As my not-so-little baby boy approaches 10 months old, I feel I’m finally ready to share my story of experiencing post natal anxiety; in the hope that it will help anyone currently suffering with the invisible illness. That’s not to say that I am fully recovered, as there’s always something to worry about when you’re a new mum, but I’m hopeful that the ugly part is over.
I’m sharing my story to help raise awareness and end the stigma of this terrifying illness. Reading other people’s experiences really helped me in my own journey to recovery. Just knowing that I wasn’t going through it on my own was the most comforting feeling in the world. I would read the same stories over and over to reassure myself that I wasn’t ‘going crazy’ and that other people had been through the same thing as me and come out the other end.
Post natal anxiety is honestly the scariest thing that I have ever faced. No physical pain or fear could even come close to the sheer terror I felt in the months after my son’s birth. Not even the birth itself!
Being afraid of your own thoughts is terrifying. You have nowhere to run when your own mind is turning against you. Everything I believed to be the essence of ‘me’ was suddenly being tested and scrutinised.
Two words have haunted my mind since the birth of my child:
These two words broke my heart. These two words were the start of a horrifying thought that I would later convince myself would become real, just by the mere fact that I had thought of it.
If you’re reading this now, and you’re in the midst of post natal anxiety, please remember that a thought never hurt anyone. A thought isn’t dangerous and doesn’t mean you’ll act on it. Your anxiety levels are very high; making you cling onto every thought as if they mean something very important, but they don’t. The fact that you’re scared of your thoughts is a clear indicator that they are driven by anxiety.
I’ve always been a very anxious person, but I’ve never taken any medication or had any therapy for my anxiety. I would always pass it off as being part of who I am:
‘It’s just me’
‘I’m a worrier’
‘I have weird phobias’
Nobody would ever guess I have anxiety as I’m outwardly confident and sociable. But absolutely anyone can suffer from a mental disorder.
Growing up I had a phobia of vomiting or other people around me feeling / being sick. I would become hot, sweaty and shaky if someone at school said they felt sick at class – at the time I didn’t realise that this was a panic attack. If I saw somebody vomiting it would play over and over in my head for days or even weeks.
At uni I developed a phobia of public transport or being in any situation, such as a lecture, where I couldn’t go to the toilet if I needed too. I would involuntarily cry, shake and sweat before going on a bus or entering an exam room.
I would never let anxiety stop me from achieving anything, and despite quietly suffering with this mental disorder, I graduated with a Masters Degree.
I am a firm believer of facing my fears, and decided to volunteer abroad in 2015, to conquer my anxiety; by travelling to the other side of the world and putting myself in situations that I knew would make me feel anxious.
I think the best thing to do when you’re suffering with anxiety is to talk about it. A problem shared is a problem halved. Even if I’m at a meeting in work, with professional people, there’s no embarrassment in saying that ‘I prefer to sit near the door as it makes me feel less anxious.’ It’s no different than asking to sit near the door because of a physical disability. If it makes you feel more comfortable and less anxious it’s definitely worth a shot.
In the past few years, as I’ve tipped into the wrong side of my 20’s, I’ve also developed a fear of death.
So it’s safe to say that I should have seen post natal anxiety coming. But I didn’t.
It was nothing like I had ever experienced before. It made me feel like I was turning into a monster. At the beginning I had no idea that it was ‘just anxiety.’ I believed that the terrifying ‘what if…’ thoughts about my baby were real. Any ‘what if’ thought suddenly felt dangerous and as though I could potentially act on it.
I should also add here that I had a somewhat traumatic birth, which didn’t set me off on a good foot. My 16 hour labour, which started with me doing happy dancing around my bedroom, ended in an emergency c-section and a pressure ulcer on my bottom from not being turned,whilst having an epidural, and waiting to go into theatre.
I was unable to sit up or lay on my back to establish breast feeding. I was barely able to sleep for the first month. It wasn’t how I imagined my first few weeks with my new baby; perched on an air cushion in agony trying to breast feed.
Previous mental health issues and a traumatic birth can all contribute to developing post natal anxiety and depression.
The anxiety didn’t start until nearly a month after giving birth. Just as I had started to get the hang of caring for my new born baby I had my first ‘what if…’ thought that paralysed me with fear and made the atmosphere around me instantly shift.
I won’t go into detail about my thoughts during this time in case they are triggering for those reading who are suffering from post natal anxiety.
After having a scary thought about my baby it followed days/weeks/months of:
‘Why did I think that?’
‘That would be the worst thing that could possibly happen’
‘I’d have to run away or end my life if that became true’
‘Why did I think that?’
‘A good mum wouldn’t think that!’
‘I’m losing my mind – I’m going to turn into a monster’
‘I can’t tell anyone what I just thought as it’s so awful they might take my baby away from me.’
From that moment on I couldn’t turn my mind off. The thoughts were deafening with no way of turning the volume down. I was no longer living in the real world but a dark cloud of anxiety and fear.
I didn’t dare tell anyone about the thought I had had, incase they thought I was a terrible person, so I let it gnaw away at me; analysing every detail and searching deep into my soul for any signs in my past that I had been a terrible person, or would become a dangerous person.
I was constantly on edge for months. I had flashing images accompanying the scary thoughts in my mind. Any news stories would sound in my head for days afterwards. The harder I tried not to think about the ‘what if’ scenarios, the more I thought about them.
