What it feels like: Diagnosed with OCD and anxiety while pregnant

Research shows that in Ontario, there was a significant increase in new moms reaching out for help with mental health concerns during the pandemic.

Emma Jones 8 minute read June 10, 2022
Shadow of a woman pushing a baby trolley

According to the International OCD Foundation, pregnancy and the 12 months after birth is a particularly vulnerable time for symptoms of OCD and anxiety to occur. GETTY

Content Warning: This article contains references to depression, OCD and thoughts of self-harm. 

When Dagny found out she was pregnant with her second child shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was excited but also describes feeling a little scared. As she worked to manage health concerns that began cropping up during her pregnancy, while also dealing with virtual doctor’s visits and distancing from friends and family, stress and anxiety began to have an increasing presence in her life.

Pregnancy and the 12 months postpartum is a particularly vulnerable time for symptoms of OCD and anxiety to occur, according to the International OCD Foundation. While researchers aren’t exactly sure why this is, it is likely influenced by the dramatic changes in hormones experienced during pregnancy. Biomarkers also seem to indicate there may be some overlap in the origins of postpartum depression, according to Johns Hopkins University. The lack of sleep, serious physical changes happening to the body and stress of caring for a newborn don’t help things either.

Only one-fifth with postpartum depression get treatment

The pandemic has also added to the stress. Research published by Women’s College hospital indicates that in Ontario, there was a significant increase in new moms reaching out for help with mental health concerns. Even before this rise in need, however, only a fraction of the women who experienced mental health concerns during or after pregnancy received treatment.

“Although 20 per cent of new parents experience postpartum depression and anxiety, only one-fifth of those receive the treatment they need to get better,” according to a release from Women’s College Hospital.

Ahead of the 10th annual LOVE YOU by Shoppers Drug Mart™ Run for Women, raising funds for Women’s College Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry, Dagny sat down with Healthing to talk about her experiences with OCD and anxiety and why new parents shouldn’t feel ashamed about their mental health.

What was it like being pregnant during the pandemic?

It was good and bad. Our oldest was born in 2018, and it was a really hard pregnancy. I found out I was pregnant [again] in April 2020. It was scary and kind of upsetting, but it was also such a great thing for us to focus on. It helped that my husband was home because of the pandemic. And then we chose for me to stay home — usually I was with my son Monday to Friday, but I worked on Saturdays as a massage therapist. We didn’t feel like it was safe for me to go back to work at the beginning of pandemic.

For the first 17 weeks of my second pregnancy, I had such bad morning sickness, I just wanted to lie on the ground. I ended up having pre-eclampsia — one night we put my son to bed and I started throwing up. As soon as I stood up, I was very dizzy. I had dots on the edge of my vision and I was super sore — I had pain under my rib, pain in my shoulder, a pain in my back. I just felt awful.

I went to the hospital in a Uber because our [older] son was sleeping and my husband had to stay with our son. [At the hospital] they took my blood pressure and were like, You’re gonna have a baby tonight. I had to call my friend [and ask her] to stay with our son so my husband could come.  I delivered at [about] 36 plus two, so my son was almost four weeks early. He was born December 2020.

You were diagnosed with OCD and anxiety during your pregnancy — what led to those diagnoses?

During my first pregnancy, I had the thought, every time I went into the kitchen or saw a knife, I thought of stabbing myself. But it wasn’t me thinking those thoughts. During the first pregnancy, I was in a different hospital and I spoke to somebody and we talked and it helped. But during the second pregnancy, I think with the pandemic, my anxiety was at a much higher level. Since the delivery with our first child was so difficult, I was nervous about the second delivery. I was referred to the Reproductive Life Stages program at Women’s College hospital, where I was able to talk with a psychiatrist. [The psychiatrist told me these were symptoms] of anxiety and OCD: unwanted, intrusive, repetitive thoughts. It clarified my whole life.

