Unplug from unhealthy anxiety

By Published On: May 1st, 2016
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In the early weeks of my first pregnancy, I came […]

In the early weeks of my first pregnancy, I came across a book at the library about proper eating for pregnant women. I can’t remember the title, and I don’t know who published it—but it was the absolute worst thing I could have read at that time.

The author had never been pregnant, but she had many theories about the kinds of harm certain foods could inflict. Rather than focusing on beneficial eats, the book listed page after page of what-if warnings about various fare: Potatoes were potentially dangerous, eating burned food could harm your baby, and mushrooms might cause birth defects. For weeks, I was a nervous wreck; I was sure I’d hurt my baby’s chance at a healthy life because I’d overcooked the shrimp scampi.

Finally, I spoke to my OB and confessed my worries—I’d eaten sushi before I knew it was off-limits. Oh, and I might have inadvertently eaten soft cheese. (What counts as a “soft” cheese?) And are potatoes really life-threatening? Help me! I’m failing motherhood already.

The doctor presented a more rational perspective. “Think of all the pregnant women in Japan eating sushi,” he said. “They’re still having healthy babies. And in Italy they eat unpasteurized cheese all the time.” He opened my eyes to the reality of pregnancy: No one does it perfectly. You do your best with the information you have, and you keep your anxiety in check for the sake of your baby and your own sanity.

I was able to get on with my pregnancy with a greater sense of calm, forgiving myself for imperfections in my diet. I also promptly returned the offensive piece of literature to the library. (May no one else check it out and be subjected to its taunts!)

I had experienced a small taste of the health anxiety that plagues many expectant women. However, had I turned to the Internet rather than to books during that emotional first trimester, my anxiety could have been much worse. The abundance of information—good and bad—stored online can be completely overwhelming, especially to the mama already prone to health worries. This modern phenomenon of Internet-fueled “symptom search hypochondria” has spawned its own title: cyberchondria.

Am I a cyberchondriac?
It’s normal to worry about physical symptoms. It’s even normal to look for health answers online—we’ve all done it at some point. The worrying-and-searching behavior only becomes a problem when it starts to take over your life.

A cyberchondriac spends so much time and energy researching various maladies online, her career and personal relationships suffer as a result. Searching online doesn’t make her feel better; in fact, she feels more anxious and upset the more she reads, but she can’t seem to pull away from it. The more she sees online, the more certain she is that any small symptom could signify a rare and horrible condition.

Valuing online sources over her doctor’s advice, a cyberchondriac also tends to misplace trust. She will doubt her OB’s judgment and seek multiple opinions and medical tests when her symptoms don’t warrant that kind of attention. Ignoring a doctor’s advice, worrying needlessly, and fitfully losing sleep can ironically create medical problems that weren’t there to begin with.

Cyberchondria—and hypochondria in general—can crop up during pregnancy, even among women without a history of health anxiety. When you’re pregnant, your body is exhibiting symptoms you’ve never experienced before. You’re worried about the stresses on your own body, but you’re also anxious about the new life within.

You want to do it all just right, so baby starts out with every advantage. This anxiety is so common, and it’s only compounded every time you hear someone’s sad story about a pregnancy gone wrong.

How to overcome
First of all, break the habit that’s consuming you! Shut down your online devices, and replace the compulsive behavior with human interaction and therapeutic activities.

Calm your anxieties by connecting with your partner or friends, doing yoga, going for a walk, enjoying music, pursuing a hobby or getting a massage. Stay busy (within reason) to distract yourself from the worries lurking in the corners of your mind. If you need more to fill your day, look outside yourself and help a neighbor —service works wonders!

It’s OK to use electronics if you’re doing something positive—working, watching a show, planning your babymoon, building your shower registry. If you can trust yourself to occasionally read health-related material online, stick to reputable websites with .gov or .edu addresses. Blogs and forums run the risk of uninformed content and anecdotal horror stories that will send you right back down anxiety lane.

Follow common sense wellness guidelines—eat well, sleep well and stay active when you can. You will feel more secure when you manage your health with regular doctor’s visits. If concerns crop up between appointments, pick up the phone, and call your OB. Take the routine tests recommended by your doctor, but don’t request additional tests or ultrasounds unless she believes that you have reason for concern.

It’s so important to communicate with your doctor about your mental health as well as your physical health. If you have a full-blown case of hypochondria, your OB might recommend meeting with a counselor. Because maternal stress can have negative effects on baby in utero, your mental state is absolutely a priority.

By Ginny Butler

Image: iStock.com