Depression and Unexpected Pregnancy in Single Christian Women

Depression and Unexpected Pregnancy in Single Christian WomenYou’re a single Christian woman – with a baby on the way.  You didn’t plan it this way, but it happened.  Did you ever think you’d find yourself in this position? Probably not.  Ever.  You had other plans… other dreams…other goals. Now you find yourself in a place that’s so hard and dark and scary that it feels like absolute rock bottom. Perhaps you find yourself crying all the time or unable to even lift yourself out of bed. Maybe you feel as if no one – not even God – perhaps even especially God – can love you because of your situation.  Because of the mess you feel you’ve made of your life.

If that’s how you’re feeling, it’s very possible that you’re struggling with clinical depression. 

The Link between Depression and Pregnancy

Depression is a serious psychiatric condition that causes a range of difficult emotional and physical symptoms. Emotionally, you may feel persistent sadness, anxiety, or irritability. It’s common to feel as though everything is hopeless and that no one can help you.  You may find it difficult to concentrate or make even the simplest decisions. Intense feelings of guilt and worthlessness may be hard to shake.  As if those aren’t enough, you may also find yourself tossing and turning all night, lacking sufficient energy to get through each day, and overeating or not feeling like eating anything at all.

You may even be wondering if life is worth living.  Despite your faith, thoughts of ending it – for the sake of others, yourself, and even your unborn child – may be creeping into your thoughts more than you care to admit. You may even be toying with a suicide plan…

While many people are familiar with postpartum depression – the depression that some women experience after giving birth – depression during pregnancy seems to receive much less attention. However, it’s estimated that nearly 1 out of every 5 women experience symptoms during pregnancy [1].  Combine that already high risk with the added pressure – not to mention the almost inevitable guilt and shame – of religious beliefs that don’t align with having a child out of wedlock – and your risk of depression is even higher.

Depression is a complex condition. Regardless of what some well-meaning believers might tell you, it’s not caused by being weak in spirit, a lack of faith, or a deficiency or flaw in your character. The disorder is triggered by a host of factors, which usually include some combination of biological, genetic, situational, and environmental triggers.

For example, it’s long been believed that many – if not most – individuals who suffer from depression have imbalanced levels of brain chemicals that help to regulate mood.  The primary chemicals – known as neurotransmitters – are serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Antidepressant medications target these brain chemicals with the goal of bringing them back into balance.

Other factors that increase the risk of developing depression include:

  • Being the victim of past physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Experiencing major life events (positive or negative), such as a pregnancy or the death of a loved one
  • Having a family history of depression
  • Feeling isolated from family and friends
  • Abusing substances, like alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescription drugs

In addition to the factors listed above, women with an unplanned pregnancy are at higher risk for prenatal depression than those with a planned pregnancy [2]. Furthermore, these women are approximately twice as likely to experience postpartum depression as well [3].

Effects of Prenatal Depression

The adverse impact of clinical depression entails much more than just feeling blue. In fact, it causes changes within your body that affect both you and your unborn child. Numerous studies have concluded that depression during pregnancy can delay prenatal growth, trigger prematurity, and lead to low birth weight. Additionally, the newborns of depressed mothers actually show elevated levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and lower levels of dopamine and serotonin, which help maintain a healthy mood [4].

However, prenatal depression may have an impact that goes far beyond the prenatal and newborn periods. For example, recent research suggests being depressed during your pregnancy increases the chance that your child will have depression by age 18 [5]. Depressed mothers are also at higher risk for substance abuse. The use of alcohol or drugs to self-medicate symptoms during pregnancy can have a very serious – and even irreversible – impact on the child. Alcohol abuse during pregnancy, for instance, can cause fetal alcohol syndrome, which is marked by brain damage, impulse control problems, and impaired memory.

Depression affects you as well. Negative statements play in your head like a broken record, and that can have a significant effect on your emotional well-being and self-esteem. Symptoms can strain your relationships, making it hard for you to have healthy interactions with your parents, siblings, friends, and other loved ones. Depression can make everything feel overwhelming, including the demands of work or school.  Tardiness and absences can result in lost wages or failing grades. Depression is also a major risk factor for suicide.  A botched suicide attempt can have serious emotional and / or physical consequences.  A successful suicide leaves a wake of devastation that will impact your loved ones for years to come.

Troubling Negative Emotions

As a single, pregnant Christian woman you’re likely feeling a range of negative emotions. It’s normal for people to believe they’ve committed a horrific sin against God, other people, or even themselves. You may feel shame, guilt, self-loathing, and sadness because you:

  • Believe you’ve disappointed God and / or your loved ones
  • Have acted in ways that go against God’s teachings
  • Believe you can’t handle this responsibility by yourself
  • Harbor frustration or anger against those who may have hurt you

It’s not normal, though, to let those feelings interfere with living. Consider Psalm 139:14: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Not only is your unborn child a testament to God’s greatness; you are, too.

Tips to Overcome Depression

Depression is not a punishment for getting pregnant.  And it certainly doesn’t have to last forever or even for a long time.  There are many things you can do to get your life back on track and find joy once again, including:

Seek treatment for your depression. Don’t wait for symptoms to pass on their own. Untreated depression can negatively impact your unborn child as well as cause both emotional and physical problems for you.  A mental health professional can evaluate your symptoms and, together with you, come up with a treatment plan that will likely include therapy.

While there are many different therapeutic approaches to depression, one of the most effective is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  It helps you identify and change negative, irrational beliefs and thought patterns that are contributing to your depression.  Antidepressant medication may also be recommended, depending on the severity of your symptoms. Some, but not all, antidepressants can harm an unborn child.  This is why it’s crucial to carefully consider both the risks and potential benefits of medication in order to determine whether it’s warranted.  Medication is generally not recommended as the sole treatment for depression, and should be used in conjunction with therapy.

Ask God for forgiveness. God will forgive you, no matter what wrong you think you’ve done. Talk with your pastor or a spiritual counselor. He or she will guide you as you ask God for forgiveness. If you’re Catholic, consider attending confession.

Start exercising. Regular exercise – particularly aerobic types of exercise such as brisk walking or swimming laps – has been shown to have a very positive impact on depression.  In fact, studies have shown that it’s at least as effective as taking an antidepressant when it comes to alleviating symptoms.  Remember those mood-enhancing brain chemicals mentioned earlier?  Exercise helps your body release more of those, which in turn improves your mood and overall sense of well-being.  That’s why runners often talk about the “runner’s high” they experience after a long run.

Commit to making exercise part of your daily. Many pregnant women can safely do low-impact types of exercise like walking. Prenatal yoga may also be a good choice. Research shows that yoga reduces depression symptoms in pregnant women [6]. A certified pregnancy yoga instructor can lead you through poses that are safe for you and easy to adapt as your body changes. Yoga will also teach you how to breathe in a way that lowers your stress levels. Always consult with your obstetrician or primary care doctor to make sure exercise is safe for you.

If you’re a single, Christian woman with an unplanned pregnancy, it may feel as though you’re alone. You’re not. David, Paul, Jonah, Job, and many others all experienced times of incredible doubt and despair. Place your hope in God, as they did. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3: 5-6).

You can make a significant positive impact on your depression symptoms simply by taking action. In fact, the mere act of doing something about it has a positive effect in and of itself, because it 1) gives you a sense of hope and 2) empowers you.  If your depression is interfering with your life, don’t hesitate to contact a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional today. As a child of God, you deserve a life of joy – and being a happy mother (both during and after your pregnancy – is one of the greatest gifts you can give your unborn child.