Having children is undoubtedly one of - if not the - most life-changing thing to happen to many women. We’ve all been told of the pure, unadulterated joy of becoming a mother for the first time, of holding your new little baby and feeling an instant bond. But we know now, from the countless women that have spoken about their struggles, that being a new mum can also be one of the most stressful times in our lives - and there's a growing number being diagnosed with postnatal anxiety.
One in five new mothers will experience mental health problems after giving birth, and while awareness of postnatal depression has increased in recent years, anxiety is less widely-discussed. While it's normal for new mums to worry about their child, for some that worry spills into all-consuming panic. Here's what you need to know...
What is postnatal anxiety?
"Postnatal anxiety is when new mothers are experiencing symptoms of anxiety following a pregnancy and birth of their child,” says Nicky Lidbetter, CEO Anxiety UK. “Having a child is life-changing and can impact new mothers in a range of different ways; not only does a pregnancy result in hormonal fluctuations which can influence mood, but it can also result in mother’s experiencing reduced levels of sleep and having to make necessary adjustments to their everyday lives. All of these factors can play a part in new mothers experiencing increased feelings of stress and anxiety.
"When these periods of anxiety start to feel as though they are affecting a mother's ability to manage their daily life, this is when they would be considered as experiencing postnatal anxiety."
Cara, a 35-year-old mum of two from Northern Ireland, was diagnosed after she gave birth to her youngest son. “He was taken to neonatal 4 hours after birth and spent almost a week there. Looking back I believe this is when it all started,” she told Cosmopolitan. “Once I got my new baby home life was great - hard, but great. I noticed I started making excuses to not go places and would snap at my older son. During the night feeds I would sit and cry because I was so exhausted, when I would get into bed I couldn't sleep because I'd worry about if he was breathing right and would often wake my husband concerned.
“One day, when my son was around two months old, I was talking to a friend and just started crying, telling her how hard everything was. I decided to seek help, and when I went to see my doctor she agreed it sounded like something was wrong and prescribed a low dose of medication. I had an appointment with her every four weeks for around six months.”
What are the symptoms of postnatal anxiety?
Everyone’s experiences of anxiety are slightly different, but for new mothers going through postnatal anxiety there are a number of symptoms that are quite common.
"Postnatal anxiety can leave new mothers constantly feeling overly concerned about the wellbeing of their child, having visions of something terrible happening to their baby, and constantly feeling the need to check on the safety of their child. These concerns can become all-consuming and can lead to mothers avoiding certain activities, even things as simple of taking their child outdoors, due to safety concerns," says Nicky.
She adds: "Becoming a parent can be quite an overwhelming experience and new mothers experiencing postnatal anxiety can often feel that they are not in control or they are not coping. This can also result in them questioning whether they are good enough or doing the right thing in terms of their parenting approach."
For Cara, the anxiety was made worse by other life events, on top of the stress of being a mum. “I was going through a hard time with my employer at the time, I had been promised different working hours which they denied,” she said. “This really added to my anxiety and even during a meeting with them I had to have my sister present as I kept having panic attacks.
Cara is in a much better place with her anxiety now
“It took time to figure out the dose of medication, I'd go through a phase of it working and then I'd feel a dip again and this would result in increasing my dose. Finally, I noticed a massive difference in life and started to feel like myself again. I found a new job and life started to feel good again. However, when I felt I had life under control I came off my medication and things went downhill again. I'd cry a lot, become very stressed, lay in bed at night wide awake unable to switch off.
"I am a completely different person to the one I was - I used to be very carefree"
"For the last two months I have been back on my medication and again I have felt like life is so much better.
“I still at times have anxiety, but I tell myself I can 't stop him from doing activities because of the way it backs me feel. I am a completely different person to the one I was; I was very carefree and out going but I feel like life is more under control than it was.”
What should I do if I think I'm suffering with postnatal anxiety?
"The first thing to realise if you are experiencing postnatal anxiety is that you are certainly not alone," explains Nicky. "Becoming a new parent is something that can feel quite overwhelming and many new mothers will experience periods of anxiety.
"If you find you are feeling anxious or unable to cope, talk to your friends and family about what you are going through. Not only can it feel like a weight off your shoulders to let others know how you are feeling, but it can also help those around you see how they may be able to offer you support.
"There are a range of support options out available for those experiencing anxiety and so it’s about finding what route best works for you. Talking to your GP is a great first step in helping you identify what support is out there. Organisations such as ourselves here at Anxiety UK can offer a wide range of self-help resources, as well as providing opportunities to access a range of long-term support options including reduced cost therapies.
"Finally, don’t put pressure on yourself to be perfect. Having a child is a huge, life-changing experience and it is going to be a learning process. Remember you don’t have to go through it along, so talk to those around you and reach out for support."