It’s normal for new mothers to worry. After all you are suddenly responsible for a tiny life that requires your constant care and attention. You have no instruction manual and lets face it there’s plenty to worry about what with feeding, nappies and sleepless nights, there’s lots to get the hang of. But when does worry over caring your little one turn into something more?
I remember the first weeks at home with my first daughter Id never felt so stressed. Five weeks in NICU with staff always around and now here I was home alone responsible for a tiny baby. It was hard, really hard. I found that worry started to be a daily companion. I worried when we went to weight clinics, she hated being undressed, exposed and so she screamed, she screamed so much that weighing her often become impossible. I started to dread going, convinced that the healthcare professionals would think it was me, that I was a bad mother or doing something wrong. But worry turned into more. I would shake, feel sick, my legs would turn to jelly and my heart would pound to the point where I hated going with every fibre inside of me.
Then I worried about her being touched, picked up or handled by others. Whenever we went out because she was so small people would stop us everywhere and prod and poke her. But my worry turned into more, anxiety would grip me, crutch at my throat and I would want to leap on them, scream at them to leave her alone. I would hold on to her for dear life, I wanted to run away to keep her safe. It wasn’t just strangers, even with family I struggled and I found myself wanting to spend time away from everyone. I was terrified of her getting ill with anything, and would get really stressed if anyone I knew was ill or if someone with a cold spoke to us.
So I worried about everything, her feeding even though it was fine, her crying because she did a lot, her sleeping checking her all the time because there was no longer any machines to bleep if anything was wrong. I worried if she was meeting her developmental milestones even though she was way ahead despite being premature. I worried if she got ill and when I was ill I worried who would care for her. But it was more than worry, because it started to consume me and invade my thoughts. I became terrified of everything and my need to protect her was overpowering and all consuming.
After the birth of my second daughter I found the anxiety increased because now I had two little ones to worry about. I found going out stressful, the getting them ready, worrying if we visited people or went out for the day. Holidays became nightmares after the stress of packing and getting everything ready exhaustion would hit me and being away from the familiarity of home I would worry about everything and anything. I would then get ill and worry because felt I was ruining things for my family which only made me more ill and so the cycle continued. I felt pressure to be perfect, for them to be perfect and for our home to be perfect. I would worry about them at school, or the park that something bad would happen to them and when they got ill I just couldn’t cope. So my anxieties grew and merged with the PTSD I also had and the the panic attacks started and life began to unravel.
I didn’t know it but I was suffering with PTSD and perinatal anxiety. So what is perinatal anxiety?
Perinatal anxiety can exhibit many of the same symptoms of other anxiety disorders such as:
- Anxiety or fear that interrupts thoughts and interferes with daily activities
- Intrusive thoughts that are difficult to stop or control
- Panic attacks – feelings of extreme fear and panic that are overwhelming and feel difficult to bring under control
- Constantly feeling irritable, restless or “on edge”
- Tense muscles, feeling sick, dizzy, chest pains and heart palpitations
- Finding it difficult to relax, unable to a fall/stay a sleep at night
But there is more to perinatal anxiety a woman may also:
- Have deep anxiety or fear that stops her going out with her baby
- Anxiety or fear that something bad will happen to her baby causing her to check on her baby constantly
- Fear of anyone holding, touching or caring for her baby
- Feeling overwhelmed with caring for her baby to the point she needs constant reassurance
- Feeling scared to be alone with her baby
- Convinced that there is something wrong with her baby
- Fear that she cannot care for her baby, feeling scared to touch hold or be with her baby.
Yes perinatal anxiety goes beyond worrying. It takes over, consumes, till even normal daily tasks can cause fear. Worrying about your baby is normal, but when a mother becomes convinced that harm may come to her baby, or is afraid to let her baby be touched by anyone else then worry has become something more. Or it maybe that a mother is so anxious that she doubts everything she does or she may be so scared that she believes she is not able to care for her own baby and wishes others to do so.
They tell me to be strong but they do not understand what it feels like to be weak
What can help support a woman with perinatal anxiety?
- Cognitive behavioural therapy is often used. It allows the person to challenge their thoughts and worries and see/think about them in a different way.
- Counselling can also be of benefit especially if there has been trauma from a difficult birth or time in a NICU unit.
- Mindfulness is a another approach that helps us to become aware of our thoughts and feelings and see how they are unhelpful to us. It helps us stand back from our thoughts and see patterns. Over time we can notice when our thoughts are taking over and helps us realise they do not control us.
- Medication too can help lessen the physical symptoms of anxiety and provide much needed respite to aid recovery.
Everyone is different and will have maybe all or a few or different symptoms which can make it hard to get help. But if your feeling anxious or scared reach out for help.
What if someone you love is struggling with perinatal anxiety, what can you do to help them?
We cannot underestimate the importance of listening. Fearful thoughts can overwhelm and often the person can become consumed by them. Offering a listening ear and offering time to talk through worries can often lessen the fears and help reason out thoughts and feelings. Even just a cup of tea can mean the world to someone.
Practical help too will be appreciated, housework, meals and shopping all need to be done, but anxiety can make these daily tasks feel almost impossible. Just a small offer of help can big a big source of support. Getting to appointments can be very stressful too and just having someone there for moral support can really help. One thing that can really help with perinatal anxiety is sleep so helping out so a mother can get more sleep can make a real difference.
Watch your words! “What are you worried for, just be positive, but you have a healthy baby, don’t worry about things it will be ok, or try to relax” are some of the things we may be tempted to say. But these comments can do more damage than good. Encouragement, acknowledgement, commendation and reassurance will offer much needed support in even the darkest of times. If all it took was to ‘try and relax’ then think how easy it would be to recover!
The recovery from perinatal anxiety maybe a long and difficult journey, but it is possible. Seek help, speak to your GP, midwife or health visitor. Take each day slowly. Be gentle with yourself and don’t expect too much of yourself. Just like any illness recovery takes time, help and support. If you need medication use it to help you while you recover. Lean on those that love you and accept their help. Talk about your feelings if you can and look for local support groups when your ready.
But most of all, hang on. You are a wonderful mother, and you are loved, the road may be bumpy at present but it wont always be so. Im in recovery and there are many others too, the days are brighter, new memories being made and each day it gets easier and I get stronger. So hold on, because one day, you will be too.