When I opened up about my struggles with tokophobia and anxiety during my pregnancy last year, a wonderful thing happened: readers started confiding in me about their own early pregnancies, and telling me my posts on anxiety had helped them feel a little bit less alone when they found themselves dealing with the same thing.
So, first of all, I just want to encourage you all to keep doing that: seriously, I might take a little longer than usual to respond right now (Then reason for that is currently napping in his swing next to me, and is the living proof that anxiety and tokophobia CAN be overcome – I mean, if I can do it, anyone can, right?), but it makes me so happy to know those posts have helped some of you, and if there’s anything else I can do in that respect – even if it’s just lending a sympathetic ear from time to time – I’m more than happy to hear from you. I think early pregnancy especially can be such a lonely time: you’re basically stuck in this weird limbo where the pregnancy is so all-consuming that it’s literally ALL you can think about, but hey, guess what’s the ONE THING you absolutely CAN’T talk about? Yeah, it’s that same thing you can’t stop thinking about! Lucky you! Welcome to your new life!
(If you need a quick response, btw, Instagram is probably your best bet – I basically live there now, so shoot me a private message and at least it won’t have to compete with all of those pesky guest post requests clogging up my inbox …)
As I’ve had so much interest in this topic, though, I thought it might be helpful, now that I’ve come out the other side of the process, so to speak, to talk a bit about some of the things that helped me through it: obviously everyone is different, and there’s no “quick fix” for ANY kind of anxiety, unfortunately, but here are some of the things I’d recommend to anyone dealing with pregnancy anxiety…
First, know that you’re not alone
As I said above, early pregnancy can be a lonely time for anyone, I think (I wrote a bit here about how I struggled with the constant, low-level deception involved in the first trimester, and even when you’re just trying to conceive: I honestly wish our culture was a bit more open about this stuff, because, for me at least, while I understand the reason for it, the secrecy really added to the stress I was already under), but for those of us struggling with anxiety, it can be even more so – not just because there’s no one you can really turn to for reassurance, but also because it makes you feel like such a FREAK.
EVERYONE has babies, after all – or, at least, it can feel that way when you’re trying to start a family of your own. And everyone just seems to… well, HAVE THEM, without any fuss or drama: so when you find yourself feeling so scared you can barely even function, it’s hard not to wonder why you’re so different from everyone else, and why you can’t just get on with it, like every other woman in the world seems to.
Well, I’m here to tell you that everyone else DOESN’T “just get on with it” – it just LOOKS like that, because pregnancy anxiety isn’t something that’s really talked about: in fact, a lot of the time, women are actively discouraged from saying anything that might be perceived as “negative” about their pregnancies, and to just pretend that everything is wonderful, out of respect to those who aren’t so fortunate.
I, of course, DIDN’T pretend everything was wonderful, and although I had my fair share of scoldings from people who felt I shouldn’t be complaining, and should just “enjoy” the experience (My favourite comment is still the one from the woman who wanted me to “enjoy” the morning sickness – sister, NO ONE actively ENJOYS throwing up, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar…) (Actually, I say this like it’s funny, but it’s actually pretty serious, as comments like that one really help illustrate the level of pressure pregnant women are given to remain “positive” NO MATTER WHAT. I mean, if we’re not even allowed to throw up without being told to enjoy it, no wonder women dealing with anxiety are made to feel like freaks, right?)… er, let’s just start that sentence again, shall we?
I DIDN’T pretend everything was wonderful with my pregnancy, and although my honesty made me feel pretty vulnerable, and occasionally a little silly, I’m still glad I was open about my experience, because what I learned from it was that I WAS NOT ALONE. The truth is that most women – even those who don’t normally suffer from anxiety – find pregnancy a little bit scary. Some of them find it a BIG bit scary, of course, and, again, I’m not just speaking here about people like me, who were already dealing with severe health anxiety and generalised anxiety even before getting pregnant: I’m talking about perfectly “normal”, sane women, who suddenly find themselves going through this totally INSANE process – because, let’s face it, growing a human being inside your body is next-level crazy, right? – and realise that, hey! This is TERRIFYING. Because it IS terrifying: and, since I started writing about it, I’ve had tons and tons of women confide that, yes, they felt exactly the same – many of them qualifying that statement with something like, “And I’m not normally an anxious person, either!” Hell, even my own doctor, who is, by her own admission, one of the most pragmatic, no-nonsense types you’re ever likely to meet, told me that, when she was pregnant, she ended up listening for the baby’s heartbeat every single day, just to reassure herself that it was still there. The lesson?
