How can you tell if what you’re feeling is just normal parenting nerves or an actual anxiety disorder?
By Sarah Graham
“I had such mixed feelings when I found out I was pregnant – lots of emotions and excitement, but then also this feeling that my life was over, as awful as that sounds,” says 25-year-old Jade, who was 23 when she had her son. “I was about five months pregnant when the anxiety really hit me. I’d been having panic attacks, struggling to leave the house, and then one day I just broke down. It was completely overwhelming.”
Antenatal anxiety affects around 13 per cent of pregnant women, while 12 per cent suffer from antenatal depression, and many experience both. Like at any other time in your life, some amount of anxiety and worry is totally normal and understandable during pregnancy, but it becomes a problem when that anxiety begins to affect your everyday life.
For 35-year-old Hannah, who was 32 during her second pregnancy, the anxiety stemmed from her physical difficulties with SPD (symphysis pubis dysfunction) – a condition that causes back and hip pain in around one in five pregnant women.
“I had a toddler at the time, and I was struggling to do anything. I physically couldn’t get on the floor to play with him. I couldn’t run around after him or take him to the park, or any of those normal things. I wasn’t sleeping very well, and I struggled with going to work, and getting in and out of the car. The anxiety just escalated,” she says.
“I didn’t trust my body to get me from A to B, or be able to carry me around, so I struggled to leave the house at all. I was having loads of panic attacks and negative thoughts, and I just couldn’t break the cycle,” she adds. “I knew I was being irrational, but I couldn’t move past the thought that: ‘if I do this, I might fall over and hurt the baby’.”
It can be isolating
For both women, the experience was incredibly isolating. “I felt very on my own and didn’t really know who I could talk to,” says Jade. “I’ve suffered from anxiety before, so I recognised the symptoms, but there was no advice or information given antenatally – my GP just prescribed some medication and told me to speak to my midwife.”
Dr Natasha Biljani, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton believes more needs to be done to raise awareness of antenatal anxiety, amongst both mums-to-be and healthcare professionals.
“Pregnancy is usually viewed as being a pleasurable state in a woman’s life, so those who experience mental ill health may fear disclosing and being seen as ‘weak’ or ‘unstable’. Health professionals need to be aware of the risks, and to regularly ask pregnant women about their state of wellbeing,” she says.
As Dr Alain Gregoire, chair of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, explains, symptoms to look out for include: “physical sensations such as muscle tension, aches and pains, agitation, dizziness or sleeplessness, and psychological effects such as excessive, intrusive thoughts, and feelings of fear or anxiety.”
Left untreated, antenatal anxiety can affect the health of the mother and their baby. Around a third of women with mental health problems during pregnancy also go on to suffer from postnatal depression and/or anxiety, so it’s worth getting support early before the baby arrives. In Jade’s case, high blood pressure also led to her developing pre-eclampsia, which she puts down to her high levels of stress and anxiety.
“Anxiety and depression are as common during pregnancy as postnatally, and all these women need extra support and help – both for the sake of the woman herself but also for her future child,” says Vivette Glover, professor of Perinatal Psychobiology at Imperial College London.
The tech that could help
Like Hannah, tech entrepreneur Nuala Murphy experienced antenatal anxiety brought on by physical side effects of pregnancy – in her case, relentless morning sickness and migraines. She’s now using that experience to create a maternal mental health app to support women like her.
Once developed,the Moment app will include a mental health symptom checker; an emotional diary, to track moods and identify triggers; and a directory of local services. In the meantime, anyone struggling can join their private peer-support community on Facebook.
“When I was pregnant, everything felt like such a stress and a strain. I thought I was going mad!” she says.
“I was very fortunate because I could afford private healthcare and got the early intervention I needed. At about 7 months my consultant actually suggested that I go into hospital, because I wasn’t managing.”
“But benefitting from early intervention shouldn’t be a privilege; it should be what women get as due course,” she adds. “My passion now is to make maternal mental health mainstream, and to normalise it, to let mums know they’re not going mad and support is available.”