What To Expect When You're Totally Neurotic
July 20, 2015 8:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm in my first trimester of pregnancy (Week 7) and making myself miserable worrying about all the ways I might be injuring the baby. How can I return to a more balanced state of mind about this?

I'm worrying about things like, the fish oil in my old omega-3 pill fish oil came partially from tuna; what were its mercury levels? I have cats but didn't get tested for toxoplasmosis; might I have a recent infection? Do our eco-shampoos really omit all problematic chemicals? Should I be eating only organic foods? What if our municipal water isn't filtered enough? Could I have gotten listeria from those frozen berries I didn't wash? What about the fact that I walked past a road construction project for a block and breathed in some bad-smelling fumes when I couldn't hold my breath any longer? Did the hot chocolate that made me completely wired have more than 200 mg of caffeine? Should I really be eating any salmon at all? Our basement is under construction: how bad is my infrequent exposure to wood dust or the off-gassing from new cabinets? I'm trying to develop an exercise swim routine; is all that chlorine (breathed, swallowed accidentally) bad for the baby? (Oh look, yes, it actually might be. Guess I won't go swimming today.)

Worst was that I drank some alcohol in weeks 3-4 before realizing I was pregnant. That was its own special 10-day shame spiral. I gave serious thought to terminating the pregnancy solely for that reason, but three doctors, including a "high risk specialist," very strongly emphasized that this was not what the medical profession would advise and that it was sufficient to simply not drink any more.

I follow all the rules I've been able to learn, but I feel like I'm always learning something new when it might be too late. Example: yesterday I had heartburn but needed to eat something with my vitamins, so I got a brilliant idea, organic frozen strawberries! But halfway through the bowl, I realized I don't know if frozen strawberries are safe. I'd just assumed because I hadn't heard otherwise. It turns out, in January, there was a recall of frozen berries for listeria -- one of the main germs that all these rules are designed to keep you away from! (It was for another brand, but still!) I felt awful, and I was really bummed to have to stop eating them. Or, last night, I decided I'd address my fear with education, so I read a bunch of webpages about the causes of this or that birth defect. Instead of feeling like "okay, I finally know what I need to do," instead, I found other major sources of worry that I can't really control, like air pollution from auto exhaust and our proximity to a major roadway, and like "don't take too much Vitamin A," which makes me worry about that day I probably took two prenatal vitamins.

All this worry has me wanting to lock myself in a hermetic vault at least until the baby's major organs are formed! That's a really unhealthy kind of paralysis, which can't be helping my mental health. I'm especially terrified, but also relieved, that the most critical stage of development seems to be weeks 5-10, which I'm right in the middle of. What if it takes me another month to finish educating myself, and by then it's too late? On the other hand, maybe in week 11, I can relax a bit and eat something non-organic or whatever.

Did you go through this? Have you overcome something similar? Are there any comforting thoughts or facts you could share? How does anyone live with waiting 8 months, or 8 months + 5 years, to find out if she's done permanent damage to her unborn child?

I am in therapy. It helps. I'm just wondering if you guys have other ideas. Thanks a bunch for anything you can share that might help.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry, pregnancy anxiety is the worst. Please ask your OB for a referral to a therapist specializing in pregnancy related anxiety. They exist and they are wonderful!

I am an anxious person in general and I'm on week 6 of pregnancy number two. Pregnancy number one was by the book: no raw fish, no tuna, no cold cuts, no more than 1 cup of coffee a day for the first trimester, no bean sprouts on my ramen, the works. Second pregnancy? EHN. I just had a full on sushi tasting menu last Friday including a couple sips of sake. I need as much coffee as I can get to keep up with my toddler. I've still drawn the line at cold cuts, but I will microwave them and eat them. I still don't take prenatals (just folic acid supplements).

