PREGNANCY, ANXIETY + MEDICATION
Anna Williamson's story
Breaking Mad author Anna Williamson on her anxiety and medication journey during pregnancy
Ten years ago Anna Williamson, 34, was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and panic disorder. She then trained to be a counsellor and neuro-linguistic programming practitioner, which she now balances with her career in television and being an ambassador for Mind. Currently pregnant with her first child, she discusses disclosing a mental health condition to the ante-natal team and coming off medication.
When I was 24, I was presenting a kids’ show called Toonattik, it was a high-energy role and I would absorb myself in it. It was the best job in the world. But I was placing a lot of stress on myself and I was in a toxic relationship at the time. I suffered with it for about nine months without telling anybody, then it all came to a head and there was no hiding it any more. I was breaking down in tears, I wasn’t sleeping. I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and panic disorder which, for me, was brilliant. It was a relief to know these feelings were actually a thing, that I wasn’t just a total weirdo, and that I wasn’t losing my mind.
I struggled with it. I was having to gear myself up to these levels of adrenaline for the show, but my body wasn’t recognising the adrenaline as a good thing. I was starting to get withdrawn, I was getting obsessive about being home on time because I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Anything I enjoyed doing such as going to party or going on a theme park ride would result in a panic attack, and it got out of hand.
THE PANIC ATTACKS
For me, they are all-consuming and very physical: a hot rush from the bottom of my stomach all the way up to the top of my head. It feels as if a hot poker is going into my chest, and I have an overwhelming urge to get the hell out of where I am. They are the most lonely, isolating, terrifying pockets of time that I have ever experienced.
I’ve been on medication intermittently. I went on it for three years, then I came off it. I felt the feelings creeping back in, so went back on it until I got pregnant. I was on a low dose of escitalopram which is there to help balance out your brain chemicals, and it really worked for me. I don’t think there should be any stigma attached to people who need to take medication for mental health.
ANXIETY MEDICATION AND PREGNANCY
We didn’t know how long it would take to get pregnant so I didn’t want to tempt fate and come off the medication. When I found out, I went straight to my GP and said that this is probably the push I needed to come off, we discussed it, and I came off the meds in two weeks. I knew my level was so low, I hardly had any need to be on it anyway, I just hadn’t removed myself from the last dosage. If things are bubbling along nicely, you don’t want to upset the apple cart.
But when you’re carrying a little one, when someone tells you there’s any percentage of risk to the unborn child from something you are ingesting, you’re naturally going to have feelings around that. Obviously there are some women for whom it is far more sensible to stay on medication than to come off it. If you have a woman wrought with anxiety or depression during pregnancy, it might cause far more damage in the long run. You have to weigh these things up, and your GP will be able to tell you if there are medications that are safer for mum and baby, which you can continue taking.
TELLING THE HOSPITAL ABOUT THE HISTORY OF ANXIETY
I also disclosed my condition to the hospital midwives. You immediately get an appointment with an obstetric consultant who will check how you are. Mine was brilliant, we had a fabulous chat, how I was feeling, what to look out for, how we could treat that, she gave me all the information. It’s fabulous that the NHS offer that support facility, there was no judging, no one was going to take your baby away or say you’re going to be crap mother, there was just support and options. I always tell my clients, ‘it’s not your fault, you didn’t ask for it and it’s not a dirty little secret’. Don’t feel you have to hide it, there is so much more help out there if you actually admit it.
KEEPING WELL IN PREGNANCY WITHOUT MEDICATION
I was worried it might affect me, mainly because I didn’t know what pregnancy would do to me and how it would make me feel, I didn’t know whether it might wallop in a massive anxiety bout, but I’ve kept a good eye on it. I’ve kept in really good tune with myself, and my husband is in good tune with me. I’m very relaxed about the birth, and no anxiety has crept up on me yet. If it does, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. The more you fear something like that, the more likely it is to happen.
DEALING WITH ANXIETY AND A NEW BABY
Sleep deprivation was a huge cause of my anxiety and so it is something I am very wary of. I know you can’t choose to sleep if your baby needs you, and I will address that as and when it comes. My husband is freelance, he’s a personal trainer, so he will be very hands-on. I am lucky to have family around, and I’m into yoga and meditation. For me, 20 minutes of deep meditation is akin to an hour’s good sleep. I’ll give that a try to see how it works. And I’ve told my husband that the one thing we’re getting is a cleaner.
:: Anna is an Ambassador for Mind, the mental health charity, which exists to ensure that no one has to face a mental health problem alone. Please contact them on 0300 123 3393 if you need any guidance on the issues raised above.