Perinatal anxiety

Anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful situations, and we all feel anxious sometimes – it might be about an important event like a job interview, or talking in front of a group of people.

Our palms start sweating, our heart races and we might feel a bit sick. This kind of anxiety is a hard-wired part of our survival instinct and helps to tell us if there’s something significant happening. It might be a dangerous situation to avoid, or a task we need to get done quickly. A certain amount of anxiety can actually help us perform better.

Most of the time the nervousness we’re feeling goes away once the stressful situation has passed. But if you’re experiencing an anxiety condition, it can be hard to get these feelings under control. You might feel anxious most days, without any particular reason or cause. If left untreated, anxiety can make it difficult to enjoy your pregnancy and getting to know your baby, as well as harder to cope with the challenges of caring for a newborn.

What to look for

Becoming a parent can be a pretty stressful time – everything’s new and it can take a while to find your feet. Add difficulties with feeding, sleeping or settling your baby into the mix and things can start to feel a bit overwhelming. If your anxious feelings are getting in the way of daily life, it’s time to seek support.

Anxiety or the ‘baby blues’?

Changes in your hormone levels following childbirth can make you feel tearful, irritable or very sensitive. Known as the ‘baby blues’, this usually passes within a few days without specific care – plenty of support and understanding from your loved ones usually does the trick. However, if these symptoms stick around beyond a couple of weeks, you could be experiencing anxiety or depression.

The symptoms of anxiety are the same during pregnancy and early parenthood as any other point in our lives. It’s common to experience symptoms of depression at the same time as anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety

The symptoms of anxiety are sometimes not all that obvious as they often develop gradually. You might already be feeling a bit more anxious than usual, so it can be hard to know how much is ‘too much’.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety yourself, or notice any changes in a friend or family member who is pregnant or recently had a baby, you should seek professional support.

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 sad.

Signs that you may be experiencing anxiety 

  • anxiety or fear that interrupts your thoughts and interferes with daily tasks
  • panic attacks — outbursts of extreme fear and panic that are overwhelming and feel difficult to bring under control
  • anxiety and worries that keep coming into your mind and are difficult to stop or control
  • constantly feeling irritable, restless or on edge
  • having tense muscles, a tight chest and heart palpitations
  • finding it difficult to relax and/or taking a long time to fall asleep at night
  • anxiety or fear that stops you going out with your baby
  • anxiety or fear that leads you to check on your baby constantly. 

Types of anxiety

There are a number of different types of anxiety that women may experience during pregnancy. While we don’t know exactly how common anxiety is during pregnancy, it’s expected to be at least as common and many women experience anxiety and depression at the same time.

  • Panic disorder – frequent attacks of intense feelings of anxiety that seem like they can’t be brought under control. These feelings may result in trying to avoid certain situations, such as being in crowded places.
  • Social phobia – intense fear of criticism, being embarrassed or humiliated, even in everyday situations like eating in public or making small talk.
  • Generalised anxiety disorder – feeling anxious about a wide variety of things on most days over several months.
  • Specific phobia – fearful feelings about a particular object or situation such as going near an animal, flying on a plane or getting an injection.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder – ongoing unwanted/intrusive thoughts and fears that cause anxiety (obsessions) and a need to carry out certain rituals in order to feel less anxious (compulsions).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder – bursts of anxiety any time from one month after experiencing a traumatic event such as a traumatic delivery, sexual assault or violence.

How you might feel 

New parents with anxiety often fear they are losing control or ‘going crazy’. Many try to do everything without any help (e.g. keep the house immaculate) and often worry that what they’re doing with their baby is not ‘right’ or ‘good enough’. This can lead to low self-confidence and a fear that they’re not doing well enough as a parent, partner or in managing the home.

Women who have experienced anxiety before having children may find their symptoms get worse during pregnancy or in the year after the baby is born. For other women, the antenatal or postnatal period is the first time they experience anxiety.

Regardless of when or why they happen, if you’re having feelings of anxiety it’s important to seek support from a health professional, such as your GP or child and family health nurse.

Treatments for anxiety

The encouraging news is that there’s a range of health professionals and treatments to help with anxiety. Your GP or other health professional can develop a treatment plan that’s tailored for your needs, situation and preferences. Suggested treatments are likely to include a combination of emotional and practical support, plus some psychological therapy. If your symptoms are more severe, your health professional may consider a treatment plan that includes these approaches together with medication.

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