Talking openly about postnatal depression (PND) is less of a taboo than ever before – but we rarely hear about perinatal anxiety, the official term for anxiety in pregnancy and the first year post-baby.
Often, perinatal anxiety and PND go hand-in-hand. It’s common for both to be experienced at the same time.
Think of it this way: perinatal anxiety is like PND’s highly-strung, shaky sister – the one who struggles to sleep, or searches Google frantically every time her baby stops moving.
Maybe her thoughts are consumed by intrusive ideas that something’s wrong with her baby. Maybe she has panic attacks, or grinds her teeth, or has a pit in her stomach that she just can’t explain.
Maybe she’s simply feeling nervous, on edge, out of sorts, not quite herself. Or she’s feeling much too restless, perhaps behaving in an over the top, manic fashion. Maybe she’s simply terrified, and full of dread, most, if not all, of the time.
When you put it like that, it’s certainly worth talking about, wouldn’t you say?
TV presenter and mum-of-1 Anna Williamson is kicking off the conversation– because she knows that shaky sister all too well.
She’s dealt with Generalised Anxiety Disorder for most of her life. For years, it was kept under control with anxiety medication, but reared its ugly head once she came off her prescription when she was pregnant.
Here, she opens to MFM about her experience, and how she’s doing 16 months after the birth of her 1st child…
‘The anxiety started straight away – and blighted my pregnancy’
“I found out I was pregnant when I was only 2 weeks,” Anna tells MFM. “So, it was very very immediate for me. “Obviously I was really excited – we were trying – but straight away I felt anxious, like, ‘BOOM, we were off’.
“It’s only with hindsight that I see how bad it really did become, and unfortunately it really did blight my pregnancy.”
After a few unpleasant weeks of morning sickness, Anna’s mood was generally pretty low and fretful – which seems pretty normal, and understandable, right?
But it wasn’t the thought of the typical pregnancy milestones – like scans, for example – that made her feel worried, scared or nervous. It was something far, far more intrinsic…
“The main cause of my anxiety was that I wanted the baby to come out alive, and also people saying to me, ‘You’re never gonna sleep again’.
“The massive trigger for it would be when people – people who meant well – used to say, ‘Ooh, you can kiss goodbye to a good night’s sleep for the next [however many] years.’
“As someone who has always struggled with insomnia and sleep deprivation as a trigger for my anxiety disorder, that was literally like waving a red flag to a bull.
“When you’re pregnant, all anybody ever tells you is, ‘You’re never gonna sleep again.’ The more people said it to me – in jest – the more it just put the fear of God into me.”
‘It’s like someone pulled out my electricity socket’
“I would say I was permanently terrified,” Anna continues. “I was just very highly strung, I was very overwrought, I wouldn’t sleep, I was sort of manic, if that makes sense.
“It was like someone had just pulled out the electricity socket. I was running on an empty tank of petrol. You know it’s gonna conk out at some point, but you literally run on the dregs.”
Anna also found that she wasn’t really feeling anything deeply – describing the ‘dark fog’ we so often hear from women who’ve experienced PND.
“I also felt very detached from everything and everybody,” she says. “The anxiety is a feeling of constant dread like something’s bad gonna happen, but you’re not sure what.”
She would also get panic attacks – a feeling of dizziness and lightheadness she calls the “physical outlet” for the anxiety.
And the anxiety followed her into the early months of motherhood – after she gave birth to her son Enzo, in what she told MFM was a birth that went completely off-script, and left her feeling “let down”.
“I hated the first 3 weeks of motherhood; it was awful,” she confesses. “I felt so ill. I just didn’t know what the hell I’ve done to my life. That was everything – the depression, the birth trauma, just kicking in.”
‘I put it down to natural worries about having a baby’
Here at MFM HQ, we know pregnancy and the early newborn days are an overwhelming time for all of us.
It’s natural to have the odd panic or worry – or even days where you’re feeling low and unsure about everything.
So, how do you when it’s not ‘just the hormones’? How do you know when too much is enough? The key, we think, is noting how much the anxiety is taking over your life.
Are these symptoms that are affecting you day-in, day-out, with no end in sight?
Admittedly, it’s hard to recognise it in yourself – even Anna struggled to define what was happening to her, while it was happening.
“Everyone chalks it up to hormones and doesn’t take it seriously,” she explains. “Now, anxiety can happen because of hormones, or vice versa.
“But I knew it felt like my anxiety disorder, though I put it down to natural worries about having a baby.
“Looking back, I now know what I was experiencing was my depression, and my anxiety had completely returned.
“Everyday I woke up with a feeling of dread. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to everything [to come]. Days were feeling like weeks and, for me, that’s a really big symptom – where you’re not finding much joy in anything.”
‘Anxiety’s bloody awful – but it does pass’
Anna’s anxiety certainly did take over her pregnancy, and the first month or so of motherhood – there’s no doubt about it.
But, as they say, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Little Enzo’s now 16 months old, and Anna’s head-over-heels in love with being a mum.
Things now, in comparison, she says, are “unrecognisable”.
“If I could have fast forwarded to how I feel about motherhood now when I first had him, I would’ve been OK,” she says.
“Now, I just love it. I feel like I’ve got a good work-life balance. He is my priority. We have a great bond, and he’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
“For someone who’s been so blighted by postnatal anxiety and depression, I can’t believe I’m saying that. I just want other people to know it’s bloody awful, but it does pass.”
Perinatal anxiety – what to do if you think you might have it
Reading this and thinking, ‘OMG that’s totally me’? Firstly, just know you’re not alone in what you’re feeling.
We’d recommend checking out mental health charity Mind’s guide to signs and symptoms, and following their advice on what to do next.
It’s always a good idea to speak to your GP about any concerns you have, and they can advise you on what mental health services are available in your local area – and suggest other treatment options.
And finally, as tricky as it is, opening up to someone in your life about your thoughts and feelings is SO important.
If you’re not sure where to begin, you can always start by sharing your story on our super-friendly forum.
Anna’s book, Breaking Mum And Dad: The Insider’s Guide To Parenting Anxiety, is out now
Images: Instagram/Anna Williamson