You are not going to hurt your child. Your diet is more than adequate. Your alcohol intake was fine. Your coffee drinking is fine. Your vitamins or lack of vitamins or too much vitamins are fine. People have healthy babies in all circumstances and so will you.

Take folic acid. Avoid alcohol from now on. Avoid the most obvious sources of listeria (cold cuts, smoked salmon, unpasteurized cheeses, soft serve ice cream from public machines) and don't worry about the rest: that's out of your control. You'd have to stop eating vegetables and fruit entirely and that isn't realistic.

But really: listen to this one piece of advice. Go talk to a therapist through your OB's office. This is what they deal with ALL THE TIME and they have the means to teach you the tools to talk yourself down. I promise. It gets better, time mellows you out, the boredom of pregnancy mellows you out, and babies mellow you out after you realize they are designed to be sturdy.
posted by lydhre at 8:45 AM on July 20, 2015 [14 favorites]

I'm sorry you are going through this. it must take all the fun out of being pregnant! (Well, I thought being pregnant was mostly fun).

Pregnancy is really hard on people who like to control circumstances because there is so, so much beyond your control. I mean, I look at my two year old and think "wow, she started out as an egg and a sperm, it's a miracle that she turned into this." Try to take comfort in the idea that there are millions of babies born whose mothers are doing zero research and paying zero attention to what they are putting in their bodies or what they are exposing the unborn baby to. The fact that you're getting good prenatal care, paying attention to the known rules, and clearly love and want this baby means that you are doing everything right. Try to stop reading "stuff" unless you have a specific question - lots of pregnancies are totally uneventful, and if you're getting proper prenantal care you will know if yours is going to become eventful.

Keep up the therapy. Consider therapy or support groups specifically aimed at anxiety during pregnancy. Consider medication if recommended by your doctors (I know that sounds like another thing to worry about, but Zoloft during breastfeeding, which caused me anxiety, saved my life. Literally. I wish I had known pregnancy related anxiety was an actual thing, I'd have done something about it sooner). Hang in there.
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:47 AM on July 20, 2015

I don't know if more information will help, but I have been giving copies of Expecting Better to all my pregnant friends. The author is an economist who applies her professional skills to understanding what is really known about the all the various pregnancy risks and then gives you the information that you need to make your own decisions about when it is sensible to change your behavior to avoid certain risks and when the problems are so unlikely that you really don't need to worry about. (Think Freakonomics applied to pregnancy)

Of course, if you are emotionally committed to avoiding 100% of all risks, this won't help but if, perhaps with the help of therapy, you want to be an informed, careful mother, this is a great resource both in terms in having the information and supporting you in making reasonable decisions.
posted by metahawk at 8:48 AM on July 20, 2015 [14 favorites]

As one practical note: I'm not sure from your title whether you're referring to this because you've already seen this suggestion, but one of the most frequent suggestions I see here (one with which I completely agree) is that the What to Expect books are unnecessarily alarmist / unnecessarily focused on potential problems, and that in general, time spent reading about pregnancy is less helpful than time spent relaxing in non-verbal ways and thinking about the body's sturdiness and resilience...
posted by kalapierson at 8:52 AM on July 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

Totally relevant MeFi post and commentary.

What helped me was reading stuff like my link and all the links in those comments. Stay away from the fear-mongering junk and the "What to Expect..." books, as all they have is more things for you to panic about. Humans have been having babies for millenia. Keep that in mind. Take care of yourself. Eat more whole-foods protein. Drink more water. Take your pre-natal. Take care of yourself. Find a medical professional that helps and listens to you. (In my experience, this ended up being a midwife instead of an OBGYN - she had more time for me to blather about my insecurities and help me figure out what to actually focus on.) Babies are remarkably resilient. They just grow and grow and grow. I found the Baby Center app to be helpful and informative without scaring the bejesus out of me.