I’ve had it my whole life and I never knew. I think they were subclinical, [but still] stressful. Like, I have to check the locks at night — mild compulsions that [feel] normal. You want to make sure you check the door before you leave. Whenever I go out, I ask myself, do I have my wallet, do I have my keys, do I have my phone, my wallet, my keys? But to be diagnosed with OCD, I was like, holy cow, this is what that is.

Was it hard to hear that you had OCD?

It was really upsetting at first, but then, quite illuminating. I made a list of about 60 OCD thoughts that I had throughout my life. I didn’t know that other people’s brains aren’t the same as mine — how can you? And knowing that [diagnosis] for me, it’s much easier to dismiss it because it takes away the power of that thought: this isn’t a real worry, this is the OCD whispering in my ear.

But I definitely have anxiety. We are trying to sleep train our kids, so I’m very tired. When I’m tired, my OCD gets worse. Every morning when I wake up, my first thought is my son is dead in his bed. [And I have to tell myself] You’re tired. That’s just your OCD talking.

That’s a lot to deal with while you’re also pregnant.

Talking to the psychiatrist at Women’s College Hospital was so helpful because she suggested a book called, The Pregnancy and Postpartum Anxiety Workbook. It gave me so many tools.

Part of what happens with OCD is you start to get these thoughts that won’t leave you alone and you want to run away from them. So every time I picked up a knife and I wanted to stab myself, I felt very blessed that I just continued to go into the kitchen and use a knife. The power was gone from that thought, because it’s not me. I don’t want to stab myself — it’s a thought that is contrary to my values. It’s being able to stop the thought and recognize it as an OCD thought, that it isn’t me and not feeling shame or guilt. It’s also about being able to say to my husband, to my friends, to myself, this is your OCD.

Did things change after you delivered your baby?

After our baby was born I had a crisis — my repetitive thoughts happened every five minutes. A few weeks after he was born, he we wasn’t breathing well so we took him to the hospital. He was fine. But he wasn’t sleeping and all these things were very stressful. So my thoughts would not leave me alone — it was so upsetting. Thoughts of harm, every five minutes. It was terrifying. [I felt] so shameful. I felt so vulnerable. It’s so hard as a new mom to say that’s what’s happening to you.

While I was pregnant, I had spoken with a psychiatrist and she made a plan for medication in case I had a crisis. And so when I was in crisis, crying, feeling out of control, feeling so vulnerable, feeling ashamed and upset, I had the help I needed at the drop of a hat. [My midwife] made an emergency called to the psychiatrist at Women’s College Hospital who immediately set me up with medication.

My midwife was so supportive, so was my husband, my family, and my psychiatrist. The fact that we had a plan meant that I didn’t have to feel bad about it. I didn’t have to feel guilty. I didn’t have to feel shameful because it wasn’t my fault that this was happening.

And to know that, the Reproductive Life Stages Program is for your whole life, not just prenatal or postnatal — I feel so happy to know that if I need help again, they’re there for me. As women we go through so much, right?

How was it adjusting to medication and life with a newborn?

The nice thing about my anxiety medication was that it was one pill before I went to bed. I think I started with half of a pill for a few weeks, and then went to one pill. I was on it for about a year before I felt like I could handle things. I was lucky, I didn’t have any side-effects and it made my brain feel really calm and happy. It took a few weeks, it’s not a magic pill.

Any advice for other mothers who are sharing your experience?

Women should not feel like they are alone. There is help out there. For me, it’s a relief to know that the program at Women’s College Hospital is for my whole life. I had the help I needed immediately, and I know that if I’m in crisis again, it’s there for me.

The Run for Women raises funds for Women’s College Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry and happens on June 11th. Participation can be virtual or in-person — readers interested in supporting or taking part can find out more on their website.  


Emma Jones is a multimedia editor with Healthing. You can reach her at emjones@postmedia.com or on Instagram and Twitter @jonesyjourn.


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