Many new parents feel anxious about their new role and experiences and responsibilities. But when we live with post-natal anxiety, our levels of anxiety can boil over and begin to negatively affect our lives.
The Whirlwind Of Pregnancy And Birth
In the whirlwind of pregnancy and birth, we sometimes forget how traumatic it can be and what a huge change it is to our life.
Pre-child(ren), we’re often relatively in control of our lives. We tend to be free to nip to the shops for some milk or go and meet a friend for coffee on a whim.
Post-child(ren) everything is different. For very little people, babies seem to need a huge amount of ‘stuff’ and it occupies space in every room. The costs of keeping everything going stack up. We can no longer go out without either asking someone to look after our child(ren) or man-handling a buggy. Rather than being in control of when we sleep, we’re at the beck and call of our little one (who has yet to grasp the concept of night and day).
If that wasn’t enough, our hormones are all over the place, further affecting how we feel.
Some of us have a traumatic birth. As well as the psychological effects, our body is put under a phenomenal strain. It can take a long time to recover.
We might have adopted a child, be a partner, have used a surrogate or something else. Post-natal anxiety can affect us whether we physically carried our child(ren) or not. We’re still going through a huge change. Some of us will have witnessed the birth of our child(ren) and even if that went smoothly, it can still be a traumatic experience.
A lot is going on – it’s no wonder we feel a little wobbly at times!
What’s It Like To Live With Post-Natal Anxiety?
When we live with post-natal anxiety, we often become overly concerned about the wellbeing of our child(ren). This could include visions, dreams, or ‘gut feelings’ that something awful has or will happen. Worries that seem perfectly rational to us (but are described as irrational by those around us) can swarm our brain. Panic attacks can become regular visitors. Our annoyance and irritability ramp up (not helped by sleep deprivation). We might feel constantly shaky, frequently become breathless, and often have heart palpitations. It could feel like we’re often on the verge of a heart attack.
We might start to avoid the things that increase our anxiety. This could include other people being near or holding our child(ren), social situations, or even leaving the house. So we cancel coffee dates, skip baby groups we planned to go to and eventually might stop leaving our house altogether.
Sometimes post-natal anxiety can make us constantly worry about our child(ren) being or becoming unwell. We might obsessively check their temperature, panic at every cough or sniffle and watch them while they sleep in case they stop breathing (which means that we become even more sleep-deprived). 111 or the GP phone number might fast become our ‘most called’ numbers and we might start seeing A&E staff more often than we see our friends.
Living with post-natal anxiety can be all-consuming. Although most new parents have some anxieties, are probably sleep deprived, and may have moments where they don’t understand how such a small human can be quite so loud, post-natal anxiety takes it to a whole new level.
Who’s Affected By Post-Natal Anxiety?
Around 13% of mothers in the UK are affected by anxiety either while pregnant or a year after birth. In 2017/18, between 49,219 and 73,828 people experienced mild to moderate perinatal depression and anxiety. In the US, least 1 in 10 Dads experience depression or anxiety related to the arrival of a new baby.
Risk Factors For Post-Natal Anxiety
- Family history
- Our environment
- How smoothly the birth went
- Our previous experiences (for example, if we’ve previously had a stillbirth this could contribute to our anxiety)
- Previous mental health history
- Hormonal changes (in both those of us who give birth and those who are partners or guardians)
- Financial worries
- Our relationship(s)
- Previous use of drugs or alcohol to cope with life
- Our child(ren) being unwell
- Going through another major life change at a similar time to having our child(ren) (eg. starting a new job or moving house)
- Struggling to bond with our child(ren)
- Lack of sleep (something very common when we’re a new parent/carer!)
- If those of us giving birth have post-natal anxiety or depression, it can almost double the risk of our partners developing post-natal anxiety or depression, too.
Signs Of Post-Natal Anxiety
By knowing the signs of post-natal anxiety, we can look out for them in ourselves and in our loved ones.
Signs of post-natal anxiety include feeling constantly irritable, frustrated and snappy, feeling sad, crying for seemingly no reason, or feeling stressed. We might struggle to bond with our child(ren) and worry about them and our relationship with them constantly. Our concentration and motivation can be affected. We might experience physical symptoms such as losing or gaining a significant amount of weight, aches and pains, struggling with digestion or having heart palpitations. To cope, we might start to drink more, abuse drugs, start fights, take risks or behave impulsively or recklessly.
These signs apply to both the person who’s given birth and our partners. They do not make us bad people. But they are a big warning sign that things are less than okay.
The guilt of any post-natal mental illness can be astronomical. We feel as though we ‘should’ be happy because we have this amazing new addition (or additions) to our lives. But we might be struggling to bond with them and find that everyone keeps saying ‘you must be so happy’ rather than asking how we are.
We don’t choose to have a mental health problem. It’s not like we pick it off the shelf in a supermarket and think ‘hmmm I fancy adding some anxiety to my life’. It is not our fault and there is no shame in being unwell.
Anxious Or Anxiety?
It can be so tricky to work out whether what we’re feeling is ‘normal parent anxiety’ or ‘post-natal anxiety’. As a new parent, we might start to wonder whether our feelings are to be expected, or whether we need to reach out for some more support.
Figuring out where the line is can be tough because there’s no hard and fast rule and we’re all different. In general, if we’re struggling to cope (whether we think we have post-natal anxiety or not), it’s worth reaching out for some extra help.