Good luck, honey. I had 4 beers one night when I was three weeks pregnant. I stressed about it at first, but something you can't change is the past. There's no amount of fretting that will resolve that one night. And my kiddo will be two next week, counting to ten, climbing on jungle gyms, and being wonderful (and opinionated!). And really, there's nothing wrong with that night, either. (Take a look at that link again. This is just one of many seemingly black-and-white topics regarding motherhood and parenthood that really have significant gray areas and really don't allow for parents to actually make good judgments.)
posted by jillithd at 8:57 AM on July 20, 2015

If you can step outside yourself for a moment, it may also be helpful to remind yourself when you're feeling anxious that the wild hormone soup needed to metamorphose a fertilized egg into a tiny human does a number on your own brain. It may also help you to know that that hormone soup is at its most ferocious during the first trimester, and it gets better.
I had really shitty first trimesters (lots of anxiety related to bleeding, and extreme exhaustion) but things picked up markedly in the second. In fact, lots of people have shitty first trimesters for various reasons, and really don't talk about it much, but for most people things really usually do improve once you're a few more weeks in.

Until things do improve, please follow all the mental health suggestions others are supplying, and best wishes.
posted by telepanda at 8:58 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Worst was that I drank some alcohol in weeks 3-4 before realizing I was pregnant.

You and every other mother out there. I did too! My doctor said if I had hurt the fetus that badly with a few martinis, then it would be a miscarriage. Also the placenta doesn't fully form until ? many weeks after conception so right now its living off its own yolk sack and not your bloodstuffs. So your baby did not get a buzz from your beer/wine.

this is a good comment to read from a recent askme.

I've also really enjoyed lurking this pregnancy subreddit because the ladies there are reasonable every day people who are not damning/judgy-judgy/perfectionist about the whole affair.

I panicked too (first baby due very soon!) but honestly I wished I hadn't since stress probably isn't good for the baby either. Take your prenatal, don't drink/do drugs and relax. You cannot control everything. You may do everything perfectly and still have some weird twist of fate/genetics happen. And if there is an issue, how could it possibly be correlated to that one time you swallowed chlorine? We have control, but we don't have as much control as we think we do.

And understand that in the end you're afraid of 1) having an "imperfect" baby 2) their imperfections being your fault. Well even if your kid is physically fine, they may go through a horribly bratty period or wet the bed until they're 6 or whatever. You can't 100% control the outcome. Your kid is on its own life journey too. Just do your reasonable best.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:59 AM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

So I don't know if this will help or make things worse, but part of being a parent is learning that there are a lot of things outside your control, and there is absolutely no way to ensure at all times that your child is 100% safe from everything. It's learning to get comfortable with uncertainty.

I worried about a lot of things in pregnancy too -- until I realized that it wasn't like after I gave birth there wouldn't be things to worry about any more. You can choose to make yourself miserable worrying, or you can choose to do what you can to make reasonable choices and accept that life is inherently dangerous.

Honestly, this is what makes parenthood so awesome for me: there is SO MUCH GROWTH that you do as a human when you are charged with responsibility for another human life. There is a leap of faith that has to happen at some point.

The likelihood that your baby will be just fine is very, very high. Try to relax.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:06 AM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hi! I am you! I am 10 weeks pregnant with my first and have been very neurotic about everything. Here are things that have helped me stay relatively calm during this scary scary time.

1.) Stay off the internet. Really. If you have a question about eating a certain food? Call your doctor. Afraid of inhaling city air? Call your doctor. Want approval on your workout plan? Call your doctor. There is ALWAYS a nurse available to answer questions about these kinds of things. They will have much more informed and thorough information than any website or pregnancy forum could offer. Your doctor knows you, your health, and your baby better than any website. The internet is full of crazy fear mongering. My doctor even has a list of "approved websites" that I am allowed to go to - since it has true, hard science facts and little fear mongering. If you want, i can send you the list in a Me-Mail.