You are not the only one who feels like this. And that’s why my next tip is so important:
You have to talk about how you’re feeling
I was open about my anxiety right from the very start. At my first meeting with my midwife, when I was 8 weeks pregnant, I told her I was terrified, and would likely need a lot of support – and I got it.
I’m not sure if my experience was unusual in any way – I really hope it wasn’t – but I got a huge amount of support from the health service while I was pregnant. Extra midwife appointments. Counselling. Regular meetings with my doctor. A tour of the labour and delivery ward. A meeting with an anaesthetist, once I’d decided on an elective c-section. Finally, as a result of all of this, my doctor even arranged for my husband to be allowed to stay overnight in hospital (Which our hospital doesn’t normally allow) after Max was born, to help manage my anxiety about it all. None of this would have happened if I’d done what I normally do in medical situations, which is to downplay my anxiety about it all and try to pretend I’m fine. No, totally FINE! REALLY! *forced grin*
As I said, I don’t know how typical my experience was, here, and I know some people who’ve unfortunately had very little support from health professionals during their pregnancies, which makes me really sad. What I do know, however, is that you won’t know what kind of help is available until you ask – and until you start being honest about how you’re feeling. Which brings me to my next point:
Find out what works for you – which might not be the same thing that works for someone else
I tried lots of different techniques to manage my anxiety while I was pregnant, and some of them were more helpful than others. Visiting the labour and delivery ward, and speaking to the staff there, for instance, was a HUGE help to me, while meeting with the anaesthetist to talk through what would happen during the c-section just scared me even more.
The key here, I think, is to try and work out what works best for YOU. In my case, almost everyone I spoke to seemed to swear my hypnotherapy or mindfulness – which had virtually no effect whatsoever for me. What DID help, on the other hand? Doing whatever it took to feel like I was in control of the situation. I had my hospital bag packed from the moment I found out I was pregnant, for instance: everyone laughed at me, but it really helped me to feel like, no matter what happened, I’d be as prepared as I could be for it. I also did my best to keep asking for practical solutions to my anxiety – like requesting a private room in the hospital, say, or arranging for Terry to stay with me.
To me, knowing there was a plan in place for that to happen was much more helpful than any number of mindfulness techniques would have been: I do, however, know tons of people who absolutely swear by things like hypnotherapy, so, as I say, you have to try to establish what’s going to help YOU get through it – then do that, whatever it may be. The fact is that tokophobia and anxiety take many forms: most of my fears centred around being in hospital, potentially having to have a general anaesthetic (Which is a huge phobia of mine), and, of course, the fear of something happening to the baby. There was very little I could do to put my mind at rest on the final point (Other than the obvious things, like making sure I didn’t miss any of my medical appointments, and following the NHS guidelines on what to eat, what to avoid, etc…), but there WERE practical things I could do to make the hospital experience easier, and that made me feel much more in control of the experience.
As for my fears about miscarriage, stillbirth etc, as I say, I found there was very little I could do about those – they were always there, and my anxiety only got worse as the pregnancy progressed. So I have just one tip here, which is this:
Don’t Google anything.
No, seriously: step away from Doctor Google, because that way madness lies.
This is a principle I’ve used to manage my health anxiety for years now, and it became even more important during my pregnancy, when everyone I encountered seemed to have some kind of horror story to share. I couldn’t stop people telling me about their traumatic experiences, unfortunately (I did end up asking some people to stop scaring me, though, or just walking away from conversations that seemed particularly insensitive to me. I wouldn’t normally do something like that, for fear of being seen as rude or “difficult”, but I got to a point where I knew I had to put my mental health first, and it was the only way to do it.), but I did my best to avoid anything I knew might be triggering: so, TV shows like ‘Call the Midwife’ and ‘One Born Every Minute’ were out, and rather than Googling symptoms that were worrying me, I either contacted my midwife – or got Terry to do it for me. Which brings me to my final point…
Get someone you trust to advocate for you
I’ve dealt with anxiety for long enough now to know that, when it takes over, I’m not really capable of speaking up and asking for help – and, as I mentioned above, I also have a tendency to try and downplay my feelings/symptoms, or to just accept whatever solution is offered to me, even when I know it just won’t help.
I’m really fortunate in this respect, in that I have my husband, Terry, on hand to advocate for me. Terry attended all of my medical appointment with me while I was pregnant, and, although it’s sometimes a little embarrassing to feel like I’m not capable of managing these things myself, it was also hugely helpful to me to have someone there to stand up for me (When, for example, the hospital claimed not to know anything about the private room I’d been promised), or to explain how things would effect me when I was too crippled with anxiety to make much sense myself.
