What does Postnatal Anxiety really feel like?

Postnatal anxiety (anxiety after birth) is often mentioned as a side effect or a package deal with postnatal depression. Some women – like myself – can experience quite severe postnatal anxiety (also called postpartum anxiety, shortened to PPA or PNA) without experiencing depression, which can make it harder to realise there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

In fact, I was quite surprised to find that the NHS website doesn’t even have a page on postnatal anxiety. It does have a page on postnatal depression, where anxiety is mentioned and a page on anxiety itself. Whilst I understand that medically they are considered two sides of the same coin, for new mothers they can mean very different things and people might struggle to make the connection. I was absolutely sure I wasn’t depressed, but it took me some time to come to terms with the fact that my anxiety wasn’t a normal part of motherhood.

I'm talking about what postnatal anxiety (postpartum anxiety, PNA / PPA) really feels like, how it affected me and how you can start to get help.

Life with a newborn can be extremely stressful for absolutely anyone, compounded by a lack of sleep for the whole family. Being handed a tiny little life that we care about so much and given the massive responsibility of taking them home and keeping them happy can be scary. If a newborn has health problems or struggles with feeding, weight-gain or sleep as so many do, it can be terrifying trying to figure out if something is wrong or if this is just normal. So many new parents feel anxious, scared and confused.

Postpartum anxiety can creep up on you or it can hit you suddenly and it takes these feelings to a new level, until they interfere with your daily functions, just like depression can. Before I was diagnosed I would lie awake at night wondering if my son was still breathing, to the point where I couldn’t sleep at all out of fear. I would panic if he coughed or made an unusual noise, and I would panic if he made no noise at all. It crept up on me slowly so I didn’t really notice until I lived constantly on the edge, the quickening of my heartbeat and a tight chest becoming normal, my mind constantly trying to find solutions to my worries by going over them again and again and again and again.

At the same time my health visitor was talking to me about depression, as my midwife had before her. They asked if I was getting dressed and taking care of myself – yes. If I was managing to take care of the baby – yes. If my husband and I were doing fine – yes. If I was getting out of the house, exercising, eating well – yes, yes, yes. I could do all those things just fine externally and so I thought that my worries were normal. Doesn’t every new mum worry about her baby? Doesn’t every new parent struggle with lack of sleep?

Even though I’d previously been diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and social anxiety – which puts me in a higher risk of struggling with post natal anxiety, no one asked if I was worrying too much or talked about the symptoms of post natal anxiety. Suffering from a traumatic birth can also lead to post natal anxiety and I was in fact, also diagnosed with post natal PTSD which is something else I think needs to be talked about more.

It wasn’t until my son was 8 months old that I realised it was getting out of hand and now it was affecting me – as I was leaving the house less and less and never sleeping even when he slept through the night.

Postnatal anxiety meant I was constantly worrying that he was going to get sick, or was already sick. I over analysed and googled for every symptom. He had colic and suffered from constipation, and I convinced myself that every cry was a symptom of something serious that no one else could see. I found myself over emotional and crying very easily out of fear. I was scared to hold him and interact with him because I was worried I was going to hurt him and I doubted my abilities. Even just feeding him, changing his nappy and getting him dressed left me worried that I’d done something wrong. I began to feel completely overwhelmed by simple tasks out of worry. Yet at the same time these things felt normal to me because they’d crept up gradually and because I was dealing with a completely new experience – raising a newborn. It seemed natural that I would be worried and after all, don’t parents always talk about being worried about their kids?

It was incredibly hard for me to realise that my feelings weren’t actually “normal” because of the severity of them and the way they were affecting my quality of life.

Postnatal anxiety was living life constantly in fear and on the edge. Yet not really grasping that this wasn’t normal. My irrational thoughts seemed perfectly rational.

The physical side effects were panic attacks, heart palpitations, sweating and hot flashes (especially at night), a tight chest and insomnia – things that built up over 6 months or so before I was ready to acknowledge they were linked.

If you think you are experiencing these types of intrusive thoughts that are affecting you, then I can’t urge you strongly enough to go to your midwife, health visitor, nurse or doctor – any health professional you trust and talk to them about it. If you’re not quite ready to do that yet, perhaps talking to a family member, friend or partner could encourage you to open up – and you can take them to your appointment with you if you need the support. If you’re not ready to talk about it verbally, you could even write a letter or keep a diary or journal.

Although I suffered with birth trauma and have had problems with my mental health since, I do firmly believe that the best thing I did was to talk about it, even though that was incredibly hard, whilst the second was to give Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) a try, even though it sounded ridiculous to me at the time that it would help. I’m honest about my journey – and it is a journey that I’m still going on, because I think we all need to talk about how things affect us more.

There’s no quick fix out there, but I promise that if you are struggling with postnatal anxiety now, that people do care and there are solutions, all of which start with recognising and acknowledging the problem.

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