I’ve written about having anxiety before, but I’ve not written about how I got it. I’ve been in some situations in the past which triggered a distinct anxiety-reaction, but with the music and the yoga, I’ve always reverted back to normal, back to a non-anxiety state.
But having L was a reasonably traumatic event for me: being induced when you’re about to go into labour results in a not so fun labour and delivery which is a big shock to the system. I did not cope well. But in addition, having spent the past 10 months throwing up and scared witless because I was pregnant after a previous loss, I was already in a heightened level of anxiety. Turns out having a previous miscarriage and experiencing a traumatic birth are big trigger factors for post-natal anxiety.
In the months after having L, I wasn’t my normal self, and this will have almost certainly contributed to the ending of the relationship with L’s father. Of course he should have been supportive and not done the things he did – but it never occurred to either of us that there might be something wrong with me and that will have contributed to what happened.
Because you hear about PND, post-natal depression (post-partum depression, PPD, if you’re state side or down under), you don’t hear about post-natal anxiety (PNA, PPA – post-partum anxiety), it’s not well known at all. I hadn’t heard about it until recently, and I’ve been treated for the last couple of years for anxiety. But it’s real, unsurprisingly any big event which involves massive hormone and neurochemical shifts is going to mess about with your system a bit more than you’d like.
I didn’t want to leave the house, I was scared about being alone with L when her father was at work, scared about not being able to sleep due to her feeding every few hours. I was scared I’d drop her, scared her father would drop her, scared I wouldn’t wake if she cried in the night, scared I’d forget her somehow, scared I wouldn’t love her (even though I clearly already did), scared about the myriad of crazy outcomes my brain cooked up when I wasn’t with her, scared I wouldn’t be a good mother – all sorts of irrational fears that are far more than what is considered normal. It felt like I was going insane.
Most new mothers have all of these fears, plus many extra. It’s entirely normal to worry about everything. A lot. But these fears aren’t supposed to take over your life, they aren’t supposed to stop you sleeping, they aren’t supposed to continue and continue and never let you go.
In my case the fears were amplified and when my relationship did start visibly breaking down, they escalated into full scale panic attacks. This means not being able to breathe, stomach pains, chest pains (to the point where you think you’re having a heart attack), migraines, muscle cramps, complete inability to think rationally and the increasing terror that you’re not going to be ok. This scared both myself and my ex, for all his faults in the breakdown of our relationship, his intention was not to hurt me or make me ill. Seeing that he was doing both added additional strain which meant the anxiety continued to escalate.
In the many months after he left things did get a bit easier, the stress relating to the breakdown of the relationship eased, well the source of the anxiety was gone, I had the space to think. But now I was looking after a baby by myself, I had to pull myself together because I didn’t have a choice. So I internalised the anxiety and told myself it would sort itself out.
But the anxiety didn’t go away, I just discovered I was stronger than it was, that looking after L was more important than the crazy thoughts in my head. I told myself to take one moment at a time, to keep breathing and to take one day at a time. It was still there, and all the fears were still there, but the lid was on. Just.
I bought a house, a safe and stable place to bring up L, and I went back to work. I focused on raising my daughter, and continued to tell myself things were fine. I told myself I would be OK, that it was all better this way and that there was nothing wrong with me at all. After all, I wasn’t depressed so I couldn’t have PND. There wasn’t anything wrong.
But there was, I still felt like I was going nuts.
I yelled at a friend, I got incredibly stressed in a job I love (which typically does not stress me out), continued to have panic attacks on occasion, and hid in the bathrooms to calm down. I got frustrated with friends, attempted to continue playing in an orchestra I wasn’t happy in, exhausting myself in the process, and continued to isolate myself in the evenings and weekends. That’s not normal behaviour and it’s certainly not normal me.
After much thinking and a great many conversations with some good friends, I saw a counsellor, who helped me see that I work better when I’m proactive, and I am happier and less anxious when I’m in control. And so I got proactive, I took control and I went to the doctor to get some help.
I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), initially with the assumption it would resolve itself, but now it’s with the assumption of simply an annual check-up to make sure the treatment is working for me as it should. I have medication which works. It’s not anxiolytics, they make me fuzzy – and being in sole charge of a small person means I can’t be fuzzy in any respect. But the medication I have controls the panic, they stop the crazy bit of anxiety and help me cope with it. The irrational thoughts I have – well I’m strong enough to cope with those and rationalise them. They haven’t gone anywhere, but they don’t escalate as much as they used to and I can control them better when they do.
The more you cope, the better you cope next time, and the better you get the time after that. Until you feel like you can cope with life, with being a mum, with doing your job, with going out and about, taking part in life.
I don’t isolate myself deliberately now, not like I used to after having L. It’s more that my head is a busy place to be, and I need space to breathe and keep all the threads together. I cope, I do better than cope, I’m beating the odds and my life is fine. I just needed a bit of help. And space from all the noise.
Post-natal anxiety is just as common as post-natal depression, in fact it’s thought to be more common [link 1, link 2], it’s just not well known. It can trigger GAD (generalised anxiety disorder), as happened with me. It can trigger or worsen OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). It can trigger panic attacks, phobias, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It needs to be treated in some form or another for the sufferer to be ok.
Anxiety is normal after having a baby, having it to the level I did is not normal. If you experience anything like what I felt then you should get help, whether that is CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), counselling, or taking the medication route like I did. It’s not normal and there are people who can help you feel better. There are ways to stop the crazy thoughts, there are lots of people who can help. And that first person to help you, is you – or if you’re really lucky, your partner.
But you will be OK, you have to be, because you’re in charge of a small person (or people) who you do love more than anything else in the world. You have to be OK for them, and that means you need to look after yourself sometimes too.
Some links to help those who are worried for themselves or others:
A good article about PNA: Why do women get postnatal anxiety
Symptoms to look out for: The symptoms of postpartum depression anxiety
A Fact Sheet which you might find of use: Post Natal Anxiety (pdf)
Australian Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE): – This has some good and very supportive information that our lovely NHS does not currently have.
Anxiety UK: Post natal anxiety