Striking a Balance With Visitors
In the weeks after we bring our child(ren) home, it can be a fine balance between seeing friends and family but not being too overwhelmed.
When people visit, unless we know them really well, we probably feel that we need to look somewhat presentable. Sometimes that takes a lot of energy, especially if we’ve gone through a difficult birth. We might also feel as though we have almost ‘entertain’; make multiple cuppas and get the ‘posh biscuits’ out.
As nice as it is to see our friends and family, sometimes all we want is to sit in our PJs, watch TV, care for our child, and nap.
At the other end of the spectrum are those of us who say no to almost everyone who offers to visit. This is especially common when we have post-natal anxiety. We might feel anxious about a whole range of things that come with people visiting, and it might feel easier to isolate ourselves.
Unfortunately, isolating ourselves can negatively affect our mood. The longer we isolate ourselves, the more daunting socialising might begin to seem. We could start feeling lonely, isolated, frustrated, scared, and sad.
Striking a balance can be hard. We could decide that for every day seeing people, we need one or two quieter days. To begin with, we might choose to restrict our visitors to people we’re really close to. Close friends probably won’t mind us being in our pyjamas and will know where our kettle and biscuit tin are, so we don’t have to keep getting up.
Friends, Family, And Partners
There’s no shame in asking our friends, family or partner for support. They’re likely to be all too happy to lend a hand, especially if they know that we’re finding things tough.
When thinking of things people can do to help, our mind often goes blank. Some of the things we could ask for help with include:
- A chat. This could be on the phone if a visit feels too much. Sometimes we need a bit of mindless chatter about absolutely nothing. At other times we really need to talk things through.
- Meals. Friends and family batch-cooking meals that we can pop in the freezer can mean one less thing to think about.
- Washing. How does one tiny human create quite so much washing?! Could a friend do a load or two for us?
- A nap. Friends or family might be happy to come and chill in our lounge while we have a nap in case our little one wakes up or needs something.
- Communications. If the messages/letters/cards/visit requests that we’re getting are beginning to feel too much, we could ask our partner to manage the majority of them for us.
- Sense-checking. This one’s especially important if we have anxiety. Having a few people who we can ask ‘am I being overly-anxious or are these rational concerns?’ can be incredibly helpful.
- Food shopping. It can take ages and involve a lot of decisions. Anxiety often makes it harder. If we don’t want to hand our food shopping over entirely, we could ask someone to sit with us to do an online shop.
- Being ‘us’. When we have a child, we very quickly go from being ourselves to being ‘child’s caregiver’. This can be really hard sometimes. It can be tough to remember who we are. Chatting about a soap we’ve been watching for ten years, or our interests can help us to feel more ‘us’. Our friends could share links with us that they think we’ll be interested in, book gig tickets for 12 months’ time, or send us messages saying ‘this made me think of you’. It can all help us to maintain a sense of identity.
When supporting someone with post-natal anxiety, one of the best things we can do is ‘reach in‘. ‘Let me know if you need anything’ is a lovely sentiment, but will often be met with ‘thanks’, and that’s about it. It can be hard to ask for help especially when we’re feeling anxious. Reaching in and saying something like ‘would you find it helpful if I cooked a few meals for you’ can make it much easier to accept help. Even if our loved one has a freezer full of meals, a direct, specific offer can open up the conversation and make it easier to ask for something else we need.
Post-natal anxiety can put a strain on all of our relationships. But open, honest conversations can make it much easier to iron out any problems more quickly.
Places that offer support
Asking for support can be tough. We might feel a strong sense of shame and worry that we’re being ‘stupid’ or ‘weak’. Some of us might be scared that our child(ren) will be taken away from us.
The support offered to us could include talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy or interpersonal therapy, medication, or guided self-help. If we are prescribed medication then our prescriber should ask if we’re breast feeding to ensure that the medication we’re prescribed is safe for both us and our child(ren).
Finding it hard to cope and asking for some extra help doesn’t mean we’re ‘weak’. It just means that we’re finding it hard to cope and need some extra help.
We could reach out to our friends, family or partner. Sometimes it’s easier to chat with someone unrelated to us. There are several professionals, organisations and communities we could turn to if we need to. These include our midwife or health visitor, GP, PANDAS Foundation (Pre- And Post-natal Depression Advice and Support), our local mental health team, or a helpline. Family Action UK also offer support in some areas.
If we need urgent help then we should always ring 111, 999 or take a trip to A&E.
Although we have a child (or children) to look after, we still need and deserve to look after ourselves. Our self-care will probably look a little different to what we’re used to, but that doesn’t mean that we can forget about it altogether.
Basic self-care; cleaning our teeth, keeping doctor’s appointments, taking prescribed medication, washing occasionally, eating about the right amount and getting some fresh air every now and again are all vital when it comes to maintaining both our physical and mental health. We might find it helpful to put together a wellbeing plan that we can follow.
We’re all different and we will find different self-care-based activities helpful. We might be someone who’s mental health is infinitely better if we can escape into a book for twenty minutes each day. A walk around the block each lunchtime could help us to manage our anxiety. Trimming our beard or wearing make-up might seem silly and insignificant, but if they make us feel better about ourselves, then why not?
Having a child (or children) doesn’t erase our own needs. We matter, too.
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