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Forget PMS: pregnancy is a new league of hormonal histrionics. Here's how to cope…
The science bit
Experts have long known there’s a strong connection between hormones and chemicals in the brain, and the incredible surge of hormones that occurs during pregnancy can have a dramatic effect – not least on your levels of serotonin, a major mood-affecting chemical.
But psychologist/professor Harriet Gross says there’s no point in cursing them, because you need these hormones to keep your pregnancy going.
There’s human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG), which floods your system to keep your embryo firmly implanted in the uterus – but known side effects include nausea and tiredness. Then there’s progesterone and oestrogen, both of which are vital – however, they often trigger unrest in serotonin levels, ushering in moodiness and tearfulness.
“Add to this hormonal turmoil the fact that so much is changing in your life – your body, relationship, financial situation, new role as a mum-to-be – and it’s hardly surprising that wild mood swings are normal when you’ve got a baby on board,” says Prof Gross.
An up-and-down situation
For many of us, the first few months of pregnancy are the toughest, at least when it comes to dealing with our emotions.
“Feelings of anxiety and depression are often at their highest at the start of pregnancy,” says Prof Gross. “Fear of the unknown coincides with a big influx of hormones at this stage.”
The second trimester is often the ‘high’ of the rollercoaster ride. Nausea passes, hormones settle down and we may even begin to feel blissfully happy. This is when we’re most likely to bloom.
Then the final trimester arrives, when we become large, uncomfortable and, let’s face it, a bit scared of childbirth. All that extra weight can also make us feel distinctly unattractive, which doesn’t really help. To top it all off, those pesky hormones start going wild again.
Surviving the ride
So how are you meant to cope with all these fluctuating moods? Prof Gross stresses it’s important not to beat yourself up.
“The best thing you can do is be easy on yourself. Go with the flow as far as possible. Try and take regular time out, as physical tiredness often contributes to feeling more emotional,” she says.
One of the most common triggers of depression is when we fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others.
“Pregnant women tend to worry about everything, whether it’s getting the ‘right’ pram or eating the ‘right’ food,” explains Prof Gross. “Then there’s all the contradictory advice you get, which can lead you to feeling unconfident, uncertain and stressed.”
Whatever you’re worrying about, it’s important to talk to those who are close to you and explain why you might be moody. It really does help to talk: the more your partner understands, the more supportive he can be – and the easier it will be to get around that rollercoaster.
If you reach rock bottom
Sometimes, pregnant women feel more than just tearful or fed up. As Anna, from Newcastle, NSW, mum to three-month old Jed, recalls: “I’d been told about the ‘emotional rollercoaster’, but for me it was an understatement. I felt utterly depressed all of the time, lethargic, and couldn’t stop crying. In the end, my GP referred me for counselling, which certainly helped. But the depression didn’t really lift until after Jed was born.”
Anna was suffering from antenatal depression, a condition that affects at least one in 10 women in pregnancy.
“Symptoms vary, but can include feelings of deep sadness that never seem to lift. Some women find it persistently difficult to get up in the morning and face the day, or stop wanting to see friends, and find sleeping difficult,” says Prof Gross.
If you feel like this, it’s extremely important to get support. Your midwife, obstetrician or GP will be able to help you. “Remember, you’re not alone, and there really are ways to help you through this,” Prof Gross stresses.
Will my emotions affect my baby?
Studies have shown that chemicals released by your body when you feel sad or happy can be passed via the placenta to your baby. “But as long as most of the time things are going along smoothly, a few days or hours of gloom aren’t going to have any impact,” says Prof Gross. And worrying about it will only make things worse.
Her advice? “If you are feeling tense, try to nip it in the bud. Regular exercise, like walking or swimming, can really help relieve stress.” This will have a positive impact on your body and your baby.