If you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety during pregnancy, or are feeling unable to cope, please get in touch with your GP or midwife – they are here to help.
For those fortunate enough to enjoy a healthy pregnancy, there are probably few things in life as incredible as growing a baby. As I sit here typing at five months pregnant, it still makes my head spin to think that somewhere beneath my laptop and oversized knickers, floats a tiny human being. I’ve seen the inside of their heart, watched flashes of light move through their brain and watched as they’ve yawned after a hard day in the womb.
It’s been a magical, wild and surreal experience.
However, there’s also the reality that the magical bits aside, pregnancy can prove a daunting, scary and overwhelming time.
I’ve always been terrible with change and uncertainty. I’m a planner, an over-thinker and someone who considers the ‘unknown’ to be public enemy number one. All of these things are catnip for my anxiety; luring it out of its neurotic little cave and handing it a VIP pass to my brain.
(To give you an idea of just how deep-seated this aversion to change is, I once spent an entire week crying after I was surprised with a two-week, all-inclusive holiday to Jamaica).
Thanks to this neuroticism, I’ve long suspected that pregnancy might be a challenge for me; a battle between my brain and well, uterus. In and amongst the raging hormones and lumpy boobs, I knew I’d have to manage living with a level of change that was (and still is) difficult to comprehend, alongside a degree of uncertainty that no amount of reading, researching or planning could curb.
Add to this the very real expectation that newly pregnant women should be serenely floating on cloud nine, experiencing these negative emotions can be tough. In fact, it might not be long before guilt and shame appear on the scene; transforming any cloud nine into a big, ugly storm cloud.
My Own Journey & Coping With Anxiety During Pregnancy
A few months in and I’m relieved say that I’m now extremely excited and happy to be expecting my first baby. However, for the first few weeks of my pregnancy, these happier feelings were nowhere to be seen – they were MIA, AWOL. Instead, I felt anxious and scared; something made worse by the guilt that that I should only be rubbing my tummy and sighing contentedly.
My journey from these grey storm clouds to sunnier weather did take a little while, but with the determination to not let anxiety hijack my entire pregnancy, I set off down the path with gritted teeth.
Like any other mental health challenge, dealing with perinatal anxiety requires a proactive and conscious effort – something that can feel difficult when the winds of change are buffeting you from every direction. But, by committing to just a few exercises and practices, anxiety can be relegated to the sidelines.
If you are experiencing anxiety during your pregnancy, or you feel like your perinatal mental health might not be as tip top as you’d hope, the aim of this blog is to therefore reassure you that you’re not alone (far from it). Instead, these feelings are entirely normal and, by just taking a few steps in the right direction, you can (and will) enjoy your pregnancy.
You will be OK, I promise.
Coping with Anxiety During Pregnancy: Tips & Methods
It’s OK to be Shocked (Even if it Was Planned)
Somewhere along the line, I unfortunately fell for those Clear Blue adverts hook, line and sinker. Thanks to them, I imagined that the day that I found out I was pregnant, I’d be wearing expensive looking leisure wear and whispering – “I’m pregnant!” – to a hidden camera in my bathroom.
As it was, I’d actually just eaten the world’s biggest takeaway and was halfway through an ice-cold G&T when I remembered the pregnancy test upstairs. There were a few niggling clues for couple of weeks that I was pregnant (and by niggling, I mean the sensation that my boobs were now two old sacks filled with rocks) and thought it was best to take the test before I carried on with my Friday night drinks.
I nipped upstairs and did the deed – half excited, half not expecting anything at all. Of course, that’s the moment that everything changed.
Staggering back downstairs, I was in complete and utter shock. I felt like I had a bad case of vertigo – or was watching myself back on the TV screen. I bet this was how Alice felt when she squeezed through that door and stumbled into Wonderland.
Everything was the same, except everything had changed.
It turns out that rather than experiencing a heavenly ray of sunshine when I found out I was pregnant, I instead embarked on some sort of existential crisis. Imagining and willing myself to be pregnant – and genuinely being with child – were apparently two very different things.
