A qualitative analysis of feelings and experiences associated with perinatal distress during the COVID-19 pandemic

Jones, Katie; Harrison, Virginia; Moulds, Michelle L. and Lazard, Lisa (2022). A qualitative analysis of feelings and experiences associated with perinatal distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 22(1), article no. 572.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-022-04876-9


Background: Rates of perinatal mental health difficulties (experienced during pregnancy and the 12-months postpartum) increased worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the UK, anxiety and depression were estimated to affect more than half of perinatal women during the first national lockdown. However, little is known about women’s qualitative experiences of distress. This study aimed to extend published quantitative findings resulting from the same data set (Harrison et al., Women Birth xxxx, 2021; Harrison et al., J Reprod Infant Psychol 1–16, 2021) to qualitatively explore: 1) the feelings and symptoms associated with maternal perinatal distress during the COVID-19 pandemic; and 2) the associated sources of distress.

Methods: As part of an online survey during May 2020, 424 perinatal women responded to an open-ended question regarding a recent experience of distress. Qualitative data were analysed using an initial content analysis, followed by an inductive thematic analysis adopting a realist approach. Data were explored in the context of self-reported perinatal anxiety and depression symptoms.

Results: Initial content analysis of the data identified twelve distinct categories depicting participants’ feelings and symptoms associated with psychological distress. Despite the high rates of probable depression in the sample, women’s descriptions were more indicative of anxiety and general distress, than of symptoms traditionally related to depression. In terms of the associated psychosocial stressors, a thematic analysis identified five themes: Family wellbeing; Lack of support; Mothering challenges; Loss of control due to COVID-19; and Work and finances. Unsurprisingly given the context, isolation was a common challenge. Additionally, psychological conflict between maternal expectations and the reality of pregnancy and motherhood, loss of autonomy and control, and fears surrounding family health, safety, and wellbeing underlay many of the themes.

Conclusions: This study presents an array of feelings and symptoms expressed by perinatal mothers which may be useful to consider in relation to perinatal wellbeing. Furthermore, our data highlights several common sources of distress, including multiple COVID-19 specific factors. However, many were related to more general perinatal/maternal experiences. Our findings also point to considerations that may be useful in alleviating distress in pregnancy and early motherhood, including social support, realistic perinatal/maternal expectations, and support for those with perceived perinatal trauma.

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