What I learned from suffering with anxiety during my pregnancy

My mother always talks about how happy and calm she was while pregnant with me, so maybe that's why I thought I'd love being pregnant. I pictured myself in billowy empire-waist dresses, padding around barefoot in a field of daisies while my baby's gentle kicks reassured me that all was well. That vision turned out to be a complete fantasy, which, frankly, shouldn't have surprised me, considering I don't live anywhere near a field of daisies. Yes, there were billowy dresses (thanks, Old Navy Maternity!), but instead of feeling serene and strong, I felt overwhelmed with worry.

I've always struggled with anxiety, and at times, while I was pregnant, my fears became powerful and overwhelming. Though I had no cause for concern, I worried constantly about the health of my growing baby and obsessed over how I would cope if something was wrong. Every twinge or pain — and there are a ton of those in pregnancy — sent me into a panic. As the weeks crawled by and I became more depressed, I wondered how I would handle being a mom if I couldn't even handle being pregnant. It was a rough time, and I struggled to find ways to cope. But slowly I found strategies that kept my anxiety in check, and I hope sharing what worked for me can help other moms-to-be deal with this common problem.

Be proactive about staying calm

When I ignored the fact that I was growing more anxious by the day, I quickly became overwhelmed. I knew I needed to make staying calm an active, positive project. Instead of trying to be less anxious, I focused on being calmer. I cut back on caffeine, even beyond what my doctor recommended. I chose to read books and watch movies that were lighthearted and funny, and I sought out activities that made me feel calm — long walks, meeting up with friends, visiting family, and lazy evenings watching TV on the couch.

Anxiety may come and go throughout your pregnancy

For me, anxiety was not at a constant level throughout my pregnancy. In the first trimester, I was more anxious about having an early miscarriage, while later in my pregnancy, my anxieties centered on labor and delivery. While most women say their second trimester is the best, my second trimester was the hardest most anxiety-provoking for me, with inconsistent kicks from my baby and all the strange new symptoms that came with a growing belly. Each stage of pregnancy brought new challenges, and my anxiety improved and worsened at various times. I learned that just because I was having a very anxious day didn't mean that every day after that would be just as bad or worse. Sometimes, my anxiety lessened just because I got a good night's sleep or was feeling strong one day.

Don't be embarrassed to call your OB or midwife if it will set your mind at ease

Like many pregnant women, I was very aware of all the changes happening in my body, and it was hard to know what was normal. But for some reason, when I had concerns about unusual symptoms, I felt stressed out about calling my obstetrician with questions. I didn't want to be annoying or overwhelm my doctor with silly queries. But I also knew that sometimes a quick "yep, that's normal" from my OB could help keep my anxiety in check.

I tried to keep my questions to my appointment. I always came with a short list on my phone to make sure I didn't forget anything. And I was lucky to find a doctor who was quick to return my calls and receptive to my questions. Some of my friends have even had doctors who would reply to emailed questions. If your doctor belittles you or makes you feel stupid for being anxious, it may be time to look for a new doctor who is more understanding.

Find prenatal exercise you enjoy

One thing that worsened my anxiety was the feeling that my body wasn't in my control. Exercise not only releases endorphins and keeps you and baby healthy, it's also a nice mental break and practical reminder that your body is still yours. For me, prenatal yoga and Barre videos, long walks, and low-impact workouts on the elliptical kept me feeling balanced. Yoga in particular helped tame my anxiety because it calmed my body and mind. Plus, I loved that prenatal yoga was so forgiving and gentle compared to the power yoga I was used to doing! Find what works for you, and of course, consult your doctor before trying any new exercise regimen or diet while pregnant.

Practice meditation even just 5 minutes a day

Breathing exercises are an excellent tool for controlling anxiety both during pregnancy and anytime. You don't have to meditate for an hour for it to be useful, which is good, because seriously, who has time for that? Taking just five minutes a day to take a break from everything can be beneficial. Slowing your breath helps an out-of-control heart rate to regulate. In meditation, I practiced noticing my thoughts and feelings without judgment and letting them go. This technique was very helpful for managing my anxious thought patterns (and still is!). You can find lots of guided meditations and timers online.

Try positive visualizations and mantras

On top of meditation, I used visualizations and mantras at least once a day to help stay positive. Saying out loud "My baby is happy and well," "My pregnancy is healthy," and "I trust my body" was surprisingly effective. I practiced picturing my happy baby cozily curled up in the womb. I envisioned a healthy, easy pregnancy and safe labor and delivery. I imagined my future self holding my baby and sending back reassurance to my pregnant self that everything would be okay. Sure, it felt a little goofy sometimes, but hey, it worked.

