I wrote this post very shortly after coming home from the hospital last month- before the COVID-19 pandemic had really escalated. In light of that I debated taking a break from posting, but then I wondered if maybe my anxiety coping mechanisms could help people out as we all go through this anxious time… I certainly find myself needing to use them again as I struggle to get through the fear of how long this will last, how bad it will be, and how uncertain everything feels- no clue what is next. So I’m publishing it today and hoping it doesn’t sound too tone deaf given how quickly our world seems to have changed…
In my last post, I wrote about how in all three of my pregnancies I struggled with prenatal anxiety, but the way I dealt with that anxiety changed as I learned more about what prenatal anxiety was, what it meant for me, and how I might deal with it given my choice to have more children. This post talks about some of the ways I “dealt with it” during this last pregnancy…
*Just like in my last post, I do list some specific fears and anxieties in this post so it could be triggering for others suffering from anxiety or those who have been through miscarriage or infant loss*
The third time around, my feelings of dread were particularly strong from day 1, but I found I was finally able to talk about my anxiety in the moment, yet in a strange detached way. I would find myself in moments where I could objectively observe what I’m going through, know it wasn’t logical, and either kind of scientifically remark on the sensation as a 3rd party observer, or else make some sarcastic or dismissive joke about it. For example: “I thought I’d relish the shiny hair and strong pregnancy nails this time… but just like the last time I’m just fighting stress breakouts and chewing my nails down to the nailbed, back to the habit I have thoroughly kicked whenever I’m not growing a human.” In the first trimester, this was to a very limited number of people, and I was particularly thankful to have some friends experiencing very similar feelings either in that same moment or in the recent past with whom I felt safe and not judged. I also started documenting my thoughts and specific fears so that one by one I could look back and see what I was afraid of that DIDN’T happen. Eventually, I started sharing more about what I was going through in more public spaces like on the blog or on my instagram account. Still, the only person who really saw all the panic and all the inconsolable crying and the desperate moments of being terrified to get out of bed (terrified, not too depressed or too nauseated, though the nausea was a factor some days, but actually convinced that if I got out of bed or left the house something awful was going to happen) was my husband. Having him around through my third pregnancy when he was gone for so much of my second was a big game changer and was the first step to helping me find other coping mechanisms that worked and kept our family functioning. He was there for me in a much more effective way because I had talked about my previous experiences with anxiety during a time when my hormones were back to a base level, and because we had agreed ahead of time on what might be ways he could help during the harder moments. I had also promised to show him my struggles more this time around instead of running to take a shower so I could cry uncontrollably. Just having him in my corner, knowing that he might get exhausted or annoyed with me in the moment (because nine months is a LONG time to feel like your partner is a bit of a different person), but I knew he would ever judge or shame me and that he would never leave me.
I already wrote about one of my greatest coping mechanisms this pregnancy- continuing to run, no matter how slow I had to go, really gave me the endorphins, the fresh air and sunshine, and the feeling of “normal” that helped me combat anxiety. I would have a really hard time getting out of the house to do this sometimes- envisioning how embarrassing it would be to throw up while on a run (did that… a few times… wasn’t as bad as I thought since there weren’t many people around to witness it…) or needing to be re-convinced that running was not going to hurt the baby (I think I asked my OB this every single appointment and then my husband would STILL have to remind me that it was going to be OK..) but having this outlet was such a help and I’m so glad I had made movement an important part of my daily life long before this last pregnancy started. It made me feel like there was this tiny piece of my health I could still control.
Having more solid commitments this pregnancy also helped me have times of the day where I had to find some extra inner strength and put my anxious thoughts to the side. This was the first pregnancy where I had to worry about taking kids to school, fulfilling my days at the co-op or volunteer hours I signed up for in classes, etc. I also had work commitments which also helped during my first pregnancy but that were completely lacking the second time around due to my hyperemesis. Sometimes just being forced out of my house and into the world was the best way to re-set my brain for a bit. I also just gave in to crazy nesting urges and all the to-do lists which, while usually this could lead to even more anxiety, once again gave me a feeling of some small thing I could control during all the ups and downs of pregnancy (yes, we did mop the garage floor, the back patio, etc. as well as taking out every single glass to wipe down not only the glasses but all the cabinet spaces, etc.)
My older kids helped my anxiety not only because of the aforementioned commitments I had to follow through on for them, but also as physical reminders that pregnancy CAN turn out ok. Every pregnancy I have been completely convinced that I would never actually get to meet the baby I was carrying inside. I know that miscarriage is a common fear, but usually one that seems to go away for most people after the first trimester. For the most part, I could talk myself through these fears, and this was the measure I used to decide I didn’t need to go back on medication this third time thanks to the other management strategies I was using. It was going well until the very end of my pregnancy when my anxiety ramped up even more and each night would lead me to nightmares or very vivid thoughts and images of finding out my baby had died before birth, of myself dying in childbirth, or of everything seeming to be ok and then the baby never waking up, of us never getting to take her home, all these themes in a hundred variations. Looking at my older kids reminded me I had the same fears (and even more not listed here…) and I DID get to meet them. I DID get to bring them home. There IS another side to the story and it is the very likely side in spite of what my brain kept telling me over and over again. My older kids also reminded me that it was OK to talk about feelings and that big emotions and big fears are very human things. I got to experience them telling me they loved me and that everything would be OK, and I got to have the challenge of reassuring them that their mom would be fine after they found out I had to go to a hospital to have the baby since they associate hospitals with places where people are sick and something is wrong. They even prayed with me when we were all feeling a particularly hard day.
Finally, I continued to try and cultivate the habit of having more fun- I realized with my theme of FUN for last year that sometimes you just have to choose it instead of waiting for it to happen to you. Having practiced choosing fun for half the year, it was easier to keep practicing that choice. I decided to try and interrupt the anxiety for fun breaks- I told myself it could be like a muscle, just five minutes at a time on the bad days, working up to 15 or 20 minutes or even an hour of fun without invasive thoughts on the good days. Part of this strategy also meant getting some of the things I couldn’t stop fretting about done and over with as soon as possible to get back to having fun. This included things like getting blood work done when I could have scheduled it for a week or two later, facing some financial realities and making a plan instead of putting that off, accepting that I would have to miss things I was looking forward to due to finances or illness or just bad timing and letting it go instead of dwelling on the FOMO. It meant that even though this third time around was still hard, we still have a family year book filled with memories of hiking on beautiful days, going out for surprise ice cream or lemonade dates, and following through on family traditions, even if all those things happened right alongside the daily fear.
I don’t know if these strategies will be helpful for others out there who are struggling from prenatal or post partum mental health challenges, but I hope at the very least it will help others know they are not a lone and it will help me feel less like my pregnancy struggles must be kept as a shameful secret. I am so thankful I was able to grow and birth three beautiful children, but I am even more thankful they are now outside my body and making memories with me day by day. And I’m grateful for all the people who help me feel that I don’t need to feel guilty that I’m a lot happier now that we are in that phase!