PARENTS

Mum Panic: Have You Got It?

05/12/2014 10:48 | Updated 20 May 2015

Post-natal depression

Feeling sleep deprived, spread too thin, in desperate need of a chance to be yourself, not only a mum – and someone to help with that ever-expanding laundry pile?

There's plenty that we share as a mums, whether we work, whether we don't, no matter how many children we've chosen to bring into the world. But it seems there's a slightly more sinister 'common bond' also at work up and down the country and often behind closed doors.

And it has nothing to do with birth battle scars and everything to do with trying to keep up parental appearances while you're actually quietly and painfully falling apart at the seams.

While everyone's heard of postnatal depression, until recently postnatal anxiety was not something that was widely known of, let alone discussed. But the number of parents now having to cope with frazzled nerves, soaring stress levels and panic attacks means this is now changing.

"Postnatal anxiety is definitely on the rise, but there's also increasing awareness of the condition which means people are recognising the signs," says clinical psychologist Dr Fin Williams.

"It's no wonder with the increased demands and pressures women are also finding themselves put under. There's definitely more conversation about postnatal anxiety and stress now and that's a positive thing. More mums are realising they may need help and to speak to someone.

"Research tends to look at postnatal anxiety from a clinical diagnosis but many parents are experiencing huge stress just at below the intervention level. But this can still dramatically affect your daily life."

Olivia* remembers feeling that things were a 'bit off' almost from the moment of having her daughter, now two. And over the coming months it only got worse.

"I had quite a traumatic birth and we also had feeding issues with tongue tie which made me feel like a complete failure and very out of control," she recalls. "The name we'd chosen for her also became the focus of my OCD in the end as we had quite a bit of criticism over it and this also totally rocked my confidence.

"I became very jittery, was running on empty with virtually no sleep and also had a conscious nagging voice at the back of my head saying that I was doing everything wrong. I honestly felt like there was someone inside me all the time judging every decision I made.

"I was also hugely stressed about work, having decided to look after my little girl full time and fit my job in around nap times and during the evening. We had no family around the corner to give us a break, and to top it all off I'd also suddenly become scared of the world around us because becoming a parent was such a huge responsibility.

"I went from being quite a brave person to someone who was scared to even leave our flat. I remember once sitting watching Countryfile of all things on TV when I was suddenly having visions of me, my husband and daughter being in a horrific car crash.

"I was gripped with terror, staring at my other half thinking: 'Why aren't you scared of dying?' It's only now I realise how irrational I was being."

Dr Williams says postnatal anxiety can be caused by many different factors, such as feeling cut off from your once wide support network, continually trying to juggle too much, comparing yourself to other mums and also forgetting that you're only human and occasionally need some 'me time' away from the kids and desk.

"By the time many of us have children we're often used to having achieved things in our career, yet for parenting there is no manual," she explains. "It's a massive adjustment because you simply don't know how you'll feel. Having a baby is a total shock to the system.

"We women also tend to put ourselves at the bottom of the pile. Everyone else's needs are above our own, but there are only so many hours in the day and if you don't have any time to yourself your wellbeing will be the thing that gives.

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There's a difficult culture around so-called 'perfect parenting' rather than promoting more realistic expectations where bringing up children is hard and often a struggle.

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"Also looking at Facebook and measuring yourself up against friends who've produced amazing birthday cakes can be hugely damaging to your self-esteem but it's very hard to move away from. There is no 'gold standard' of parenting and yet we constantly evaluate ourselves against others."

Anna* certainly fell into this 'comparison trap' when she started suffering with postnatal anxiety around the time her son was three months old.

"We'd moved out of London when I was six months pregnant and I felt quite isolated in a new area and missed my former busy career in PR," she says. "I think the anxiety was also triggered by lack of sleep and the constant worry that I simply wasn't a good enough mum, wife or friend.

"I loved my baby, there were no issues with bonding or feelings – I just felt like I had to be perfect all the time and all the other mums made parenthood look so easy when I found it anything but."

So what are the warning signs to look out for if you fear you might be suffering with postnatal anxiety?

"Have you stopped doing things you used to enjoy because you've become more fearful or started avoiding social situations because of feeling stressed?" Dr Williams asks.

"As mums we're always going to have levels of stress in our lives but if you're feeling constantly overwhelmed and anxious that isn't right.

"You may also have noticed changes to your sleeping and eating patterns and that you've become less tolerant and more irritable.

"Other symptoms can include becoming more incoherent and disjointed in your thinking, and your feelings of stress and anxiety could also start to affect your relationship with your partner, family and friends.

"A good first step is to start recognising the symptoms as they arise and try to make sure you do things to restore a sense of self-balance – anything from dancing around the kitchen to meeting up with friends once a month for dinner.

"Build up a good social network of other mums, whether in your local area, online or at the end of the phone, and go and see your GP or talk to your health visitor.

"Don't just 'leave it' or assume the way you're feeling is just down to hormones. You may need to talk to someone such as a counsellor to start down the road of restoring your emotional wellbeing."

The other simple factor which will also help is time, and coming to terms with the major life changes you've had to cope with in a very short period.

"I started having panic attacks and would get teary and just wanted to stay at home so I went to see my GP who was fantastic," Anna says. "I joined a local group where we could talk but also used social media to keep in touch with old friends.

"I started doing some freelance work when my son was six months and had a nanny just so I could be 'me' for a while each week. I think a support system and realistic goals really help with postnatal anxiety, also getting out and talking to someone you trust.

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Try to remember that what you see in Starbucks with other mums isn't what happens behind closed doors.

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Olivia says she didn't confide in anyone for ages about how her postnatal anxiety was affecting her, but eventually her husband persuaded her to talk to a health visitor.

"Even then I kept trying to minimise it, saying: 'Honestly, I'm just being silly', but she made me see it was a valid problem," Olivia recalls. "I was referred for weekly counselling sessions and sometimes would just sit and cry and go over the same thing countless times, but after a few weeks I began to turn a corner.

"Getting a childminder so I was able to have two days to myself to work also made all the difference. I rarely think about my daughter's 'unusual' name anymore, in fact I love it, I'm less tired and strung out and in fact feel like I'm more or less back to normal.

"I'd tell any mum suffering with anxiety that what they're feeling isn't weird or anything to be ashamed of. Just talk to someone, even if it feels totally irrational. It's okay to admit that you are struggling – I wish I'd addressed my issues earlier."

Dr Williams is the founder of Parent Perspectives, a group providing antenatal and postnatal support to help families adapt to parenthood. For more help or advise with postnatal anxiety visit www.pandasfoundation.org.uk and www.mind.org.uk

*Names have been changed to protect identity

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