2.) Imagining my crotchety, angry grandmother chain smoking when pregnant with her 5 kids (who are doctors, accountants, pilots, etc). Women have been having babies since the dawn of time. Not drinking during pregnancy is advised, but at 3 weeks, I can guarantee that almost everyone had some booze before knowing they were in a family way. I was CONVINCED my period was a day away, cried my eyes out over it, and drowned my sorrows in vodka frozen strawberry smoothie. Our baby is doing great with a strong heart beat. You're doing a million times better than women in days of old. Your kid and your health is in SUCH a better starting place then chain smoking moms of the Mad Men era.

3.) Eating at home. I try not to eat out because i have less control over the food prep - so we stock up on lots of things I like to eat and thoroughly wash them at home. It makes me feel like i am doing everything I can in my power to make sure I don't eat listeria or any other bacteria nonsense. It makes me feel better, in control, and help calm my anxiety.

Pregnancy paranoia is a thing, and it sucks, and I have so much sympathy for what you're going through. Feel free to me-mail me if you want!
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 9:22 AM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would also suggest avoiding all the "Baby Story" shows, because they end up finding the births that have the weirdest complications. My midwife told me that these things are so statistically insignificant. Well-balanced diet, lots of rest, and talk to a counselor. :)
posted by heathrowga at 9:38 AM on July 20, 2015

This isn't about the next 8 months, it's about the next 18 years.

Because all those fears only have the potential to grow more intense as your love for this new tiny human in your life grows stronger. So, stop thinking about being some sort of perfect vessel and start thinking about what kind of parent you want to be. Do you want to be a parent who restricts her child from doing anything risky? Who teaches her child, by example, that she must maintain personal perfection or disaster will ensue? Or do you want to be a parent who helps her child move through the world with a healthy balance of caution and confidence?

The most perfect uterus possible will do far less for your child's long term health and happiness than a loving, moderately-well-adjusted parent will. So put all the energy that you're focusing on these worries, and try to put it, instead, into lovingly helping yourself get better at managing anxiety. That is the greatest gift you can give your child at this point.
posted by Ausamor at 9:56 AM on July 20, 2015 [9 favorites]

This helped me immensely! I would definitely seek some kind of prenatal counseling; I was exactly the same, and ended up having a bout of postpartum depression, that in retrospect seems could have been mitigated in part by some therapy during pregnancy.
posted by caoimhe at 10:09 AM on July 20, 2015

It's so hard with the first one- you really do want to do everything perfectly. But there's no such thing as perfectly. Just keep in mind that doctor's advice for best practice during pregnancy goes through fads and that what they say you absolutely must do/not do can change based on a single study. When my mom was pregnant and breastfeeding with me in the early 80s her doctor told her not to eat chocolate so she didn't have chocolate for over a year!

Talk to older women you know who have perfectly healthy kids and ask them what they did that would be considered "bad" now.

I'm pregnant with my second now and it's so reassuring that I made it through my first having had caffeine and the occasional sip of wine and deli meat, etc. and he has turned out perfectly. Completely healthy and happy.
posted by betsybetsy at 10:24 AM on July 20, 2015

On the other hand, maybe in week 11, I can relax a bit and eat something non-organic or whatever.

Alas, this is unlikely to be the case, and you should focus on dealing with your thoughts/feelings now because you can play "almost to week X, then we'll be fine!" for the entirety of your pregnancy and beyond. Since it's a developmental process, there's always one more thing to do, one more step in building a human to hope to accomplish before whatever it is you're thinking about. I had to have my baby at 34w6d and was trying to negotiate waiting until thirty-six weeks while the anesthesiology team was asking what I'd eaten that morning so they could schedule surgery (they were right; baby's totally fine). At eleven weeks, you're just going to start reading about some new phase the baby's going through, and be right back where you are now in terms of wanting everything to be perfectly perfect. Much better to work on coping with that impulse healthily than to expect it to ever go away.
posted by teremala at 10:58 AM on July 20, 2015

Could you have a chat with your own mother/grandmother/someone else you know who had children 20+ years ago? It might put things in perspective to hear about the era where nobody followed half these rules and still had healthy pregnancies the vast majority of the time.
posted by noxperpetua at 11:40 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

We found using a single source, 1 book, like "what to expect when your.." or "expecting better" was hugely helpful. When you have an issue? look it up. Not comforted? call the OB.

