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Surviving Pregnancy When You Have Tokophobia and/or Anxiety

W

hen 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!

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 that helped me survive pregnancy while dealing with tokophobia and anxiety…

Surviving Pregnancy When You Have Tokophobia and/or Anxiety

The knowledge that I wasn’t 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 the next thing I did was so important…

Being honest about my anxiety

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.

surviving pregnancy with tokophobia and anxietyI’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.  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.

Not Googling 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 the Googling for me.

Having an elective c-section

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.

Having Terry with me throughout the birth and in hospital

I’m very aware that this admission makes me sound like an absolute child, but I knew long before I got pregnant that I would NOT be able to do it alone: in fact, being left on my own in hospital was one of my biggest fears, and therefore something I knew I’d have to address before the birth.

In Scotland, partners are not allowed to stay overnight on maternity wards (Or, at least, not at the time I had Max: I know there are some moves afoot to change this policy…), and you’re also not able to pay for a private hospital room. This was a huge issue for me, because at least part of my hospital phobia revolves around the lack of privacy you encounter on communal wards, and the fear of being left to try and cope on my own – either during the early stages of labour itself (For instance, if I’d had to be induced, Terry wouldn’t have been allowed to be present until labour was established, so I could have had to have spent many hours/days in hospital on my own, while going through something that would’ve been absolutely terrifying to me…) or with a newborn.

This was such an issue to me that I seriously looked into going private, purely so I could have privacy and support from my husband. Unfortunately, though, it turns out that there are no private maternity hospitals in Scotland (Yes, really…), so my only option was to try to explain my fears to my doctor, and hope she was willing to help. Luckily for me, she was, and not only did she arrange for me to have a private room in hospital, she also arranged for Terry to be allowed to stay overnight in it with me. This was totally against the hospital’s policy at the time, and I was really, really lucky that they were willing to make this concession for me, because I honestly don’t think I’d have coped on my own – especially not right after the operation, when I still couldn’t move properly, and needed Terry to help with the baby.

As I say, though, while I was lucky to have a doctor who understood my concerns, and was able to help address them, if I had been able to pay for a private room, I’d have been more than willing to do that, because I spent a huge amount of time during my pregnancy worried that I’d be facing early labour alone, and just knowing that wasn’t going to be the case was really helpful to me.

One final point here: my doctor also arranged for Terry to be allowed to accompany me into the operating theatre while the spinal block was administered. Under normal circumstances, partners aren’t allowed into the theatre until this has been done (I have no idea why), but my doctor knew without me even having to ask that being separated from the person I was relying on to support me at the most crucial time of all REALLY wouldn’t be helpful for me, so he was allowed to be with me every step of the way. Again, I’m not sure how willing other doctors would be to make this concession, but it’s definitely worth asking about if you think it’ll help – and assuming, of course, that your partner is willing!

Good vibes only

Packing my hospital bags well in advance

This will sound absolutely crazy, I know, but I had a hospital bag packed long, long before I needed one – before I was even pregnanct, in fact. Why? Because a large part of my anxiety revolves around feeling like I’m not in control of the situation, and being prepared for a possible hospital stay was one of the ways I dealt with that, by trying to regain just a little bit of that control. Because I’d already had a miscarriage and an ectopic pregnancy, I was absolutely convinced that something would go wrong with this latest pregnancy, too, which is why I packed a bag before I was even pregnant: I knew I had an increased chance of having another ectopic pregnancy, so even just making the decision to try again was terrifying to me., and something I wanted to be prepared for. If the pregnancy HAD turned out to be ectopic, it could’ve resulted in me needing surgery, and I might not necessarily have had a lot of notice about it, so I packed a bag just in case. I just want to add here that I’m well aware of how crazy that sounds, but I think that, when it comes to anxiety, you do whatever you have to to get through it – even when you know it’s something that non-anxious people probably won’t understand.

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…

What do you think?

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16 Comments
  • Daisy
    March 21, 2018

    My mum had both me and my younger brother by c section (her hips never broadened in puberty so it was the only way we’d have got out!) and, while my birth went reasonably ok, my brother’s was…utterly horrific. I won’t go into details as I don’t want to scare people more than I might already have. Consequently, although most people seem to view c sections as the “easy option”, or a great alternative to natural birth if THAT is too terrifying for you, for me it seems like either approach is horrific. I’m sure this has played a part in my having zero desire to start a family, because why would anyone put themselves through that…

    That being said I’m in my thirties now, and wondering. And I will definitely re-read this post if I am ever pregnant. And I know your advice about talking to the staff such as anaesthetists will stick in my mind forever. So thanks for that, and I hope I managed to be vague enough not to terrify people while still illustrating it’s a valid fear for me!

    • Amber
      March 21, 2018

      I think part of the issue is that although the vast majority of births – both c-section and vaginal – are totally straightforward, people only ever want to tell you about the horrific ones, which contributes to the idea that there’s no possible way for birth to be anything other than awful – which definitely isn’t the case. So for every story like your mum’s, there will likely be hundreds of c-sections that were totally uneventful. I’m not trying to convince you, by the way – just don’t want other people with tokophobia to read your comment and think that’s the norm, because it really isn’t!