(In my defence, Terry would have wanted to attend the pregnancy-related appointments anyway, as is lucky to have a job that allowed him to do that…)
I know not everyone is fortunate enough to have someone who’s able to advocate for them in that way, but I don’t think I’d have coped without Terry there to help me through it all, so if there is someone you can turn to, don’t hesitate.
Choose the birth that’s best for YOU
Of course, I can’t write a post about surviving tokophobobia without mentioning the biggest issue of all – the birth itself. In my case, I dealt with my extreme fear of childbirth by requesting an elective c-section, which I believe is pretty common for people who have tokophobia. I wrote at length about my decision, and the reasons behind it here, but, in short, while childbirth is never really going to be something you can plan right down to the last detail, I just felt much more in control of the experience knowing I was definitely going to be having a c-section. My situation is perhaps a little unusual in that my biggest fear revolves around having to have a general anaesthetic, which I knew is sometimes necessary if a c-section has to be done in a hurry. My age meant that a c-section was always pretty likely for me anyway, so, in a way, I opted for a planned one mainly in order to avoid an emergency one (Or to try to, at least – it was made clear to me throughout the process that there was never going to be a guarantee that I wouldn’t need a general anyway – this was re-iterated to me right before I went into surgery, which was… scary, to say the least…): that might sound crazy but, well, phobias are rarely logical, and mine is so intense that it all made perfect sense to me!
Having an elective c-section also meant I avoided being induced, which was my other big fear, and I also didn’t have to go through labour, or be in pain. I know a lot of people will judge me for that, or feel that I missed out on an essential part of the childbirth experience, but I honestly don’t care about any of that: as one of my commenters put it, I wanted to be a mother, not a martyr, and I had absolutely no desire to experience contractions etc: all that mattered to me was that the baby got out safely, and in the least traumatic way possible, and that’s exactly what happened, leaving me with absolutely zero regrets.
Having said that, I will just add that, although I believe my c-section was less frightening for me than letting things happen naturally would have been, it definitely wasn’t the “easy” option some people believe it to be. I’ve already written about both the birth itself and my recovery, so I won’t repeat myself, other than to say that it was much harder than I’d anticipated, and I was absolutely terrified – but I still believe it was the right decision for me.
I had no issues at all in getting my c-section: I just mentioned at my first midwife appointment that I thought I might like one, and I was immediately referred to a consultant, who agreed that it could be a good way to control my extreme anxiety. I was, of course, told about the various risks of the procedure, and was asked to go away and give it some thought before going forward with it, but my doctor made it very clear to me that, while the NHS will always recommend a vaginal birth as the best option in cases where there’s no medical reason not to have one, she would be happy to refer me for a c-section if that’s what I decided I wanted. I was never given any pressure, or made to feel judged in any way – again, I’m not sure if I just got lucky in that respect, or if it’s the norm, but, either way, I’m very grateful that my decision was supported, and that I didn’t have to fight for it the way I know some women do.
With all of that said, though, I can’t deny that, although I did manage to get through my pregnancy despite my fears, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I found that, as soon as I got past one set of fears, something else would turn up to take its place. By the end of the pregnancy, I was so obsessed with monitoring the baby’s movements at all times, that I was almost unable to function: I’d actually started to resent anything that required me to leave the house (because how could I make sure the baby was moving if I was walking around all the time, which just made him go to sleep?), and, when I did, the second I got home I’d go and lie on my side, just waiting to feel him kick. Almost every single day I’d become convinced the movements had stopped, and would have a complete meltdown – occasionally this would happen when we were visiting my parents or Terry’s mum, which was pretty embarrassing, but I just couldn’t seem to stop myself worrying – and I never really did, despite everyone’s best efforts.
And that, I think, is the crux of the whole thing: if you have tokophobia, or pregnancy-related anxiety, there will be times – maybe even a lot of them – when you just can’t stop yourself worrying. “Honestly,” my midwife said at one point, “I think you’re going to feel like this until the baby’s here safely, and that’s all there is to it.” It might sound strange, but, in some ways, accepting that that was the case, and acknowledging that I was probably never going to be able to relax enough to “enjoy” the pregnancy – no matter how often people told me I SHOULD be – actually helped me get through it, with realistic expectations.
Of course, in retrospect, I had a pretty textbook pregnancy: I was extremely lucky not to have any serious problems or complications, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t able to enjoy ANY of it at all. Even I had my moments, and in fact, the last time I was at the hospital, for a counselling appointment, I got a little pang of nostalgia when I saw a young couple coming out of the scan unit clutching one of the blue folders which hold all of your pregnancy-related notes. Was it enough to make me want to do it again? HAHA, NOPE. Not a chance. I’m very glad I was able to keep my anxiety at bay for long enough to do it once, though: and, as I said, if I can do it, ANYONE can…