I started to become depressed from the constant nightmares playing on repeat in my mind.
It was only when I started thinking ‘Maybe I wasn’t ever meant to be a mum’ that the relentless chatter in my mind stopped momentarily, as I felt like I had read that exact line in a pregnancy text book.
I began to realise that I must have some form of post natal depression.
I confided in my good friend google, and felt a slight relief that I wasn’t losing my mind or going to turn into a monster, but actually, I was incredibly ill.
I had many symptoms of post natal depression, anxiety and OCD. I became obsessed with reading about these illnesses online and finding blogs of people who suffered with these conditions.
If I ever started verging on a panic attack I would pull out my phone and read some comforting lines from a blog.
Please be warned that some blogs can be more triggering than comforting. Some bloggers go into detail about their thoughts which can then play on your mind – hence why I haven’t gone into detail here.
Some days I would have a break through and be anxiety free but other days I would fall back into the dark hole of anxiety and depression. Because the thoughts kept rearing their ugly heads, I took this as a sign that they were real and I was going to act on them.
The thoughts would come in waves. Not every day was a bad day, but I’d always be on edge waiting for the next wave of horrifying thoughts to take over my head.
For me, the crippling doubt and reassuring myself was the most debilitating part of the illness. I could never be 100% sure that it was anxiety and that the thoughts wouldn’t come true. There seemed to be no way of knowing for certain that I wouldn’t act on these thoughts; which was so distressing.
After being reassured by a post-natal mental health doctor and attending an 8 week support group, I still wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t dangerous.
I truly thought I would never be my old self again.
I had such a supportive family and the most understanding partner I could ever wish to be with. He never gave up on me and was never phased by anything that came out of my mouth.
The perinatal mental health team were outstanding. I was so embarrassed about telling the doctor about my thoughts. I sat with tears rolling down my cheek as I began to let him into the deep darkness of my mind. He just smiled and told me he’d heard it all before and it was classic post natal anxiety and depression. I wasn’t a monster, I was just very anxious, and sensitive, to any passing thoughts.
He explained calmly, that after having a baby, my anxiety levels were raised but because there was no real threat to my baby I had turned on myself; wondering if I would ever be a threat to my own child.
You would think that being told this by a professional, that the anxiety would instantly go away. But it didn’t. I still needed constant reassurance. I was put on medication to help ease my anxiety and attended an 8 week support group with other mums suffering with post natal mental health disorders.
I met so many incredibly strong and brave women in that support group who were all pivotal to my recovery. We still meet up and talk most days, months after the group has finished. I’m sure we will be friends for life as we all know the ins and outs of how each other’s minds work.
I didn’t initially want to be put on medication, as I was scared about the potential side affects, but when my baby turned 3 months old I decided I needed to take them. There’s no shame in needing help and taking tablets to get better.
Despite suffering with this exhausting illness, I didn’t let it hold me back. I went out to baby groups most days, took my baby swimming and went on several holidays. I did everything I would have done if I hadn’t been ill, because I was determined that I would conquer my anxiety, and continuing to do ‘normal’ things was the only way I knew how to face my fears.
Although sitting in a baby group with a smile on my face, whilst having scary racing thoughts about my baby, sometimes made me feel like a psychopath, I pushed through; determined as ever to be a ‘normal’ mum and not let the thoughts defeat me.
If you are reading this now, and you are suffering with post natal anxiety or depression, just remember that you are not alone. A thought is just a thought. You are ill and your anxiety levels are making you feel as though your thoughts are going to lead to actions; but they won’t. Confide in your loved ones and seek help from a professional.
Today I am celebrating being over 3 months anxiety free. Don’t get me wrong, I still have bad days and waves of anxiety, but the dark cloud of anxiety has passed. I feel like my ‘normal’ self again with a ‘normal’ level of anxiety.
I’m sure I will be looking over my shoulder for a long time to come, but I am on the road to recovery. I will stay on medication for up to another year, to make sure I don’t have a relapse, but I have the tools and the support to get through the bad days and I’m feeling stronger than ever.
Having post natal anxiety and depression has ultimately made me a better person and a better mother. I now know how my mind works and how to manage my anxiety. I never knew how strong and brave I was until I experienced post natal anxiety.
I take much better care of myself now; both physically and mentally. I have an amazing network of supportive friends and family who I’ve never felt closer too. I am more mindful and grateful for the little things that make me happy.
If you are suffering with scary thoughts after giving birth, please don’t be embarrassed to get help from your health visitor or GP. They will not take your baby away from you. Confide in someone you trust. You will not act on your thoughts. The very fact that you are afraid of your thoughts is the indicator that they are anxiety driven.
You will come out the other end I promise you.
Here’s a little list of things that helped me recover from post natal anxiety that you might find useful:
The main thing you need to do is distract yourself from the thoughts and keep your mind busy focusing on something else. This might seem impossible at first but you will get there in the end.
- Confide in someone you trust.
- Read information about post natal mental health illnesses
- Attend support groups
- Read stories of other sufferers
- Take Medication for anxiety or depression – the potential side effects will outweigh the way you are feeling at the moment
- Read about Mindfulness and practise it at home.
- Recite positive affirmations ‘I am a good mum’
- Keep a mood diary
- Take long walks
- Be in nature
- Look at old photo albums
- Go out to baby groups
- Meet up with friends
Post natal anxiety and depression is a very real and debilitating illness. Let’s #Endthestigma