How I Coped with Pregnancy and Anxiety as a Therapist
Updated: 2 days ago
It's 10:30pm and I'm watching my 6 month old daughter on the baby monitor while I listen to the humming of a breast pump. This is mom life.
I feel compelled to write a blog series on my birth story. Not because I think everyone is dying to know the details, but because the lessons that hit me in the face like a brick are too profound not to share. (Although, I do know some people who just love hearing a good birth story.)
The lead-up to my birth story really started in pregnancy and health concerns that arose then. So buckle in for a whole lot of transparency, a rollercoaster of happenings, and a healthy dose of humility.
My husband and I had to work really hard to get pregnant. We conceived our baby through in-vitro fertilization (IVF) at a local clinic. IVF has its own trials and tribulations, so once I was pregnant I was so excited to graduate from the fertility clinic at 12 weeks. I was ready to have a "normal" pregnancy like so many other women got to experience.
Thankfully I had a fairly easy pregnancy symptoms-wise! It felt like a gift after everything we went through to get pregnant so I welcomed the relaxed change of pace. I had (mostly) tolerable nausea that could be cured with Sour Patch Kids and acid reflux that would disappear with a fat glass of milk. I was happy to have my head in a toilet if it meant being pregnant, so all of the symptoms were really doable for me.
But of course when things feel easy, that's when you get the curve balls!
Pregnancy Complication #1: VCI
Our first pregnancy complication was found at the anatomy scan. Everything looked great with the baby except for her umbilical cord placement. We found that she had a velamentous cord insertion (VCI), which means that the cord is implanted on the edge of the placenta instead of firmly in the middle. This can cause concerns with restricted fetal growth and the cord detaching during labor and afterbirth. This immediately put us in the high-risk category.
Did I mention that a VCI is only found in 1% of all singleton pregnancies? Not only was it a new concern but I didn't know anyone personally who experienced it before. I quickly became nervous and there was a sudden shift in my pregnancy. For 2 months I felt like everything was running so smoothly and I had nothing to worry about. Now, we had monthly growth scans to make sure the baby's growth was on track and an issue that we had to make sure the medical team was very aware of during labor & delivery.
How I Coped with the VCI
I always talk to pregnant clients about their pregnancy anxiety - about theirs and the baby's health. Now I was suddenly in this position where I was the one Googling symptoms, predicting outcomes, and seeking out research that only gave me more anxiety. So I took a leap of faith and did was some would deem the unthinkable:
I joined the Velamentous Cord Insertion Support Group on Facebook.
I know that joining a Facebook group can go one of two ways. It can either be really overwhelming and negative or it can be inspiring and nerve-calming. The main goal of the group is to ask questions about others' experiences and post birth success stories.
My experience in the group was absolutely great for my mental health. Instead of focusing on what Google was telling me - that I could develop vasa previa, go into pre-term labor, or hemorrhage during birth - I was seeing success stories nearly every day of perfectly healthy babies who had a VCI.
I cannot tell you how comforting it was to see positive outcomes consistently. Real-life experiences from women just like me who felt worried about the condition, but whose fears were eased by seeing that it poses a fairly benign risk when your health team is aware of it and monitors it closely. Sure, some VCI babies come out small, but they catch up!
Throughout the rest of my pregnancy I was rarely worried about the VCI because of the consistent messaging I received of "it's going to be okay." It's a true testament to how important it is to expose yourself to positivity and success stories. People who have been in your shoes offer a helpful perspective that no one else can. My best advice is to take advantage of this and seek out these conversations when you have the chance. A supportive circle is everything!
Oh, and avoid Google at. all. costs.
So surely we could start smooth-sailing again, right?
Pregnancy Complication #2: High Blood Pressure
A totally different issue during my check-ups was my blood pressure. This was not a new concern for me. Because I've been through many random medical events, my heart rate and blood pressure would spike when they took my vitals. (But really. Ask anyone...I've had unexplained kidney stones, a spider bite on my face, torn muscle fibers in my back, an infected spot on my arm after I slept on a phone charger, etc. No wonder I get nervous at doctor visits, right?). It was classic white coat syndrome but out of precaution, my doctor had me monitoring my blood pressure.
And not to brag, but I was killing the game. My blood pressure was perfect at home. I'd take it about once a day, totally relaxed as I was working between sessions. I proudly sent my monitoring logs to my doctor. I peed in that bright orange 24-hour jug multiple times and dropped it off at the lab with my chest puffed out, always getting that coveted low protein score - meaning that I wasn't developing any pre-eclampsia issues.
When I was 24 weeks I felt dizzy after doing a house project so I decided to slow down and take my blood pressure. (Please note: I now know that you should never take your blood pressure if you're not at rest. Lesson learned the hard way.)
