Postnatal anxiety, what we don’t talk about

Postnatal anxiety - the postnatal condition no one talks about

Katie Scott

When postnatal anxiety struck

It first happened a few days after giving birth, when I was chopping carrots for an evening meal. It was like a sudden vision, a flash across my mind’s eye. As I drove the knife down into the carrot, I suddenly envisaged the same knife chopping into my newborn baby’s body. The vision lasted a split second and disappeared but it was visceral and violent and chilled me to the bone. My baby was sleeping in her Moses basket by my feet. She was safe and sound but I was left with a feeling of panic at the thought of her being in danger and being harmed.

I brushed it to one side, feeling a little unnerved and put this strange vision down to sleep deprivation. But as the weeks went by, I had more thoughts and fleeting visions that slowly built up my anxiety.

I could be holding my baby in my arms and then suddenly have a vision of accidentally dropping her and her hitting her head on the ground. My mind played out horrific scenes of my baby’s head smashing on the stone tiles.

Or I would put my baby down to sleep safely in her cot in the evenings. I would then wake later in the night, paralysed with fear that she had stopped breathing. I would go right up to her little chest listening for soft breathes and watching her intently for the smallest movement that showed she was still alive and well. I kept imagining that I would wake and find her cold in her crib.

In the end these visions resulted in a general state of fear and nervousness over every possible way in which my baby could be harmed. It made me over anxious about all elements of her care and my days were filled with worry over anything else.

Postnatal anxiety - the postnatal condition no one talks aboutI kept quiet

Because my visions and imaginations were so violent and disturbing I didn’t tell a soul. I didn’t even share what I was experiencing with my husband or my family. I was too scared to mention it to my health visitor for fear of further questions being asked and potentially even my baby being taken away from my care. It didn’t seem to be something that new mums were supposed to experience and I had certainly never heard of another mother having these horrible flashes of ways their baby could be harmed.

I had had a normal birth. I wasn’t depressed. I was happy and healthy and well supported but these scary, fleeting visions continued to crop up here and there. I knew I would never hurt my baby, so why did I keep having these flashes where I was imagining she was being harmed?

What kept me sane was the knowledge that I loved my baby. From the moment she was placed in my arms I was struck with a fierce mother-cub instinct to protect her. This made me 100% sure that I would never cause her any harm. The visions were always violent but they were fleeting. So I had to just put them down to sleep deprivation and the shock of being a new mother.

It was only later that I found out, thanks to Google, that such horrid thoughts in the weeks after giving birth, were more common than I’d thought.

I discovered that what I was going through was a symptom of postnatal anxiety, the less talked about postnatal condition. And that I was not the only mum going through it. I found out that actually as many as 15% of new mums feel the same thing and experience anxiety, albeit in different ways. Not many talk about it out of fear, or in case the disturbing visions are just brushed off as ‘new mum worries’. I wish I had known at the time that I wasn’t alone in having these visions.

The anxiety subsided over years

The intrusive thoughts faded as my baby grew older and I felt more confident as a mum. As my baby grew bigger and stronger I felt myself beginning to relax a little. I’m sure that getting more sleep helped me feel calmer too.

My ‘babies’ are now 5 and 3 and are happy and healthy. I still worry. But the worries I have are all ‘normal’ and contained. The only time I get flashes of terrible things happening to them, is when we’re in environments which have an element of danger.

For example last summer we climbed up to the top of a ruined castle on a holiday. My girls reached the top and looked over the edge. Although it was safely walled off, I had a feeling of vertigo and panic. I experienced a sudden flash, imagining them falling over the precipice to their deaths.

The sudden and very physical feeling of panic, brought those early visions immediately back to my mind. I shrieked at them to get away from the edge and breathed easier when we set foot back on low ground.

Postnatal anxiety - the postnatal condition no one talks aboutWhen I finally opened up

A year or two later I started to talk about my experience with my partner and friends. Some were a bit shocked that I hadn’t opened up earlier and also a bit sad that I hadn’t confided in them all those years ago. Others were relieved that I’d admitted what I had experienced as they had gone through something similar.

One friend in particular experienced postnatal anxiety but in a slightly different way. She spent years visualising someone coming and taking her girls away from her. She would stay locked in the house for as long as possible during the early years all because of this fear of what might happen if she went out.

As her girls grew older it subsided for her too. But even then, when they went out somewhere together, she would get nervous and panicked when they were more than a few meters away from her. Looking back she was sure that she was suffering from postnatal anxiety as the fears were so irrational and the visions so intense.

Talking about this feeling of panic with her, made me realise that I wasn’t losing my mind back in those early days. I wasn’t alone and this feeling of anxiety over terrible things happening to my baby was something that happened to a lot of women.

If I could go back

I still wonder whether I could have been brave enough to tell a health professional and get help. These anxious visions are not something you read in the baby books or in antenatal classes and when they happen to you they come out of the blue.

I wasn’t aware that other mums were experiencing it as well, to be able to talk to them about it. It’s understandable that new mums don’t talk about these kinds of intrusive thoughts or visions they may have of their babies coming to harm. It’s not exactly an easy thing to bring up in conversation over a cup of tea at a baby group! Because it’s so frightening and shocking, it’s easier to just stay silent. But keeping quiet about it also lets this anxiety in your mind build, until you are left in a general state of panic over every element of your baby’s care.

So we should make an effort to talk about it. If not for ourselves, then for each new mother who will be experiencing the same anxiety. She may have the same intrusive thoughts and visions or she may have irrational, all-encompassing fears of horrible things happening to her baby. It will help her know that she is not losing her mind. That she can talk about it and if need be ask for help.

New mothers need the understanding and reassurance that they are not a bad mother. Then maybe those that do experience postnatal anxiety wouldn’t feel so alone.

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