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Postnatal Anxiety: A Raw, Honest Account of How it Happened to Me

by Rebekah Sian Crawley about a month ago in stigma
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Thankfully, as a society, we are so much more aware and informed today than we used to be on the struggles of new Mothers facing postnatal depression. There's still a long way to go, but we know the signs, we're breaking the stigmas, and we're learning how to help. Unfortunately the same can't be said yet for it's ugly sister, postnatal anxiety and panic attacks.

Postnatal Anxiety: A Raw, Honest Account of How it Happened to Me
Photo by Zach Lucero on Unsplash

"It is known that anxiety disorders are more common in postpartum women than in the general population, with estimates of its incidence during the first 6 months of postpartum ranging from 6.1% to 27.9%. Unfortunately, treatment rates for postpartum anxiety are low, suggesting that more work is required to identify women who may benefit from treatment." -

It was around tea time at some point in the disjointed haze of the first two weeks of life with a new born baby. His Dad was just pulling our fish and chips out of the oven when simultaneously, the baby started to cry and I started to bleed - a lot. Periods had not prepared me for the blood you lose after childbirth, and although it probably wasn't very much, it looked like so much to me, and I started to panic.

To give some background to why it scared me so much, I had a pretty big bleed during birth. It stopped and I was absolutely fine (if a little woozy), but I was petrified when I got home of the bleeding starting again. I had suffered through some anxiety and panic attacks as a teenager, worried about life and had a niggling anxiety about what happens when we die, but I had never been particularly health conscious. I had the typical teenager mindset of "it won't happen to me". But now, under the sheer weight of the responsibility of the new life looking up at me depending on me for literally everything, I felt horribly, horribly vulnerable. Overnight it was like anything could, and probably would happen to me. I would be the one in a million in every nightmarish improbable possibility. I could leave my son at any moment, and he would be alone.

Of course this wasn't true. The fact I'm sat here writing this means I lived to tell the tale and did not in fact bleed out in the bathroom leaving my son without a mother. The dizzy spells did not in fact mean I had a brain tumour, I didn't ever collapse and leave my baby rolling down a hill into oncoming traffic. So why did it feel so real at the time? What happened in that birthing room that gave me waves of overwhelming terror, made the world suddenly seem so dangerous, and triggered constant horrific intrusive thoughts like films playing out in my head of both mine and my new baby boys certain demise?

My First Ever Picture as A Mum

It turns out there are a lot of chemical changes that happen inside the brain of a new mother. Whilst it was scary at the time and I fully assumed the trauma and stress had tipped me over the edge and I was teetering on the cusp of going insane, a lot of what I was feeling had a reasonable explanation. Over time I learnt to make my peace with the fact that I felt like a different person because birth had changed me, but not destroyed me. It had chemically changed my brain to protect this little mite at all costs, I wasn't going crazy, and if you're experiencing something similar neither are you.

Firstly, I'm so, so sorry that knowing you aren't going crazy probably doesn't make it feel any better right now at all. I so wish it did. But I hope you can at least find some comfort in the knowledge that myself, and so many others, really do understand how it feels. Within my first six months of being a Mum I lived in constant debilitating fear of the next panic attack that made it difficult to even leave the house alone.

Days would go like this, I would wake up at 4am to my partner getting ready for work or my baby needing a bottle. After 4:30am - 5:00am, my beautiful bundle of joy would refuse to sleep. I'd make my way into the living room, flick a music channel on in the background, and sob when my partner had to leave for work. Some days I even begged him not to go because I was so afraid of being left alone. After he left I'd pace the balcony. My rationality was that if "something" happened to me, someone would see me through the frosted glass and come to help. Someone would hear the baby crying, he wouldn't be alone all day crying whilst I was passed out on the floor, my biggest intrusive fear.

Capturing the Tiredness Setting in A Few Weeks Into Motherhood

Soon my heart would start to race, really race. It would feel like it was beating out of my chest, you could actually see my chest vibrating if you looked. I could feel it in my neck, it was all I could hear. My legs would go weak and everything would start to spin, my thoughts would race. I'd sweat and feel like I was suffocating because I just couldn't get a full breath. It was at this point I'd sometimes call an ambulance because the physical symptoms of panic were too much to bare. Surely my mind couldn't do this to me, could it? I must be dying.

Again, I wasn't dying. When the paramedics arrived the symptoms would stop because I knew I was safe. The "threat" (something awful happening to me which meant I couldn't protect my baby) was removed. In my head if someone was there, or even on the phone, if something happened to me someone would come and get him and he would be okay. So when someone arrived or answered the phone my body would calm and I would cry with embarrassment that it was just another panic attack. "I really thought this time it was something else", I'd say.