My blood pressure was HIGH, like 164/99 or something. I absolutely panicked and lied down. Thank god I have an older sister who's been a nurse for 20+ years and specializes in cardiac care, so she was helping me do all the things to get my blood pressure down. After I tried everything under the sun, it still wasn't lowering to a healthy threshold so I had to go to triage.
Everything checked out just fine! We got my blood pressure under control and they decided to medicate me for the potential spikes I was having. Whether it was white coat syndrome or not, the doctors wanted to play it safe and I obliged. I now had to monitor my blood pressure "a few times a day" to recognize its patterns and to be sure it never rose above my new threshold, which was 160/110.
From Pregnancy Complication to Full-Blown Panic
This is where my nightmare literally began. The first few days after that first triage visit were a blur.
I was panicking non-stop. At every moment of the day I was either gearing up for a blood pressure reading or trying to recover from one. I developed a severe anxiety association to the blood pressure monitoring.
I took my blood pressure cuff everywhere. One time I took it to the office with me so I could monitor it between sessions. I struggled through my first session that day because I knew that when it was over, I would have to take a reading. I remember the reading being high and crying between sessions, wondering how I was going to get it down to a safe level while also seeing clients.
I would attempt relaxation techniques before I took a reading. Deep breathing, grounding, mindfulness, the whole nine yards. That ended horribly because I started developing an association of relaxation techniques with fear because of the impending reading. The strategies that were supposed to be relaxing were now inducing anxiety. Great!
According to my Garmin watch, my heart rate would increase by 15 beats per minute when I would simply pick up the blood pressure cuff to take a reading.
In a nutshell, I ended up in triage on 3 occasions in a matter of 8 weeks due to high blood pressure.
This picture was from my overnight stay for my blood pressure. I was honestly so pissed about getting admitted. I stared at that checkmark "Stay Pregnant" the entire time. I kept thinking, "surely I will not be leaving this hospital with a baby. No way."
The names of my RN and aide did make me laugh, though. My sisters' names are Sadie and Melanie - LOL.
The Pressure of Being a Therapist
So, where do I even begin to cope with this, right? Here was the constant mental tape in my mind:
I'm a therapist.
I should know what to do.
I should be able to help myself.
I should be able to relax, easy peasy.
I should know what to tell myself.
I should know what this is and how to fix it. I fix everything.
I knew all the relaxation techniques in the world. Somatic interventions, grounding, meditation - none of it was working for me.
I knew perinatal anxiety can show up smack dab in the middle of a healthy and easy pregnancy, yet I didn't identify it myself.
I knew I needed to give myself grace but the constant anxiety overshadowed any clarity I thought I had.
Anyone can preach all day long about how therapists are human (hi, it's me, I preach this often), but it's so hard to give yourself that same compassion when you're the one struggling. When you're the one with the pressure to "fix it" or to make a problem go away.
I just...suffered for a bit. I did what I could. I tried all the things. I finally texted my therapist asking for an earlier appointment than I had scheduled. And she changed the game for me.
How I Coped with the Constant Anxiety
Sometimes it's simply talking to your therapist - that nonjudgemental and trustworthy person in your life who knows everything you're dealing with like the back of their hand - that helps to ground you.
She normalized my reactions and how I was feeling about the whole mess.
She gave me the permission I needed to stop the relaxation techniques.
She offered relatability from a seasoned-mom to a first-time-mom.
She helped me script what I wanted to say when advocating for myself to my doctor.
She grounded me in a direction that I wanted to take going forward: accepting unpredictability and trusting in a care team that would walk with me the rest of the way to the end of a happy and healthy pregnancy.
So that's where I landed. Getting on medication, finding a monitoring rhythm that worked for me (taking readings ~3 times in a span of 10 mins helped it usually get to a tolerable level after an anxiety spike), and knowing that I was doing the best that I could.
I leaned into the concept that I teach my clients all the time: Focus on what you know to be true.
Yes, my blood pressure was up.
No, my lab work isn't concerning.
Yes, it was okay for my blood pressure to fluctuate.
Yes, we can expect a range right now and that's okay.
Yes, I trust my care team and I'm doing the best I can with what I know right now.
And luckily, I started to enjoy my pregnancy again! I was so excited about nesting and getting house projects done. I was looking forward to doing the little things, like figuring out how I wanted to organize the baby's dresser drawers and hanging up the artwork in her nursery.
My baby shower was one for the books, thanks to my sisters and my grandma, and it was a day that I was truly just able to enjoy being pregnant and celebrate the baby - without all the medical concerns and blood pressure readings and constant "what if" questions.
I rode this wave really well until 35 weeks.
Never want to miss a post? Sign up for the VIP email list here.
Greta Strickland, MS Licensed Professional Counselor
Greta has managed her own private practice in Blue Springs, MO since 2015 providing therapy to women who struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and all of life's beautiful but complex stressors.
When she's not working, you can find Greta watching Big Brother with her husband, singing made up songs to her daughter, and sneaking "people food" to their golden retriever.