Why did I get Postnatal Depression? Why did I develop Anxiety? Why me? These questions haunted me for a really long time during the latter stages of recovery. After the initial illness begins to pass we can be left with many difficult emotions; confusion, anger, grief for the time we’ve lost and sadness. We can often feel utterly robbed of the early happiness other parents experience and processing those feelings can be really tough. Frankly, jealousy would often consume me.
If you don’t have a history of mental illness, as I didn’t, Anxiety can feel like a huge shock. I couldn’t understand how this could happen to me when I was from a really stable happy family, our baby was planned, and I was emotionally and financially ready for parenthood. And yet it did. Because perinatal mental illness does not discriminate and there is no definitive cause for it.
Having said that, doctors and psychologists have identified several risk factors, and some of them may surprise you. Some factors that may contribute to Postnatal Depression & Anxiety include:
- Family or personal history of mental illness
- Past abuse
- Traumatic birth or birth disappointment
- A difficult pregnancy
- Fertility problems
- Relationship struggles or being the victim of an abusive relationship
- Stressful life events such as moving house or changing / losing jobs
- Bereavement during pregnancy
- Social isolation
- Lack of support
- Financial difficulties
If one or more of these applies to you then that could provide some explanation for your illness. I took some strange comfort from this list when I was unwell. I had a fairly traumatic birth experience, resulting in an emergency c-section. I was made redundant during my pregnancy, following an extremely stressful period at work. And, sadly, I lost my Nan a few months before my son was born, the emotion of which I buried until much later due to fear of exposing the baby to stress.
I don’t think it appears on any lists but the biggest cause for me was my expectations of parenthood. We had planned to have children for a very long time before we actually did and a combination of influences from peers, the media and my own core beliefs led me to hold new motherhood on a desperately unrealistic pedestal. When the intense happiness I was expecting didn’t rush over me immediately after birth something in my mind just snapped.
Type A Personality
There is also an argument that certain personality traits leave you more at risk, especially when it comes to Anxiety. If you’re a more intense, rigidly organised, sensitive, impatient and anxious person (think Monica from Friends!) then it makes sense to me that you would be more likely to experience Postnatal Anxiety than someone who is naturally more laid-back and puts less expectations on themselves.
Although discovering all this brought me comfort initially I soon realised the emotions I was feeling – in particular anger, jealousy and grief – couldn’t be wished away with cold hard facts. I had to feel them. I had to allow those feelings to wash through me – the same way I did with the anxiety symptoms themselves – and, most importantly, give myself time and forgiveness.
Plus, this isn’t an exact science. Our healthcare professionals are still learning and there are plenty of examples of people suffering who didn’t have any of these contributing factors. It would seem that sometimes Perinatal Mental Illness is just a roll of the dice.
I wrote this post three years ago and when I look back now I can see how much the intensity of that grief has faded. I still have moments of sadness of course, when I look back at baby photos or see other new mums who are healthy and happy, but it’s no longer something that consumes me. I have lots more perspective these days and because I enjoy my son so much now it helps to heal the pain of the past.
So although it can be helpful to know the Postnatal Depression & Anxiety risk factors when you’re desperately searching for an answer to the why me question, it’s perhaps more important to work on accepting your feelings and being as kind to yourself as possible while letting them pass through.