This shock lingered for a few weeks, before morphing into the guilt hangover from hell. Surely a ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ mum would be like those ladies in the Clear Blue adverts? Surely I should have been laughing and smiling at the freshly peed on stick?
I felt like I’d ruined the one moment that every woman was meant to enjoy.
However, as time has passed, I’ve realised that there is no right or wrong way to respond to something as life changing as a pregnancy test. How you react is your reaction, your reality – something you’re entitled to. It’s not an indicator of whether you’ll be a good or bad Mum – and it certainly doesn’t decide how worthy you are of a baby.
Consequently, I’d like to reassure anyone who didn’t quite experience that choir of angels that it’s OK – please be kind to yourself. Shut out the noise of how you think you ‘should’ have reacted and ignore the opinions of others.
Remember – that test is only the very start of a much longer journey for you and your baby; a journey that will offer plenty of other opportunities for celestial music, rainbows and sunshine.
The (Apparent) Ordinariness of Pregnancy
One way I like to wrestle uncertainty to the ground is through a mixture of planning, diary entries and research.
Naturally, within 12 hours of finding out I was pregnant, I’d booked a GP appointment and ordered a blood pressure machine from Amazon. I don’t think I’d even fully registered my own pregnancy by this point, but I was incredibly anxious that a healthcare professional (aka an adult) step in.
My stomach churning, I rang the doctor. Perhaps it was all the Coronavirus news, or maybe it was because I was still in a state of delirious shock, but I decided to greet her by declaring: ‘I’ve tested positive for pregnancy’.
The doctor was shatteringly underwhelmed by my news. In fact, I think I heard her begin to file a nail in the background. Sounding a little distant, she told me to fill in a form online and a midwife would be touch. She then wished me good luck and hung up.
Panicked, I turned to my midwife – who, it turns out, was similarly lack-lustre about the whole affair. Our initial appointment involved a quick phone consultation, before she turned up on my doorstep with a pile of notes.
Unaware she was going to visit, I panicked and invited her in – assuming she was here to undertake some sort of home check. (The same had happened when we re-homed a cat, so it didn’t seem too far-fetched that she’d want to come to assess our living arrangements). As it happens, she couldn’t care less where we lived – she was just here to tell me she’d see me again in twelve weeks.
Twelve long weeks.
This is where I learnt my first humbling and reassuring lesson about pregnancy. While for me it felt like a huge, cataclysmic event that I assumed healthcare professional in the country would scramble to monitor, the reality was a lot more sobering – people barely cared.
In a way, this really helped to dampen my perinatal anxiety. I was (apparently), trusted to see this process through largely on my own – something that inadvertently boosted my own confidence.
The GP and midwife’s bored and relaxed reaction to my dramatic revelation was the perfect antidote to anxiety’s hysteria – reminding me of my own capabilities.
Remember: It’s a Transition
Initially, I’d have said that those that say it takes nine months to become a mother are horribly mistaken.
From experience, it takes around three minutes: from the moment you pee on a stick, to the moment the result appears.
My world felt completely different between being apparently ‘unpregnant’ at 7.10pm, to being decidedly with child at 7.15pm. It was an event that acted like rocket fuel for my anxiety; stoking a feeling that life was suddenly out of control – accelerating towards a foreign destination that I felt completely unprepared to visit.
It’s here that I would urge anyone to just slow down – breathe, pause. It’s absolutely something I wish I’d done during those early days of perinatal anxiety.
Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, pregnancy (like the eventual shift to motherhood), is a transition. A complicated, long and seismic sort of transition that can take a while to digest. This is a theory supported by pretty much every other culture than the apparently ‘enlightened’ West.
Just the other day I was reading about the Toda people in India, where pregnant and new mothers are separated from society and taken into different huts or dwellings. Here, they are given time to transition into their new role – reciting prayers, undertaking rituals and preparing for the fundamental physical and psychological changes ahead. Pregnancy is understood to be a transition – a rite of passage.
