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It Turns Out Postpartum Depression is Different From 'Regular' Depression

Photograph by Getty Images

The darkness that descended after my son was born felt different.

For starters, I couldn’t sleep. In the past, when I’d been depressed, I slept and ate more. Now, despite my body being exhausted and needing to heal from a difficult birth, my brain wouldn’t shut off for even the brief windows when my son was sleeping. I felt electrified—and not in a good way.

Mornings were the worst. During other bouts of depression, my mood was best in the morning, plummeting as the day went on. But now, there was something about the daylight that caused hopelessness to rise up around me. Despite the yellow warmth of the rays splashing across my wood floors. Despite the beautiful, healthy child I cradled in my arms, and the love that was snowballing between us. It was raw, gnawing and terrifying.

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Now a new study published in Trends in Neuroscience suggests a reason why my postpartum depression and anxiety felt distinct from episodes I’d experienced before. It turns out that beyond the logistical differences of having a new baby to care for, perinatal mood disorders may also look different from a neurobiological standpoint.

According to study co-author, behavioral neuroscientist Jodi Pawluski, "Motherhood really can change the mother, which is something we often overlook. And we forget about examining the neurobiology of maternal mental health and maternal mental illness, particularly anxiety.”

The differences shown in the fMRI images indicate that women suffering from postpartum depression could benefit from treatments that target these anomalies.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the study showed that the brain activity of women with postpartum depression varies from the brain activity of depression sufferers who aren't parents. Authors of the study noted a difference in the way the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for emotions, responds.

When exposed to emotional cues, the brains of people with generalized anxiety and depression often show an increase of activity in the amygdala. In contrast, new mothers show a decrease of activity in the amygdala when exposed to emotional cues that aren't related to their babies. The differences shown in the fMRI images indicate that women suffering from postpartum depression could benefit from treatments that target these anomalies.

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The study concludes that "there is an intricate interplay among maternal mental health, the mother–infant relationship, and the neurobiological mechanisms mediating them that needs to be the focus of future study" and that further research needs to be done to determine if current treatment of perinatal mood disorders is adequate, or if it could be improved upon.

And anything that can further understand postpartum depression, should be considered a win in every mom's book. Pawluski sums it up best when he writes, "[Parenthood] is a life changer. It's fantastic, terrifying, amazing, frustrating, exhausting, thrilling, and everything in between. It is not always a happy time, and we need to understand that, talk about it, and figure why it can trigger mental illnesses in so many women. If we can improve the health and well-being of the mother, we will improve the health and well-being of the child and family."

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