Pamper yourself

Being pregnant was extremely physically uncomfortable for me (which I made sure to tell my husband at every opportunity). After the morning sickness of the first trimester, I had round ligament pain, pelvic and hip pain, heartburn, and trouble sleeping. It felt like I had to pee every five seconds. Plus, I missed my carefree non-pregnant days of drinking wine and eating as much brie as humanly possible. The physical stress of being pregnant took its toll on me mentally, making it easier for me to sink into a worry hole of all the things that could go wrong. So I made a point of getting manicures, lighting scented candles in the evening, putting calming scented lotions on my belly, and treating myself to fancy chocolates. Pampering myself helped me stay positive and made my pregnancy more fun.

Talk to moms and other pregnant women you know

Pregnancy can feel really isolating, and that only increased my anxiety. I worried that I was the only one obsessing over every twinge and ache, and I needed friends to compare notes with. One thing I've learned in a lifetime of managing my anxiety is that it can really help to talk to people going through something similar, and that was no less true in pregnancy. Not all of the women I spoke to had experienced pregnancy anxiety, but they certainly understood the frustrations and exhaustion of growing a tiny human. And speaking with those who did experience anxiety in pregnancy made me feel so much better. I realized it was easy for me to recognize that their fears were not based in reality, where it was difficult for me to be as logical about of my own fears. Slowly, that perspective helped me learn to let my fears go.

Take a break from pregnancy message boards

Talking to people you know is great. Talking to people you don't know? Not necessarily so great. Message boards are chock-full of anxious pregnant ladies, and the last thing I needed was for other women to give me ideas of things to fret over. When I had a real concern, I learned that Google was almost never going to make me feel better. Instead, it sent me down a rabbit hole full of new things to be anxious about. Though I'm sure some women find the support they need in online groups, I recognized that it was just making my anxiety worse.

Avoid information overload

Early in my second trimester, I had a little bleeding that led to an emergency room visit. My doctor ordered tests that indicated I might be going into early labor. It was a few days before more tests confirmed everything was fine. At that point, I realized that I didn't need to know everything. While I was grateful for the excellent healthcare I received while pregnant, every scan and test raised more questions and questions equaled anxiety. I deleted my pregnancy apps and stopped reading the weekly newsletters I had subscribed to about what my growing baby was up to this week. As an anxious pregnant lady, too much information wasn't necessarily a good thing.

Spend baby-free time with your partner

A big part of the stress of pregnancy was how much it changed the dynamic between me and my husband. Everything was "baby baby baby" all the time. We found that taking breaks to see a movie, watch a concert, eat a nice dinner out, or take a weekend trip away gave us a reassuring feeling of normalcy. TV helped, too. Binge-watching Game of Thrones with my husband provided many anxiety-free hours. Because who can worry about kick counts when Ned Stark's life in jeopardy?

Try to see the funny side

Pregnancy is full of funny absurdities, and noticing those gave me a break from the stress of it. I made fun of myself for having such a good imagination that I could convince myself something was horribly wrong every single day. I'd laugh when a pain I'd been stressing over in my belly turned out to be gas. And I sought out funny articles and books like What to Expected When You're Expected, a hilarious pregnancy advice book written from the perspective of the fetus.

Talk to a professional

I regret not talking to a professional when my anxiety was at its worst. Though I've seen a professional in the past while not pregnant, I felt like I had to be able to handle my pregnancy anxiety on my own, and I was ashamed when it overwhelmed me. In retrospect, having someone on my side to help me manage my anxiety with tried-and-true techniques would only have been helpful. If you've tried managing your anxiety on your own, and you're still feeling overwhelmed, don't hesitate to reach out to a professional for help. I won't make the same mistake if my next pregnancy brings the same issues.

Cut yourself some slack

At times, I felt like there was something wrong with me because I didn't love being pregnant, and I felt guilty that I didn't enjoy something that so many women long for. I even beat myself up for feeling anxious when I was having a perfectly healthy pregnancy. But at the end of the day, I really just needed to cut myself some slack. Policing my emotional response to pregnancy was making me feel worse, not better. Anxiety about being anxious was definitely counterproductive.

Motherhood brings its own anxieties, so start preparing now

When my son was born, I was thrilled to be done with pregnancy and the anxiety that went with it. And then the anxiety of motherhood set in. Was he eating enough? Was he breathing weirdly? Were those sniffles the beginning of a cold or something worse? The reality is that for me, and many women, being a mom carries with it anxiety that never fully dissipates. Though it is way less severe now than it was during pregnancy, I still have moments where I feel overwhelmed by anxiety about my child. At those times, the tricks and techniques for managing anxiety that I learned during pregnancy come in handy. In the end, struggling through and learning from an anxious pregnancy made me more prepared for the daily realities of motherhood.