Or, to put it bluntly – a bloody big deal.
When I read this, I remember looking wistfully at our garden shed and wondering whether I could perhaps move in; emerging a few months later with a bulging belly and some sort of innate wisdom bestowed on me by months living alongside spiders and the lawnmower.
While I did eventually decide against this, I did take the idea of ‘transition’ to heart. I decided to take a step back from the noise, chaos and opinions that come with pregnancy – refusing to get sucked into the loud and confusing world of nursery furniture, breastfeeding and lectures on how to get my ‘pre-baby’ body back post birth.
That was for later down the line.
For the first 12 weeks, all I did was therefore ‘sit’ with my pregnancy. I didn’t really talk about it and I definitely didn’t plan anything. All I did was let myself become gradually more aware and used to the idea of what was happening.
Allowing myself to gradually ride out this transition was the best thing I could have done. Without consciously trying, my feelings and emotions gently shifted, until one week I found myself crying in the bath because I was worried that getting angry with Boris Johnson had somehow also upset my beautiful, little baby.
Those protective and maternal feelings were of course there – they just needed to develop in their own time.
Talk, Talk, Talk – Friends, Therapists, Your Midwife, The Cat
For a lot of ladies who experience anxiety during pregnancy, it can be something that’s difficult to talk about.
In a culture in which pregnancy is only portrayed in glowingly positive terms, it’s hard to experience anything less than ecstasy.
This is absolutely something I struggled with – and I still feel apologetic for now. I’m very conscious pregnancy is a privilege and many women are unable to experience it; something that makes the fact that I didn’t enjoy those early days even harder.
However, the reality is that perinatal anxiety (and depression) has to be spoken about more – it must be. While there is fantastic awareness around postnatal depression and a swathe of resources on offer, there isn’t so much focus on those experiencing anxiety or depression during pregnancy.
Due to my own history of anxiety and my determination to be honest about my mental health, I realised quite early on that the most effective thing I could do was to be completely open and candid about my emotions. I needed to talk to my partner, friends, my midwife/GP and my therapist about all of my worries; big and small.
In the end, I spoke to my therapist three times at the start of my pregnancy and regularly leaned on my loyal and supportive friends for support. My GP was also gently reassuring and my fantastic midwife offered extra care and support if I needed it.
As a result, I felt surrounded by a safety net of people that I could rely on if things got tough.
It’s because I knew that this perinatal mental health support was on hand that I never, in the end, really needed it (although I am fully prepared to grab it with both hands if things head south). Just knowing the help was there – and that how I was feeling was OK, normal and accepted – was enough to hugely alleviate my perinatal anxiety and improve my mental health.
Finding Self-Confidence (Hypnobirthing)
When it comes to my anxiety – particularly the anxiety I’ve experienced during pregnancy – a lot of it comes down to a lack of confidence. I don’t trust myself to get through hard or difficult times.
This, of course, is complete rubbish. If there’s one thing that anxiety has taught me, it’s that I am more resilient and stronger than I think.
After a lovely chat with my therapist early on in my pregnancy, one thing that I noticed she kept repeating (after I hit her with yet another ‘but, what if?’ question) was: ‘then we will cope and deal with it when and if the time comes’.
It was such a simple message, but such a reassuring one. If a problem arose (the baby got sick, my anxiety got worse), we would simply deal with it at the time. No need to worry about these things now – if the worst happened I would manage and everything would be OK.
The word ‘we’ was also really important here; making me feel reassured that I’d have my own merry band of lifeboats and rubber rings on hand if the going got tough.
For an extra confidence boost, I also started hypnobirthing. I was a little sceptical at the start about just how effective this would be (I wasn’t very keen on the chanting mantra part), but I’ve been really surprised by just how empowering and reassuring it’s proven to be. Through listening to recordings, educating myself on birth and naturalising the whole thing, I feel a lot more comfortable with what’s going on.
Most importantly, perhaps, is that I’ve learned that this is a journey that is rocky, bumpy and often hard for lots of women – not just me. However, and despite this, these women do endure and come through the other side, just as I will.