The internet is the absolute worst. Much of it is fad-faux-science journalism that is designed to get mouse clicks not help you.

Most of the stuff that can go wrong is not in your control. It's not. Maybe 1-5% of the situation is something you can alter though your environment and behavior. My grandmother was a hard drinking, hard smoking crazy who had 7 healthy babies. If something does go wrong (and it's very common) it will not be your fault.

Talk to your OB, get a therapist.
posted by French Fry at 11:55 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Expecting Better by Emily Oster (an economist who talks about her own pregnancy and the data about pregnancy in general) is an awesome book for the layperson.
posted by Guinevere at 12:55 PM on July 20, 2015

Nthing Expecting Better. I am a doctor and I found nothing medically or scientifically unsound about it. She really did an awesome job.

The reason why Expecting Better is so helpful is exactly what French Fry alludes to: the internet stuff you read is not science and reading it will not help you understand risk. For example, that paper you linked to. The headline is "Pool Water Risky During Pregnancy". That's alarmist and not supported by the actual science that the article purports to be about. The public health environmental consultant interviewed for the article is quoted as saying "Don't draw any conclusions" from this study. And the conclusion reads: "Whether THMs are a risk for pregnant women who are not lifeguards, "I just don't know," he says. "You can't say from this study that it is."

And yet based on this study which does not tell you anything about what risk you might run from chlorinated pools, you got scared - you decided not to go swimming. The sensational headline was what stuck in your mind and convinced you not to do something that has known benefits for your health, namely, low impact exercise, because you feared a shadowy, unproven implication.

"Scientific" scaremongering like this on the internet will continue to be a pervasive issue after your child is born - it's precisely the reason why so many anti-vaxxers exist nowadays. Please don't fall prey to this baloney!

Should you avoid every food item that's ever been recalled for listeria? NOPE. You'd have to restrict yourself from many other fruits and vegetables. Believe it or not, if you actually look at the reports of what food items have been contaminated with listeria over the past 5-10 years (all the reports are publicly available on the CDC website for the entire country - there's even more data than what you easily see on this page), you'll have a hard time finding a single report of it being in deli meats. I didn't find a single instance of deli meats causing listeria being reported last time I reviewed several years of data - again, for the entire United States. And yet there are thousands of pregnant women carefully avoiding or microwaving deli meats, because of what actual risk? They're not being told to avoid mung bean sprouts, or caramel apples, or cantaloupes, which are actual food products that have been contaminated with listeria in recent years (see my link). Why? Because knowing that cantaloupes were contaminated with listeria in 2011 doesn't tell you anything about what's going to happen in 2015, and cantaloupes are a good healthy food that there's no reason to avoid in pregnancy. Tomorrow it could be spinach, or celery, or whatever. You have to eat! You're growing a human! So that's just one example of how dietary recommendations for pregnant ladies in the USA are stupid - the stuff you think is solid, definite rules, actually is based on nearly no evidence. Read Expecting Better for much more on this.

There is in fact very little evidence to show that eating organic foods are better for your health than eating non-organic foods, whether you're pregnant or not. I personally still eat organic, but it's mostly for environmental reasons and not because I truly believe that it's making a significant impact on my health.

