Postnatal anxiety

Antenatal Anxiety

Whilst the challenges of managing a new baby is likely to bring some level of stress and anxiety from time to time, generally this will be transient and feelings will pass on their own with time. If however you have ongoing disturbing thoughts and/or feelings of worry and tension that are hard to live with and/or affect your ability to manage from day to day, then you may be experiencing postnatal anxiety.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the broad term used to refer to a range of conditions that have a number of common symptoms including:

  • Feelings of fear and worry which begin to ‘take over’ your thinking
  • Feeling irritable, restless, tense or constantly ‘on edge’
  • Racing heart/strong palpitations – sometimes panic attacks
  • Reoccurring worrying thoughts such as that you are not doing things right and/or that something terrible will happen
  • Unable to sleep – even when you have the opportunity
  • Avoiding situations for fear something bad will happen.

What anxiety can feel like

Many people with postnatal anxiety disorders often describe feeling like they are ‘going crazy’ or ‘losing their mind’ as racing thoughts keep coming back and causing them to feel the range of physical and emotional symptoms. This can be also exacerbated by a lack of sleep that can come not only with anxiety but also with a new baby.

In response to the feeling of losing control, you may find yourself wanting to make sure that everything is perfectly in order and under control for fear that you are not doing things ‘the right way’ or that ‘something bad’ will happen. For example, women experiencing postnatal anxiety may find themselves checking on the baby continually (even when asleep) for fear that they will stop breathing, or have visions of something terrible happening to the baby that would harm them.

My symptoms were so different to what I knew was normal. For one – I never felt like killing my baby – but I was constantly having visions of accidentally harming him – they filled my mind. I thought I was just being an over anxious mother and I never mentioned it to anyone. Also, my lack of connection with him was difficult to put into words for ages because I didn’t really know what it should feel like.

Anxiety is common

If you are experiencing a number of these symptoms then you are not alone. Anxiety is the most common type of mental health problem affecting one in four people in their lifetime – and even more likely to occur amongst women in the year following the birth of a baby. This is particularly the case if you have experienced anxiety in the past, although for some this may be the first time that you have experienced anxiety.

I struggled to get out of the house for fear someone would take my baby. Ridiculous to a normal person but in the state I was in I couldn’t tell anyone for fear they would think I was crazy! I think depression is talked a lot about but anxiety is just as bad.

Types of anxiety conditions

There are a number of different types of anxiety conditions, each of which has a different set or cluster of symptoms:

Type of anxiety disorderDescription
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) Feeling anxious about a wide variety of things on most days over a long period of time (e.g. six months)
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) Ongoing, unwanted and intrusive thoughts and fears (obsessions) that cause anxiety and a need to carry out certain rituals in order to feel less anxious (compulsions)
Panic disorderFrequent attacks of intense feelings of anxiety that seem like they can't be brought under control; this may go on to be associated with avoidance of certain situations (e.g. going into crowded places)
Social anxiety disorder Intense fear of criticism, being embarrassed or humiliated, even in everyday situations (e.g. eating in public or making small talk)
Specific phobia Fearful feelings about a particular object or situation (e.g. going near an animal, flying on a plane or receiving an injection)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Bursts of anxiety anytime from one month after experiencing a traumatic event (e.g. a traumatic delivery, sexual assault or violence)

Sometimes these symptoms can develop gradually over time or they may come on suddenly and intensely.  As time goes on, if these symptoms are not identified or treated, they can get worse, even to the point that you cannot function, as the anxiety has in effect ‘taken over’. This can make life difficult to manage, especially with the demands of a new baby

People who have experienced anxiety in the past may find that their symptoms return or get worse during pregnancy or after having a baby.

Postnatal anxiety and depression often co-occur

It is also very common to experience postnatal anxiety and postnatal depression at the same time. In fact, in up to 50% of cases these two conditions co-occur.

I never got to the point of not being able to get out of bed. I remember times of sort of sitting on the couch watching TV and just feeling overwhelmed with grief. I just felt so sad and anxious about everything… I’d lie awake at night waiting for her to cry… the sleeplessness, the anxiety, not being able to watch the news because everything made me so sad.

Thankfully the treatments for both postnatal anxiety and depression are similar and can treat both conditions at the same time.

Living with postnatal depression and anxiety

In this episode of our YouTube and podcast series, The Mum Drum, we speak with Renee and Stevie about the range of emotional challenges that they both experienced on their journey to motherhood, and how their friendship helped them through.

Getting anxiety under control can improve your quality of life and overall experience of parenthood with your new baby.

Download our Postnatal Anxiety Fact Sheet