Postpartum depression is, to this day, one of the most frightening experiences I have ever encountered. I was always the happy-go-lucky optimist in the family . . . the resilient one who repeatedly bounced back from adversity. My mom suffered major depression and my sister is bipolar. As I was growing-up, I watched them and wondered how their worlds could ever turn so dark. And then, it happened to me.
According to the American College of Nurse-Midwives, most women get a little tearful at birth. One in 10 go on to experience postpartum depression. The article available at http://www.midwife.org/ACNM/files/ccLibraryFiles/Filename/000000000659/Postpartum%20Depression.pdf gives more specifics, as well as some simple strategies to beat postpartum depression.
There are a lot of theories about the cause of postpartum depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are three general causes of postpartum depression. They divide it into physical, emotional and lifestyle.
There is also some link between postpartum depression and the hormone serotonin. I met a woman once who talked about having the more serious form of postpartum depression (postpartum psychosis) and her story was pretty convincing that there was some sort of reaction to the hormonal changes of postpartum.
Now, on to learned helplessness theory. The theory, simply stated, is that people can become helpless if they have little (perceived) control over their environment. According to psychologist, Dr Martin Seligman, that helplessness results in nearly identical symptoms to depression. I remember reading one study where they took control of lights away from people for a fairly short amount of time, and a large percent of the research subjects quickly developed most of the symptoms of depression (except for suicidal ideation.)
Anyone who has ever cared for a newborn knows that they are a little like having an alarm clock that goes off at all hours . . . sometimes hitting snooze works, sometimes it does not. Then there is bleeding and the challenges of establishing a milk supply. All, to me, are items that would lead to someone feeling "helpless."
When I first arrived at the theory, I wondered why I could find little (if any) research linking the two. Maybe it is because, as psychologist Dr. Chris Peterson recently pointed out to me, most of the founders of positive psychology were men. While men can experience postpartum depression (strengthening the idea that helplessness is part of the syndrome . . . not just hormones), I am doubtful that any of the fathers of positive psychology experienced this. In fact, according to an article on WebMD, 1 in 10 men do experience this . . . hmmm, sounds like the number I quoted (above) for women.
One in 10 is interesting, because it also correlates with something from Dr. Seligman's research. That is, about 1 in 10 research subjects become helpless even when they have some control over the environment - these were probably the most pessimistic of the subjects from the start.
If pessimism leads to learned helplessness and, further, to depression . . . then there are ways to help. There are positive psychology exercises specifically used to build optimism. So, while optimism and pessimism are partially inherited, the heredity only establishes a set point. Like weight, set points are not the only thing that determines what the scale reads.
I believe positive psychology coaching is a great adjunct to medical treatment for postpartum depression. We know a lot about helping people become more optimistic. Let's apply that science to our new parents!
I am optimistic that my positive psychology wellbeing coaching methods may be a match for many women (or support groups) who looking for strategies to improve their postpartum wellbeing. I am grateful for my own experience with postpartum depression - and my background as a Certified Nurse-Midwife who cared for thousands of postpartum women.
Cathy Hartt, RN, MS, CNM
Midwife of Changes Wellbeing Coaching Services