This little bit of confidence has gone such a long way in helping me manage my perinatal anxiety.
Exercise & Self-Care
As ever, exercise has been the star of the show when coping with anxiety during my pregnancy.
For some mystifying reason, there seems to be the suggestion that pregnant women transform into sickly, fragile beings the moment conception takes place. The only good place for us (apparently) is on the sofa, draped in some sort of draught-proof blanket.
Thankfully, this is a view that’s now largely been rubbished.
Being active during pregnancy is not dangerous (with the right modifications and in moderation, of course) – in fact, it’s fantastic. It keeps your body moving, prevents aches and pains and, best of all, floods your brain with calming and stabilising chemicals able to combat those rogue pregnancy hormones.
Throughout my first trimester, I felt too sick to exercise as much as I would have liked. However, as my second trimester kicked in, I was able to exercise again – enjoying antenatal workouts, Pilates and running (yes, if you ran before pregnancy, you can continue to in pregnancy, provided it’s not uncomfortable).
Introducing exercise back into my life has been a genuine breath of fresh air (quite literally) – getting me back outside and giving me time to just be me; headphones in and my music blasting. I notice just how differently I feel during the day if I start it with exercise – and it’s resulted in a much more energised and positive pregnancy, with much reduced perinatal anxiety.
Own Your Journey & Protect Your Boundaries
Finally, I cannot stress how important it is to feel comfortable and secure knowing that this is your journey – and yours alone.
How you feel, how you react, what you want to do and how you want to parent – is entirely your decision and your inherent right.
Aside from your partner, it has nothing to do with anyone else.
Comparison is the thief of joy and thanks to social media, comparison within motherhood is now rife. It seems that the world and his wife now have an opinion on everything from the name of your baby, to how you wipe its bum. People will criticise you for having an active pregnancy, whilst being dismayed at other’s ‘lazy’ pregnancies. You’ll be criticised for continuing to work and cast as slothful for choosing to shop.
It’s an inescapable world of tilted tables and unworkable contradictions – no wonder so many of us suffer with anxiety during pregnancy.
Exacerbating this is the unsettling lack of boundaries that surround pregnancy and parenthood (boundaries that, in any other walk of life, are wholly respected). Instead, and from the moment your baby is just a bundle of cells in your uterus, many assume that their entirely unsolicited opinion must be – has to be – heard.
My advice? Step away from it. Step away from it all.
By setting better boundaries and shutting out the noise, pregnancy becomes a lot less anxiety-inducing. Rather than believing you’re feeling the wrong way or doing something wrong, you can instead respect and validate your own emotions – being kinder to yourself in the process.
As long as your partner, baby and health care professionals are happy, so should you.
Pregnancy is a crazy, wild and wholly individual journey. Just because yours might not look like someone else’s, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. This is your lived experience and no one experience is the same.
Instead, all we can do is embrace this distinctly personal journey as it is, be proud of it and support other ladies knowing that each of us is, in the end, different.
Managing Anxiety During Pregnancy: Final Thoughts
While it’s fantastic that resources supporting women’s (and indeed, men’s) postnatal mental health are now far reaching, it still remains that many women struggle with anxiety or depression before their babies arrive.
In truth, perinatal mental health, while incredibly important, is often overlooked – something that might make women feeling anything less than ecstatic somehow deficient.
However, what I hope this blog reminds you is that pregnancy is a wild, crazy and hormone filled time; a period in your life that marks a transition like no other. Yes, it’s magical and often filmed only in soft focus, but it’s also a daunting, overwhelming and film-noir sort of affair.
That you might feel anxious or down during your pregnancy is therefore entirely understandable. You are, I promise, normal.
So, please don’t suffer in silence . Do speak to your partner, your GP, your midwife or your friends – and permit yourself to experience this journey on your terms. Remember, how you start out on this path is not necessarily how it’ll end – even the toughest of beginnings can have the happiest of endings.