  • Lizzie
    March 21, 2018

    Thank you for this post which has come at EXACTLY the right time. I have my anomaly scan in 90 minutes and I’m petrified. I’m known for my calmness and ‘worryless’ attitude but I am internally just convinced that this pregnancy won’t end up in a baby…which I know from your posts you felt too.

    Funnily enough what makes me feel better is the opposite to what helps you. I’m very superstitious (despite my incredibly rational and logical mind) and for me, looking in to, and knowing about the possibilities makes me think that if I go in knowing what could happen then at least I know what the worst case scenario would be, and I’m not jinxing anything by investigating all the outcomes and possibilities. It’s also not helped when other pregnant friends refer to the 20 week scan as the ‘gender scan’ and are so excited whereas all I can think about is what they might find, and whether I’m the only one that worries about these scans!

    I’m so glad your health anxiety didn’t stop you having lovely Max and thank you for being so open and honest about all of this. x

    • Amber
      March 21, 2018

      Oh wow, I really hope it goes well for you! I almost threw up before my anomaly scan – I got to the hospital and literally didn’t think I could get out of the car, I was so scared 😩 And yes, having everyone constantly ask how “excited” I was about it was really wearing – I wasn’t excited at all, I was terrified! Anyway, will be sending you lots of good vibes for yours! ❤️

      • Lizzie
        March 22, 2018

        Thank you so much – it went fine but we were both nervous throughout. Especially the point at which one of the sonographers left the room and said ‘I’ll be back in a few minutes’. I was convinced she was going to get a doctor and give us bad news. Turns out she just went to the loo and got a coffee!
        I totally get you on the excitement – I am not excited at all! Thanks for the support x

        • Amber
          March 22, 2018

          Oh, that’s great news! How bizarre about the sonographer, though – she should at least have said where she was going! I think I got really lucky in that most of the ones I dealt with were absolutely brilliant, and really sensitive towards the fact that I’d had previous loses and was absolutely terrified: there was only one woman towards the end of the pregnancy who was just totally silent throughout the scan (which wasn’t wrong of her, obviously – I know they have to concentrate, it’s just a bit unnerving when you’re scared to death anyway!), which freaked me out a bit. Pretty sure I’d have panicked if some of them had just left the room like that :O

  • Myra Boyle
    March 21, 2018

    I’m very proud of you for doing it, and delighted you have your gorgeous little Max

  • Trudy
    March 22, 2018

    Thank you so much for this post, and all your other posts on pregnancy anxiety. I have put off having kids myself because of pregnancy anxiety, but I am getting to the age now where I need to decide, and soon, if I want kids or not. I can’t imagine NOT having kids, but at the same time the thought of being pregnant terrifies me. It’s not worry for the baby so much, but what it will do to my body. And even just saying that sounds so horribly selfish, which yes, I have also been told before. People say ‘But you won’t even be thinking about that when you have a baby!’ But unless being pregnant turns you into a completely different person, I know I will hate it. I struggled with body image and eating issues for much of my younger years, and although I’m in a better place now, I have worked hard to get here, and I’m scared being pregnant would drag me right back into that pit. Not only the body shape, but all the pregnancy symptoms like vomiting, heartburn, sciatica, breathlessness etc… I know people say that there’s no guarantee I would get any of it, but that’s just it, isn’t it? Nobody can say exactly how it will affect any particular person. Let’s just say that adoption or surrogacy sound really good right now. though they’re not without pitfalls either.

    Anyway, I’m sorry that’s such a long ramble. You did say you were happy to listen, and I don’t have Instagram! I don’t even mind if you don’t have time to reply, it just helps having a place to say all this. And knowing I’m not alone with my fears.

    • Amber
      March 22, 2018

      Oh, I think being worried about what it’ll do to your body is a totally legitimate concern and I hated it when people tried to tell me that I “just wouldn’t care!” because THEN I just worried about the fact that I was apparently going to have a completely different personality afterwards! (And I don’t – and yes, I DO care about the changes to my body, so I must be selfish too 😉)

  • Pip
    March 22, 2018

    Thank you for this post and all of your posts about your experience of pregnancy – I must be just one of the very many who have been helped by reading them. Today, I am 36 weeks pregnant and trying to prepare for a birth that I never thought I would be able to plan for due to both a fear of childbirth and a previous miscarriage. Reading your honesty about your fears and the comments of others has helped me enormously and meant I was able to speak honestly to my doctors and midwives without worrying they wouldn’t be able to help. There was a turning point for me when I realised that I had a legitimate fear that wouldn’t be dismissed nor mean that I wouldn’t be able to go through with a pregnancy (a friend told me perhaps I shouldn’t have children if my fear was that strong – not something you expect to be told so bluntly and unsympathetically and needless to say that pretty much ended our friendship). My fears are certainly not gone, or even lessened now, however I am finding ways to prepare and cope with what’s going to happen soon. Thank you Amber – and your commenters – for all of your honesty. You are helping so many people that you will never know about!

