Parenthood Can Be Tough But It Shouldn’t Be Painful: Hidden Signs of Parental Depression and Anxiety

This article is adapted from my weekly BBM Global Network and Tune In Radio show that shares a title with this column, MD for Moms. The show in question was an interview with Dr. Daniel Singley, where I switched gears to cover fatherhood issues.

Being a parent is never easy, can be overwhelming, and almost always comes with some degree of sleep deprivation, so how can anyone know when they have crossed over into the realm where they would benefit from treatment by a mental health specialist? I am often asked this question or variations, so let’s review several subtle signs that may suggest a mom or dad is suffering from depression and/or anxiety.

First and foremost, I always remind people that parenthood may be tough, but it should never be painful.

While this is not an exhaustive list and can’t replace a formal diagnostic consultation, it does cover some overlooked signs of parental anxiety and/or depression that I commonly focus on when doing an evaluation in my practice. 

    1. Fun
      Can you play on the floor and laugh, really giggle and let loose with your kids? Can you make funny faces or play peekaboo and take genuine pleasure in your child’s response? If you have an infant, can you cuddle and relax while holding them? For older kids, can you watch a ballgame with your son and enjoy it because he is telling you all about the players? Can you dress up like a princess or prince and let your daughter do crazy things with your hair and play along with her? There needs to be joy in parenting - if there isn’t, rather than feeling guilty or placing blame, we instead need to recognize that mom or dad is likely suffering from depression or anxiety and needs help to feel better.  
    2. Driving
      Do you find it incredibly anxiety inducing to drive a car despite formerly considering it an every-day activity? I ask this question often and consider it an important indicator for  some degree of depression and/or anxiety. Why? Because driving is an activity where we are in control, and if you don’t feel confident in yourself and your abilities, and if you feel you aren’t good enough and can’t be trusted, then you won’t feel comfortable behind the wheel.
    3. Body Image
      Are you incredibly hard on yourself recently, such that perceived flaws in your appearance that didn’t bother you previously now make you cringe?  Women commonly express depressed mood through self loathing, which often manifests in food deprivation in an effort to re-exert control. Poor caloric intake further worsens mood and increases irritability. You are the most beautiful woman in the world to your children regardless of your weight, and your self image is distorted by your depressed mood, so take care of your mind and your body image will follow.
    4. The Starbucks Challenge
      Are you often angry or irritated? Imagine that you are on line at Starbucks without your phone - it’s a long line, and there is a slow barista, and someone in front of you starts paying in nickels - how do you feel? Are you able to control your frustration or do you find yourself jumping out of your skin immediately? Many people would be annoyed in this scenario, but ideally you can control your emotions and remain calm. If you can’t, that indicates a problem that likely plays out in other parts of your life: with your partner, your kids, friends and family, and at work. This can have negative consequences, so keep an eye out for excess irritability.
    5. Withholding                                                                                                             Does the thought of devoting time or resources to yourself cause anxiety? It is especially common for women suffering from depression to deprive themselves due to  a sense that they aren’t worthy of such things or that they don’t need it. If you are eschewing things that once gave you pleasure then consider whether you are inadvertently punishing yourself as a result of an un-diagnosed and untreated depression.

There are also the many more commonly referenced indicators of depression and anxiety that are not listed above that I consider when assessing a patient, including: How’s your sex life? Do you shy away from your partner’s touch, do you still have a sex drive, do you enjoy intimacy? Are you being social with friends and family? Are you exercising and going outside regularly? How’s your energy? Do you have the same get up and go as you used to?

Reading this and saying yes often? Know another mom or dad who might feel this way? It stinks - anxiety and depression are painful and dis-empowering conditions. Time flies by and you deserve to enjoy the fun and experience things as they are without the shadow of depression or anxiety dragging you down. Many treatments exist that can help relieve symptoms and allow you to get back to enjoying your life.

If you or someone you know and love suffer from depression or anxiety then reach out for help. There are several resources on my website, and you can also check the Postpartum Support International website for support groups, education and to find local providers.

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