Parenting

Guest Post: My experience of post-natal anxiety (PNA)

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Guest post by the incredible Michelle Murphy.

A post on Post-natal Anxiety.

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I want to prelude with the caveat that this blog is my personal opinion regarding my personal experience and is not designed to provide medical or professional advice. My intention is not to either dramatize or trivialise a condition that affects so many women but is simply me sharing a brief, highly condensed version of my story, as I passionately believe in the power of shared experience. If anyone has questions or concerns regarding PNA I strongly recommend you contact your GP or contact:

PANDA https://www.panda.org.au/ 1300 726 306

Mental Health Emergency Response Line: 1300 555 788 (Metro) or 1800 676 822 (Peel)

Rurallink: 1800 552 002

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Was I diagnosed with PND?

Well now I don’t think so, but I don’t know for sure. I went to my GP on two different occasions in a state of tearful desperation begging for anti-anxiety medication to ‘make me feel better’ and allow me to better cope with my day to day existence. I also called the PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) helpline on two or three different occasions in a similar state, for some much needed on the spot phone counselling. I do remember them saying they would provide a handover to my GP, so I assume my GP has a record of these interactions in my patient file. For the record, my GP did not prescribe me with any medications, she instead referred me to a psychologist.

How do I feel about not being prescribed anti-anxiety medications?

Honestly? I have mixed feelings about it. The part of me that dislikes taking any meds for anything unless I absolutely have to feels glad that I didn’t have to go down that path. However there is another part of me that wistfully wishes that the constant weight of anxiety could have been relieved during that first 18 months after the birth of my son….Perhaps I would be able to reflect on that period of my life without simultaneously resurrecting the ghost of that fist sized rock that had lodged itself in my chest during that time…..hmmmmm. Food for thought in the dark hours of the night.

But back to my original question.

I don’t know if I have an official diagnosis on my file but it’s irrelevant. My experience was most definitely anxiety of a prolonged and constant nature. And it was very much post-natal, as prior to giving birth, anxiety was a fleeting and very occasional experience for me. In fact, I was one of the most emotionally stable humans I know, my significant hormone imbalances and lifelong repressive patterns probably contributed to this. But yes, label it what you will, it was very real to me.

The impact of my birth experience, in brief.

I found my birth experience to be quite traumatic. Let’s face it, it’s difficult for every woman, but some women seem to have a better time of it than others and I see this in my work on the Family Birthing Unit working with new mothers.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dwell on my experience. Rather I see it a bit like stubbing your toe. Such a short-lived painful experience that is done before you know it, and pales in comparison to the hard yakka of early mothering. But it was traumatic for me, mainly due to my feelings of disempowerment throughout the process, the result of several factors.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if I had felt more in control and empowered throughout my birthing experience, I might have been better prepared psychologically, physically, mentally and emotionally for what lay ahead. A better first day at a tough new job so to speak. So much could be said about this topic…..but I’ll leave it at that for now.

What did my anxiety feel like?

For me, it had a very physical component. It was a hard ball that lodged itself very firmly at the front of my chest, just below my sternum, or in my solar plexus. So much could also be said about this in terms of the neural and vascular structures in this area (for the science-based creatures like me), as well as the chakra connections (for the more spiritually minded). However again, I’ll leave it at that for now.

It arrived at some point during labour and it was there always from then on. I felt it more when I took a deep breath so ironically, I sub-consciously avoided deep breathing (which any sensible person knows isn’t helpful when it comes to stress or anxiety!)

Its presence gifted me with that low-level feeling of ‘butterflies’ or nervousness, the unpleasant kind you get prior to public speaking. The intellectual side of me knew this was caused by the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol which help you prepare for a threat by getting you into good old ‘fight or flight’ mode. However, this feeling had taken up permanent residence.

And being in constant fight or flight mode ultimately results in adrenal fatigue. Which is not sustainable over long periods and ultimately you burn out and crash. For me personally, this resulted in:

  • Emotional lability and frequent crying
  • ‘Break downs’ and episodes of non-coping
  • Feelings of constant overwhelm
  • General feelings of lowness
  • Feelings of resentment towards my husband and baby
  • Weight loss (6kgs lighter than my pre-baby weight within 1 month post birth).

So many feelings! Still, all kinda normal new mum stuff right? Right????

How did this impact the people around me?

Friends – My friends thought I had things sussed and were surprised over time as I confided my true feelings. Amazing how well you can hold things together on the outside! I have great friends and a great supportive network who helped me enormously, but ultimately, it’s a journey you have to travel alone in so many ways.

Family – my mum copped it a bit and she helped enormously by helping me get some routines in place that soothed my need for control and predictability.

Husband – he copped it, sometimes rightly so, but in hindsight, he was going through his own adjustment issues. However, there were long periods where I felt abandoned and very unsupported by him. He’s a phenomenal man by the way.

What were my coping strategies?

  • Creating routine – getting some sense of control and predictability back into my life was a challenge but a godsend. The only problem with routine is when your baby doesn’t stick to it (as they often don’t) it can become a trigger…
  • Walking – I walked and walked and walked and walked and walked!! I walked for 4 hours every day for a while there. I walked to get out of the house, to help Oli sleep, to fill the hours, probably to escape myself…..it was a bit manic and probably a big part of why I reached sub 50kg
  • Binge reading Charles Dickens
  • Binge watching Netflix series
  • Creating the most beautiful baby photo book you ever did see…. which I haven’t’ actually got around to printing!
  • Calling PANDA
  • Seeing my GP
  • Seeing a couple of psychologists (the first one didn’t work for me and that’s the hard thing, finding a psych that you click with….)

How did my anxiety resolve?

Time was the main healer. Time and the development of better coping skills, confidence, autonomy and resilience as a mother, wife, woman and human being. At around 10 months (probably not a coincidence that this was when I returned to part-time work) I felt the hard ball in my chest loosen just a fraction. Picture a ball of yarn (except made of wire) tightly wound, loosening off just slightly, giving just a little more space and a sensation of slight release. The tightness of this ball waxed and waned over the next eight months, with a progressive overall loosening until it was just a few residual strands, which eventually dissolved away to nothing….

I remember so clearly the day I was out for a walk (yup my jam – but I was by myself on this occasion) and it was a beautiful day and I felt good. I remember taking a slow deep breath spontaneously….and realising with a feeling of absolute release and joy that my ‘anxiety ball’, my constant companion for 1.5 years was gone, completely gone. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. There was this enormous sensation of spaciousness and expansiveness in my chest where that ball had lived. I still every day feel thankful for the absence of that ball, particularly as I am well aware that for many people, that ball in its various guises is a lifelong companion.

How fortunate for me that it came and made me it’s home for a relatively short period, taught me it’s many lessons, helped me to become a better, stronger mother and woman, then moved on. I’m grateful.

Love Michelle

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PS – I’d love to hear your perinatal experiences and coping strategies. It’s not easy is it? Share your comments below.

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