After the embarrassment of the third time this happened I would call family and friends and beg them to stay on the phone to me until the panic dissipated. Eventually everyone had to put their phones on silent before 6:30am. To everyone who sat and listened to my panic, thank you so much, I understand why you had to have boundaries in the end, but those phone calls meant the world to me. When I could no longer sit on the phone to family I would call the Samaritans helpline, I don't know what I would have done without that service on those mornings where everything felt so bleak.

Peep the Stress Rash Around My Neck 👀

After what felt like an eternity the sun would come up and things would feel a little more manageable, the world was at least awake. I could at least tell myself that people would be awake and available, if it got really bad. Because that's what anxiety makes you do. Doubt your ability to cope. You end up always needing a safety net, and without one you feel like you're free falling towards that one big panic attack you live in fear of. The one that will kill you or make you lose your mind, but of course, like monsters that hide under the bed and jump out in the dead of night, it never comes.

The mornings were all pretty much the same, the days differed. In all honesty it all just seems like a blur when I look back. One giant 8 month long day before I forced myself out the house and back into university and started to slowly get better. Some days I would make it out of the house, knuckles white from gripping the pram bar for stability from the nauseating 24/7 dizziness, a fun little anxiety symptom no one tells you about. Kind of like feeling as though you've always just stepped off the waltzers.

Some days I wouldn't make it out for days on end and I swear during those days Katy Perry's "Chained to the Rhythm" would repeat 1000 times on the music channels. I still can't listen to that song. Some days I remember going to the doctors crying and begging him to give me something to take it away. Apparently I wasn't allowed antidepressants in case I didn't wake up for the baby. I was given 7 diazepam though to use "in an emergency", which I was just too terrified to even try. And beta-blockers, two different kinds, which just made me more scared. Around this time I would develop an obsession with checking my own pulse.

I was sent for ECG's and counselling, the counselling helped some but felt too generic. The ECG's made me worry more. I started to lose my hair in clumps and break out in a red, scaly rash on my neck, wrists and eyelids. I was a mess, and my body was starting to show it. Panic attacks started waking me up through the night as often as the baby. I still wasn't convinced this was just anxiety, until the ECG's all came back fine.

The Only Evidence I have of My Receding Hairline

Then, somewhere around the 5-6 month mark, I spontaneously made an application to go back to university. I got in, and forced myself through every step of the induction. Holding back tears and putting one foot in front of the other while the room span around me and looked like something from a horror film. But when I got back to safety, I was the happiest I had ever been. And so began a process of exposure. Forcing myself out of my comfort zone every day, until slowly the panic attacks stopped.

It took a really long time, every day was terror. Some days I'd have to hide in the toilets until a really big wave of panic subsided and I felt confident I could go back into class and look normal. Every day I'd come home exhausted from the energy my body was expending being scared. I never finished that course, but what I got from that one year was so, so worth it. Having something to go to every day taught me how to get my life back. My hair stopped falling out, the rashes went away, I felt more like me again. My thoughts slowed. And the little boy in this story, the one who made me a Mum, the one I worried every day that I wasn't good enough for, he's a healthy, happy, thriving five year old who just went off to school.

Me and My Gorgeous Boy at the Pumpkin Patch Last Halloween

He even has a little sister:

Lewis and His Sister Nylah (5 & 3)

I can't speak for everyone's postnatal experience because they're all so vastly different, but this was mine. The most important thing I'd like to note is that I did come out of it all, I'm sat here telling the tale, and I did eventually feel like me again. It does get better, I promise, even though I know that makes no difference at all right now. I know that all you want more than anything in the world is to feel okay again now. I know you feel like it's never going to end.

So I won't end this with an uplifting sentiment about how it'll all get better, and soon seem a distant memory. I'll just say that you're stronger than you could have ever thought. You're strong at your best and even stronger at your worst. You do your best for that little being every day, even though I know your best never, ever seems to feel good enough. You are brave beyond words and powerful beyond measure. And I know this, even without knowing you.

I hope you find comfort in knowing that there are thousands of Mothers who really do know the place you're in while you walk yourself through this. If one day we cross paths in a crowded supermarket and I don't have sick stains on my shoulder and milk leaking through the front of my shirt anymore, I'll give you a nod and a smile. Offer a few words that can maybe lighten a dark day. And a look that just says I know, new mama, I know.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. I hope you got something out of it. This is the first in a four part series I'd like to do about postnatal anxiety and panic attacks, so if you feel like that could benefit you feel free to follow along at @rebekahcrawley and @_theartofanxiety.

If you're really struggling please reach out and get the help and support you deserve. The number for the Samaritans service I spoke about earlier is 116 123, they offer a judgement free service for people to talk openly about whatever's troubling them, and have someone openly listen for free at anytime.


About the author

Rebekah Sian Crawley

Writer | Mum of Two | Mental Health Advocate

Libra 🌛

Instagram: @_theartofanxiety

Personal: @rebekahcrawley

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