In conclusion please do talk to your doctor about your anxieties, and don't expect things to suddenly get better after the first tri, I'm sorry to say. After you worry about organogenesis, then it's your anatomy scan, then it's your delivery, then autism, then god knows what. The important part is to get at the root of your worries and let go of the idea that you can be perfect or eliminate risk, as many others here have wisely said (listen to Ausamor! They speak the truth).
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:16 PM on July 20, 2015 [10 favorites]

I really, really recommend finding an online pregnancy group. I was part of two that helped preserve my sanity and enjoy my pregnancy. One was the Pregnancy Monthly Chat group at altdotlife.com/forum (you have to join to see the threads).

The other was at FertilityFriend.com, which requires payment (obviously, you don't need the trying to conceive side of the forums, but the pregnancy side has a lower fee). I feel like the FF due date groups are hit or miss regarding how cutesey and annoying other members might be; I got lucky with my due date.
posted by Kriesa at 1:37 PM on July 20, 2015

Mrs pair of shades here- I'm an anxiety prone crazy woman and I took some advice here on the green and just bought the "panic free pregnancy" book. I only read that book and downloaded an app that showed what was busy growing that week. Before I knew I was pregnant I went to a Halloween party and drank several cocktails and even smoked a few cigarettes. I kinda freaked when I found out I was pregnant a week later but after reading up I felt pretty
Certain my baby was fine.


don't be afraid that not being anxious means something bad will happen because you weren't hyper vigilant.

I had made the choice not to worry through my pregnancy because I wanted my baby to have a calm little home inside me...

But at week 24 we had a medical crisis (unrelated to the Halloween party, sushi or any other decision I had made) I had no conscious idea anything was wrong but my mothers instinct spoke to me- it wasn't the mad, high intensity, never ending, worried voice of my anxiety- it was a primal, soft, "knowing", a quiet urge to stop everything and go to the hospital- I listened to it and now 4 1/2 months later I have a sweet 2 week old baby in my arms.

I'm kind of in awe of that voice, that mothers instinct. Now I don't worry so much- I trust my instinct to kick in when something isn't right- they've been tried and tested now!

Trust in yourself, your deep primal mother self...
posted by pairofshades at 7:06 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh- and the difference between anxiety and your mothers instinct is that anxiety is NOT KNOWING and FEAR.. Your mothers instinct feels calm.... Just so you don't imagine all anxiety might be your instincts...
posted by pairofshades at 7:10 AM on July 21, 2015

My midwife was a practical, no-nonsense sort of provider and while I'm paraphrasing, she basically said "look, assuming you're starting with healthy genes, usually you really have to TRY to mess up your pregnancy." As long as you are not smoking, drinking a bottle of wine each night, and eating lukewarm queso fresco while cleaning litter boxes at a cat shelter, this is really out of your hands and whatever happens will happen, regardless of what you did or didn't do. I am finding this applies to pretty much all of parenthood, as others have mentioned. The only thing my midwife expressly forbade me from doing was looking things up on Google.

My midwife was also originally from Germany by way of the UK, and I think her more "international" perspective led to her relaxed outlook. Something that helped me was to read up on pregnancy guidelines for other countries. The US has a bit of a reputation for being Extra Paranoid with its pregnant women. In the UK, for example, the NHS recommends not drinking but says "if you choose to drink" (!!) during pregnancy, keep it to one or two small drinks a week. It also reassures women that drinking before they know they are pregnant is likely not an issue.

Thinking about the history of pregnancy also helped me. Whenever I felt anxious, I thought of my grandma. When my grandma was pregnant with my mom, she already had two kids under 5 and was feeling pretty worn out, as you might imagine. Her doctor helpfully wrote her a prescription for "energy pills," or more specifically, amphetamines. Grandma literally took speed for much of her pregnancy with my mom, who was just fine. Now my mom watches how I care for my baby and she shakes her head at everything she "did wrong." I slept on my stomach, in a separate bedroom with big puffy crib bumpers and blankets and stuffed animals. My son sleeps on his back, in an empty crib without bumpers. There's always something new.

It's probably safer to be pregnant today than any other time in history. You are doing okay, really.
posted by castlebravo at 9:58 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

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