I steeled myself for postnatal depression, but perinatal anxiety caught me by surprise

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When I was about 24 weeks pregnant, I had a panic attack one night as I was trying to go to sleep. I'd been lying in bed daydreaming about the typical kinds of things expectant mothers daydream about – what the child will look like, what kind of personality they might have, how it would feel to meet them for the first time – when I was suddenly struck by an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia. I became acutely aware of the entity inside me, but more specifically I became aware of how little control I had over the entire situation.

I had experienced a glimpse of this feeling some 10 weeks earlier while eating dinner at a friend's house. I'd been telling her about the different types of fruit assigned to each week's stage of gestational development. At 14 weeks, it was the size of a lemon. At 16 weeks, it would be the size of an avocado. At 18, a capsicum. As I said this, a cold wave washed over me. I didn't want something the size of a capsicum inside me, let alone something that would end up being the size of a newborn baby. I was so disconcerted by the thought of it that I needed to go lie down on the couch.

The anxious, suffocated feeling that struck me that night soon passed and I fully expected this later manifestation of it to do the same. But it was still there when I woke up the next morning, a creeping sense of disquiet and fear that only grew stronger as the day went on. All I could think about were the weeks stretching out in front of me. Sixteen of them, and nothing I could do to speed them up. It reminded me of the feeling I had on flights, which had also become a source of deep anxiety for me over the past few years. I was stuck in the mid-air of pregnancy, and I couldn't force the plane to land on the reassuring, blessed ground.

What if the most harmless of all my mistakes has turned out to be the most dangerous mistake of all?
What if the most harmless of all my mistakes has turned out to be the most dangerous mistake of all? Photo: Jesse Booher

It was the beginning of an intensely traumatic experience, one that has made me fearful of trying for a second child. I regressed very quickly to the patterns of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that I had as an adolescent. My mind played on a loop, fixating on the days and weeks that I had left. The kicks and flips that I had treasured not long before became taunting reminders of the mental distress I was in. I couldn't eat or sleep. I walked everywhere, pounding the pavement for kilometres at a time in an attempt to distract myself from the monotonous loop of thoughts playing repeatedly in my head. At night, I lay in the bath and had terrible, frightening thoughts of suicide. I didn't want to die but I couldn't bear the low hum of terror that had become my unwelcome companion.

I didn't realise it in the beginning, but I was experiencing antenatal anxiety. Because of my mental health history, I had steeled myself for what I thought would be a reality of postnatal depression. I'd briefed my partner to be on the lookout for it, telling him it was more likely than not that I'd be affected by it in some way. But I had never heard of it happening during the pregnancy, so when it did I was completely unprepared.

In fact, antenatal depression and anxiety is almost as common as postnatal depression but awareness about it is significantly lower. Where one in seven women are diagnosed with postnatal depression, one in 10 pregnant women suffer from the antenatal variety. Antenatal anxiety is thought to be even more common but is often dismissed by sufferers (and sometimes even health professionals) as being "normal" pregnancy hormones and concerns. The terrible consequence of this silencing isn't just untreated mental trauma – undiagnosed cases of antenatal depression and anxiety increase the chance of mothers developing postnatal depression and anxiety.

Since 2005, Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australian (PANDA) has been running an awareness week – this year's is from November 13-19. One of the aims is to encourage people to talk openly about the struggles they may be having during pregnancy or parenthood. I have long had a policy of being open about my mental health issues, and this time was no different. I told my friends, family and doctor. I began to see a mindfulness coach who helped rationalise a lot of my panic. I reached out to Miki Perkins at The Age, because she had written so frankly about her own terrifying battle with antenatal depression. Her counsel came at my lowest point and proved to be an invaluable support. (I acknowledge that there is privilege in being able to be so open about such things; many women have perinatal anxiety compounded for them by the very real fear that their children will be taken away. This is abhorrent and cruel.)

Ultimately, I overcame the darkness that descended during my pregnancy. By week 35, it had well and truly started to lift. During the peak of its intensity, I calmed myself by obsessively googling images of premature babies, the depth of my illness leading me to believe that an early birth would be better than the trauma I was feeling. There is a level of irony to the fact that I pushed back against professional advice to induce when I proceeded past my due date with no sign of movement at the station. The stormy seas had calmed. I had made it back to shore, and I had brought my baby with me. Our time together has been blessed with laughter, joy and more love than I could have ever imagined. The anxiety? It hasn't returned. In fact, when it left it took my fear of flying with it.

If you are struggling with perinatal anxiety, you don't have to suffer in silence. Seek help by calling PANDA, or reach out to friends and family if this is safe for you. You and your baby are going to be OK. Please know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Because no matter how far away it seems, the train is always moving towards it.

PANDA Awareness Week runs from Nov 13-19. Spread the word on social media by sharing PANDA updates or share you own experience with a message, photo or video using the hashtags #bePNDAaware #PNDAawarenessweek

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