pregnancy

After 5 pregnancies, this is how I've learned to cope with the anxiety that comes with it.

12 weeks into my fifth pregnancy, my doctor asked me how I was coping emotionally. It was the first time I’d heard that question. Ever.

Nine years ago, when I learned I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, the first thing I did was buy and promptly devour a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I talked at every opportunity with two family members who were just a few months ahead of me, thirsty for any breadcrumbs that would lead me further down the path toward the birth of my little nugget.

WATCH: Things pregnant people never say. Post continues below.

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I downloaded the What to Expect app and joined various pregnancy forums, message boards, and social media groups. Members, united only by our hope for healthy pregnancies that would lead to happy, healthy babies, would discuss our bloating and constipation, our round ligament pain and cravings, our nausea and heightened (or nonexistent) sex drives.

With all these access points, I felt well-equipped to get through the physical changes the next nine months would bring.

What was never meaningfully discussed, though, in any of those books or groups or apps or conversations, was the toll that anxiety takes on the pregnant woman’s mind in the weeks and months between the day she sees that first line in that first pregnancy test – so faint she questions its very existence – and the first time she feels that alien yet miraculously welcome flutter in her abdomen.

We’re all familiar with the physical symptoms of pregnancy, especially those of us who have been around the block a few times. If we have a question about what our bodies or our babies are up to, answers are always at our fingertips.

But no one ever tells you what to do with the persistent anxiety of just not knowing. Sure, you peed on a stick and it told you there was a baby in there. Sure, your boobs hurt and the smell of yogurt makes you want to puke and you’ve already peed sixteen times today and it’s not even lunchtime yet.

But knowing you have symptoms caused by a rise in a specific hormone is not the same as knowing there’s a living, squirming being in there with a heartbeat and fingers and toes and a head that’s as big as the entire rest of it.

Doctors often won’t even see you until you’re 10 weeks along, and that’s a long time to sit around wondering. Even if everything appears to be fine at the appointment, and even if you continue to have all the outward signs of pregnancy, by the time the next one finally arrives, the worry has had weeks to boil up and bubble over once more.

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I know this anxiety well because, more than once, I’ve lived through weeks of symptoms, only to find in the end that a baby had never developed – or, worse, that it had stopped growing just days after I’d seen that reassuring flicker of a heartbeat on the ultrasound screen.

Conventional wisdom has taught you not to announce your pregnancy in its early months, “just in case something happens.” Even in anonymous groups where you’re discussing your bowel habits and breast tenderness, you rarely see genuine discussion around mental health. When you even deign to mention your anxiety over the baby’s health to your practitioner, the invariable response is, “Once you start feeling it move, you’ll be more reassured.”

The dismissal teaches you implicitly to just keep your concerns to yourself since there’s nothing you can do about them. Even your partner, which whom you could share your fears, can’t fully understand them unless they have been pregnant before – a feature which very few relationships enjoy.

Which means, in all likelihood, you’re locked inside your head for weeks at a minimum, and probably months, with no one to tell about your paranoia who can offer any practical advice for easing it.

Unless you’re hemorrhaging, you’re expected to keep the anxiety from consuming you from the inside out, alone and without any practical tools to do so.

Fact #1: Anxiety will change nothing about what’s happening (or not happening) inside your body. In the absence of information, the most productive option is to assume the best and try to keep yourself occupied.

Fact #2: Your anxiety cares very little about Fact #1.

You wake up to pee at 1:30 am and your mind won’t shut off, though the thing you want most in the world is to sleep through the night while you’ve still got the chance. Your thoughts take a meandering path that leads to the central question: Is this really even happening?

You feel self-indulgent even saying the words, “I’m pregnant,” as if speaking the words will somehow negate the very fact of your condition. And you feel silly about this, because you’re a smart woman and, logically, you know better.

You’re washing dishes and feel an unusual cramp, and you think, This might be it. You walk to the bathroom and sit on the toilet, even though you don’t need to use it, and are certain you’ll see blood on the toilet paper. When the paper comes out clean, you’re not even relieved, because you know about missed miscarriages. By the time you see the doctor weeks later and see that flicker, those jerky movements, your eyes fill with tears.

Knowing statistics doesn’t help, either, as much as people would like for them to be reassuring. Everything goes fine 99% of the time? That’s all well and good, but somebody has to be in the other 1%. You’ve had other, healthy pregnancies? Super. That doesn’t mean your uterus won’t go haywire this time.

Listen to Mamamia’s pregnancy podcast, Hello, Bump. Each episode talks you through one month of the pregnancy. Post continues below.

So, what are you supposed to do? How can you keep this anxiety at bay for as long as it takes for the pregnancy to play out according to its unique plan?

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After five first trimesters, each one more agonising than the last, I can share some things that have worked for me.

1. Accept that it’s normal to be anxious about the unknowns of early pregnancy.

2. Find a friend, therapist, or community (or all three) with whom you can share these anxieties. Getting them out is better than letting them knock around in your brain and make you crazy. I created a private Facebook group with a few trusted friends, where I posted updates until I was ready to come out to the world at large.

3. Write about your concerns, and share with trusted friends if you want to. Sometimes our fears are easier to express in writing than verbally, and chances are you’ll feel relieved once they’re on the page – whether or not anyone reads them. I kept a journal, adding entries once or twice a day.

4. Limit your obsessions. Avoid obsessively checking your pregnancy apps and group notifications. When the urge comes to do this, think about what you really need. You already have all the information you’re going to have about your pregnancy until your next appointment, so what else can ease your concerns? Is it writing? Reading? Crafting? Taking a walk with your dog or playing with your kids? Talking to your partner? Do one of those things instead. I allow myself one read of the weekly information on my pregnancy app, and I don’t open the app again until the following week.

5. Meditate or say affirmations, or just have a mental conversation with your baby-to-be. At the beginning of my yoga class, we take a moment to dedicate our practice to someone. Since I learned I was pregnant, usually, my dedication is to this little bean that grows inside me. I imagine my hands cradling him or her, and send love and strength into my womb.

None of these things will make your anxiety go away. Nothing will, really, until the baby is born and you hold them in your arms for the first time. (And even then, you’ll always have something to worry about.)

Pregnancy anxiety is real, it’s normal, and none of us should have to suffer it alone. Find a community, or a friend, or a journal, and let it out. The more time you take to actively express and address your worries, the better you’ll feel.

Nikki is a career educator from Massachusetts, USA. She’s passionate about social and educational equity as well as children’s rights and mental health empowerment. When she’s not writing at the local independent coffee house, she can be found lifting weights, playing fetch with her pup, or trying her wits at an escape room. She lives with her partner and children just outside Boston. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook: @NikkiKayAuthor.

If you are struggling with perinatal anxiety or depression, please speak to your doctor. Support is also available via PANDA. Visit the website or call 1300 726 306.

Feature image: Getty.

Anxiety can leave you exhausted and overwhelmed, but it doesn’t have to be that way! Introducing The Anxiety Course – designed to help you grow your confidence, identify your triggers and reclaim your life. Find out more here

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