high risk and should talk with their doctors about this issue early so they can work pro-actively. Many women are especially susceptible to depression after pregnancy as well. This is called post- postpartum depression, a condition that needs medical attention.
If you feel overwhelmed by anxiety, anger or feelings of sadness, or if these feelings persist for more than two weeks, you should talk to your practitioner to see if you may be suffering from depression. Your doctor can help you find ways to get back on a more even keel or refer you to a counselor if necessary.
Murkoff, H. et al. What to Expect When You're Expecting. Workman Publishing.
American Pregnancy Association. Mood Swings During Pregnancy. http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy/health/moodswings.html.
National Institute of Mental Health. Depression. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/depression.cfm
Interview with Leah Seidler, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker practicing in San Francisco.
National Women's Health Center. Postpartum Depression. http://www.4woman.gov/faq/postpartum.htm