    • Amber
      March 22, 2018

      I’m so glad to hear that, Pip, and I really hope everything goes smoothly for you – as I said, I’m always around if you ever need a sympathetic ear! And yes, it was a turning point for me too when I realised my fears were going to be taken seriously, and not just dismissed, the way they always had been in the past: mine never really diminished either, but I think accepting that they weren’t going to, but that I’d get support in dealing with them was a big help. I hope you come back and update us once your little one’s here – I’d love to know how you get on!

      • Pip
        March 22, 2018

        Thank you Amber – I will definitely let you know. I hope I will have a positive story to tell too. In many ways, getting this far is more than I could have ever hoped for. And if we have a baby that is half as lovely as Max, I will feel like the luckiest person in the world!

  • Sarah
    March 22, 2018

    I am five months pregnant with lots of health problems which mean a possible premature delivery, along with huge health anxiety/tokophobia. Although I went through several rounds of IVF to get here, I’ve felt no joy, rather have just been in a catatonic state of anxiety. Have not hidden my feelings, which has caused almighty issues with my partner who calls me depressive and selfish for not being ‘like everyone else, happy and excited’. If only more women were honest about how they feel! Although, given the reaction I’ve received, I know why they might feel they can’t be. The health professionals have been great and supportive, it’s my partner and family who can’t seem to accept that this is me, I’m doing my best in my struggle and that it’s really quite normal, that’s so debilitating. It’s feels like some sort of taboo, far less accepted than say, post-natal depression. We must keep getting the message out there!

  • Corinna
    March 29, 2018

    Anxiety is one of those weird things that can happen for no reason. I’ve just given birth to my third a few weeks ago. I had 3 successful home births. With my first I had no fear (other than the usual pregnancy fears of is the baby okay? Etc). It was a 3 1/2 hour labour (needed an episiotomy which I’ll talk about later) with a fairly easy early labour during the day and I felt like a badass after. My second was a 2 hour spontanious labour (the midwives made it for the last 10 minutes to catch him coming out and give another episiotomy). I felt like it was more painful because it was back labour, but it was quick.. so good. My most recent was 4 hours, totally textbook normal birth…but it was not good. This time I panicked. My early labour started a few days before and I was overcome with a wave of terror. I had done this 2 times before relatively easily…what was my problem? Why now am i having these feelings? I told my spouse “i don’t want to do this…I don’t think I can. I wish I hadn’t done this.” I had heart palpitations and a panic attack. He convinced me to take a gravol to pass out. The feelings didn’t go away. And my labour progressed slower than I was used to which made me more panicked and i was failing to go with my body or wanting to push. It was by far the worst birth I had had…all because I got so wrapped up in my own fear. I guess what I’m saying is it can happen to anyone.. and for no reason and no amount of soothing or positive thinking can make it go away.

    Now..I said I’d mention the episiotomy thing again. I was terrified when during my first labour the midwives told me they’d have to cut me. I promised to push harder, they said it’s not going to help but let me try anyway. I finally agreed to be cut. They did it during a contraction. And you know what? It wasn’t bad at all! I didn’t even feel it because of the contraction and the baby was out immediately once they did it ending my suffering. With my second, I went in knowing it would likely happen and I was okay with that. And it did, and it was the same as before. My recent one they didn’t do it…. even when I begged for it. Yes. I actually begged for them to do it yelling “DO IT! CUT ME NOW!” I’m actually still very angry they didn’t as my healing this time has been incredibly painful and I think this is part of why my labour was stalling a bit. So there’s my experience with a normally terrifying thing to think about. It’s actually not as scary as it sounds. So if they tell you they need to do it, maybe you will remember my thoughts on it during your labour. 🙂

  • Karen
    February 6, 2019

    Thank you for your post – it really helps. I think my issue comes from having such an awful relationship with my Mum I kept saying I would never have a baby. This has pretty much turned into a phobia. I have a wonderful husband and I would like to have a family but it’s taken everything I have to get to this point of being pregnant. I am 7 weeks and just had a massive bleed. I thought I had miscarried – and felt awful for feeling relief (as well as sadness) that I wouldn’t have to go through it right now. Then I went for a scan and they found a heartbeat and I am so scared I can hardly breathe. I don’t know how I am going to cope with this fear for the next 8 months – it’s almost debilitating. I am sure once the baby is here I will be ok but the space between here and there feels huge and I am almost shaking with fear. I feel like such an idiot for thinking I could do this.

    • Amber
      February 7, 2019

      Oh Karen, I’m so sorry you’re feeling like this – no wonder you’re terrified! I know nothing much I can say will help you right now, but if you ever need a friendly ear, I’m always here – and you’re absolutely NOT an idiot, trust me: you CAN do it, and there are lots of people out there who can help you do it, so please think about speaking to your midwife if you have one, or even to the Early Pregnancy Unit at your local hospital. I found everyone I dealt with really understanding, and there’s a lot of support out there for people who feel the way you do – please don’t be embarrassed to ask for it!

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