'I had 10 panic attacks a day': Brisbane mum's 'horrific' experience with perinatal anxiety

Photos: Jose Harding at 28-weeks pregnant and with her daughter, Matilda.
Photos: Jose Harding at 28-weeks pregnant and with her daughter, Matilda. Photo: Supplied

Jose Harding was thrilled to discover she was pregnant just five days before her wedding. 

She had longed for a baby and conceived quickly, but soon found herself in a very dark place as perinatal anxiety took hold.

"All you ever hear is, 'this is supposed to be a wonderful time for you. You should be happy; you should be joyous'. I just felt like I was failing at being pregnant," the Brisbane mum tells Essential Baby. "It was horrific."

Photo: Jose experienced crippling perinatal anxiety
Photo: Jose experienced crippling perinatal anxiety Photo: Supplied

The anxiety attacks began early on in the pregnancy when Harding developed hyperemesis and had to go to work in the hospital emergency department as a nurse.

"I never knew when I was going to vomit, which triggered the anxiety," she explains. "I was nervous about driving on the motorway to work and not knowing when I would vomit - and that I would crash my car, killing myself and my unborn baby. I had a lot of fear that took over."

The hyperemesis was so bad she was hospitalised several times and continued through until 26 weeks.  But the anxiety had also taken over her life.

"I struggled to leave the house," she said. "I was suffering from about 10 panic attacks a day, which was really hard to deal with in public and kept me home. It felt like they would last an hour, but it turned out I was having multiple. I would come out of one and go straight into another.

According to Harding, she felt like she just "couldn't do 'it', whatever 'it' was."

"My husband would say it's only nine months it won't last forever, but I couldn't see it," she said. "There was constant dread sitting in the pit of my stomach. I knew I couldn't go on feeling this miserable for nine months and worried I would get postnatal depression and the feeling would stay."

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The mum-of-one said joining due date groups exacerbated her feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. They made her feel 'guilty' because she had fallen pregnant easily and wasn't enjoying it while other women were struggling to conceive.

"I felt like I was losing my mind," she adds. 

Finally, at her first hospital appointment at 20 weeks she was put under the care of a special mental health pregnancy team, which she found very helpful.

Photo: Jose at her baby shower. Supplied
Photo: Jose at her baby shower. Supplied 

However, the anxiety didn't abate, and suicidal thoughts took hold.

By 31 weeks her anxiety and suicidal thoughts became extreme.

Harding finally called the hospital and spoke to the head psychology nurse who assured her she wasn't alone and urged her to seek help from a peer support organisation called Peach Tree Perinatal Wellness.

Photo: Jose is sharing her story to help other mums who may be experiencing perinatal anxiety.
Photo: Jose is sharing her story to help other mums who may be experiencing perinatal anxiety.  Photo: Supplied

"I remember getting up and crying and having a panic attack, but knew I needed to get myself there," she says through tears. "I sat there telling a group of strangers I had suicidal thoughts. I was waiting for a police car to turn up and take me away."

However, as she opened up about her story she saw everyone else nodding their heads and realised they had all experienced similar feelings.

"The warmth I got from this bunch of mums that I had never met before brings a tear to my eyes," Jose shared.

"Mums are so worried that by voicing their fears they will have their child taken off them.  Peach Tree is safe and tells you it is all normal and it is okay to feel the way you are feeling."

According to Vivianne Townsend, the CEO of Peach Tree, one in 10 women will experience anxiety or depression during pregnancy. However, she says the condition is under-reported and believes the figures are closer to one in three.

"A lot of mothers don't speak up and seek help for a range of reasons," she tells Essential Baby. "There is still a lot of stigma around it, particularly self-stigma.

Mothers feel like they are the only ones going through it and are a failure at motherhood.  It can be a very isolating experience to go through."

Vivianne founded Peach Tree in 2011 after her own experience with postnatal depression and losing her sister to maternal suicide, which is the leading cause of maternal death in Australia.

"I was trying to understand what was going on and the more I opened up to other mothers people would tell me their story," she said. "I became very aware mental illness is very deeply embedded into the parenting community but not spoken about."

Peach Tree allows mothers to find each other instead of sitting at home, alone, thinking they are the only ones going through it.

"Everyone (at Peach Tree) has a story of lived experiences as well as hope and recovery," she explains. "It is about normalising this struggle and validating people's experiences, so they realise it is okay if they feel like this and help them access support to help them feel better.

We use a non-judgemental village building approach to help people increase their support network and access services that will help them."

Townsend believed there is a desperate need for earlier access to information on perinatal anxiety, particularly in antenatal classes.

"We are not prepping people early enough to make them understand these things can happen."

Harding still attends Peach Tree with her daughter Matilda, now two, and said she loves being able to give back and provide reassurance to new mums.

You can contact Peach Tree on 1800 732 249 and access their Zoom meetings across Australia.