Trying to conceive can create the perfect environment for OCD to grow. Could you be at risk?
I realised too late that I had developed OCD while trying to conceive. It wasn’t until I got pregnant and my son was born that I realised how severe my condition was. It stopped me from enjoying the pregnancy I had fought so hard for, and it robbed me of precious moments with my son in the first six months of motherhood. Women who struggle to conceive can be susceptible to OCD. During treatment for this wildly misunderstood condition, I learned that the emotional toll of a long or painful journey to conception can make you vulnerable to developing OCD. Ultimately, getting pregnant is out of our control. Feeling stuck in a place of uncertainty, mixed with factors like pregnancy loss, a history of depression or anxiety disorder and conditions are ripe for OCD to take hold. But you can stop the cycle. Let’s look at how OCD can start and ways to tackle it.
You may not realise you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Thanks to pop-culture OCD is often depicted as a funny personality quirk or the butt of a joke - liking things to be neat and clean and needing tings to be perfect. OCD is often a relentless, exhausting condition. It causes obsessions, which are intrusive, recurring thoughts, urges or images in the mind that can make you feel anxious or disgusted. Compulsive behaviour can follow as a way of trying to stop the horrible feelings caused by the obsessions. It is often friends and family who first notice the changes in behaviour and encourage you to seek help. For people with OCD though, the behaviour feels necessary and the thought of changing it can be daunting.
Why trying to conceive has so many triggers
OCD can have many causes but major life events, like trying to have children, are common times it can develop. As women we can feel a lot of pressure when trying to conceive. We are inundated with advice from health professionals on how to prepare our bodies physically for pregnancy, but in the process our mental health can be compromised. One of the anxious thoughts on a constant loop in my head was that I would never be able to have children. To ease this fear, I felt it was my responsibility to do everything possible to increase my chances of getting pregnant. Normal daily routines and tasks can become triggers for anxiety under heightened conditions.
Diet - It can be useful to ask yourself how far you’ve strayed from widely accepted dietary recommendations. Are you excluding entire food groups or following self-imposed rules? I initially eliminated sugar, dairy, and gluten. I then started following diets recommended for people with specific health problems that I didn’t even have and banning long lists of foods. I attributed huge meaning and guilt to tiny slip ups like eating a chocolate bar, which gave me endless opportunities throughout the day to worry and beat myself up.
Exercise - Advice on exercise while trying to conceive can be conflicting. My doctor advised me against rigorous exercise in the weeks after an attempt to get pregnant. This grew into a fear of potentially dislodging an embryo from my uterus and led me to limit exercise to only gentle walking. I then extended it to no bending or twisting at the waist, no rapid movements, and being careful to avoid any straining when on the toilet.
Hygiene - When trying to conceive it’s natural to try and stay as healthy as possible. Having a fever during that crucial fertile window or in the early weeks of pregnancy is not ideal. To avoid getting sick I stopped leaving the house, undertook rigorous cleaning routines, and I eventually viewed friends and family as potential sources of contamination and banned them from visiting. I was acting as though there was a global pandemic well before the world had heard of Covid-19.
What should I do if I think I have OCD?
Everyone has anxious thoughts at some point. But if they are persistent and you struggle to think about anything else, you should get help. A GP or psychological therapist can diagnose you. Left untreated OCD developed when trying to conceive will likely continue throughout a successful pregnancy and increase your likelihood of maternal OCD when the child is born.
It is unlikely that OCD will go away without professional help. The two main forms of treatment are psychological therapy and the use of medication.
Therapy -. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is very effective for OCD and can help you understand what led you to develop OCD, what your specific obsessions and compulsions are and what is feeding them. Techniques like exposure and response prevention (ERP) encourage you to face your fears and triggers with the support of a therapist. This helps weaken the anxious thoughts.
Medication - Antidepressants can help alter the balance of chemicals in your brain, which helps to combat anxious thoughts.
Coping with the stress of trying to conceive
Struggling to conceive is a stressful situation regardless of whether you develop OCD. Even if you never require professional support for your mental health, it is useful to have tools on hand to deal with general anxieties as they arise. These tips helped me keep worries at bay.
Avoid information overload - The topic of conception is much more extensive than what they taught us in sex education. Suddenly you know more details than you ever imagined about the menstrual cycle, coming off birth control, releasing an egg, cervical mucus, fallopian tubes and more. It’s useful to understand your body but the internet can be a bit of a trap. Lots of information, but an endless rabbit hole of conflicting opinions. Wading through information can be time consuming and overwhelming. Choose one or two trusted, reliable sources of information and just stick to those.
Constructive worry - Set aside a designated worry time. Try and make it the same time each day, in the same location for about 20 minutes. This stops you from chasing the thought endlessly throughout the day. During this designated time, you can divide the worries into things you can control and those that you can’t. If it is something you can change, then create an action plan and then move on. If it’s something you can’t control, then acknowledge the discomfort but don’t chase it any further. With practise this technique can greatly reduce anxiety.
Shift your perspective - Even if you’ve been trying to conceive for a long time, every attempt still comes with some positive anticipation. Trying to protect yourself by preparing for the worst doesn’t always serve you. You can’t know the outcome so let yourself feel some excitement and balance the negative fears with the possibility of being pregnant.
Always remember that OCD is common and nothing to feel ashamed of. A lot of people struggle with this debilitating condition, but with support and treatment it can be managed. It is important to get help for OCD as soon as you can. Do it for yourself and for the future baby you’ve worked so hard to create.
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