Having a new baby is an incredibly stressful event. Suddenly you find yourself worrying about things that might have never entered your mind before- like germs in public, drivers on the road or thoughts of something terrible happening to you or your baby. While most women have these worries after their baby is born, they are usually short-lived (fleeting) and go away on their own. For some women though, the thoughts linger, and their worry starts to impact on how they function in daily activities. These are the hallmarks of postnatal anxiety.
This feeling of anxiety might have been there for some women even before their baby was[KH1] born, or this might be the first episode of anxiety for that person. Either way, the feelings of dread, panic, being on edge and racing thoughts can be very scary. The symptoms of anxiety can include:
Panic attacks (a racing heart, palpitations, shortness of breath, shaking or feeling physically ‘detached’ from your surroundings)
Persistent worry, often focused on fears for the health, wellbeing or safety of the baby
Development of obsessive or compulsive thoughts and/or behaviours
Abrupt mood swings
Being nervous, ‘on edge’, or panicky
Feeling constantly tired and lacking energy
Withdrawing from friends and family
Being easily annoyed or irritated
These symptoms on their own are distressing but a key feature of anxiety is avoiding people, places or things that trigger the anxious thoughts. This is when anxiety really starts to interfere with people’s lives as they are unable to do things that they need to do, or previously were able to do.
Some examples of ways that the avoidance part of anxiety might show up for some people include:
Not allowing anyone else to care for your child because you feel no-one will care for them as well as you do.
Having very rigid routines or schedules and feeling distressed if things do not go to plan.
Constantly checking on your baby – even overnight which can impact on your own sleep.
Trying to keep everything at home in perfect order – even at the cost of your own rest or wellbeing.
Avoiding places that increase your fear like parks, playgrounds, shops or play centres.
Reducing your social contacts to minimise exposing your child to people who you don’t know well or have not vetted.
These are some of the strategies that people engage in to try to reduce their worry but ultimately, they only serve to make things worse.
Anxiety is more common in our community than depression (even though depression is spoken about more) affecting one on four people in their lifetime. You may be more likely to experience anxiety after the birth of your baby if you have had anxiety previously, or if there is a family history of postnatal anxiety (some women will experience both postanal anxiety and depression simultaneously). Although it is a very scary time for women, we know that both conditions can be treated very successfully. For some, this might require medication (there are some that are safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding), but for many people, therapy with a perinatal psychologist/ counsellor can be very useful. Available psychological treatments for both anxiety and depression are shown to be very effective.
Although the experience of postnatal anxiety is very scary, it is important to talk to someone about your thoughts and fears. People will often hide their anxiety from friends and family, because they feel that they are going crazy. However, being able to talk to a trusted and supportive person could be the first step in getting support. You could also talk with your GP or contact a postnatal support line to seek support.