One of the first things that made me suspect I may be pregnant was a bad run. It was a hot and humid morning but, since I live in North Carolina, it was nothing I wasn’t used to. My husband and I had been trying for a baby for a while. I had planned to run a practice 5k that morning for some upcoming races I wanted to sign up for. By mile two I was struggling, feeling crampy, and far more winded than I should have been so I decided to cut the run short. Sure enough, the next day I saw those much-desired two pink lines on my pregnancy test and abruptly began what has been the most intense mental and physical journey I’ve ever experienced.
Just before becoming pregnant, I was probably in the best physical shape I had ever been in. I was about 40 days into a run streak and had been running almost daily for several months prior. Additionally, I was hitting new PRs and, after finishing my first half marathon, switched my focus to shorter runs and was rapidly increasing my speed. I was nourishing my body with nutritious foods and feeling mentally strong. All told, I felt more than ready for the next chapter and visualized myself as a strong, physically fit, visibly glowing pregnant woman who felt great and would continue running right up until birth.
What actually happened was VERY different than what I had visualized. In the first weeks of my pregnancy, I kept up with my running as best as I could. My body felt shockingly different almost as soon as I became pregnant – the heat bothered me far more than usual, I was easily winded and felt constantly fatigued. I realized I would have to dial down my expectations, so I slowed down, shortened my runs and ended my run streak to build in plenty of rest days. Still, as summer arrived and the weather grew hotter I found myself struggling just to shuffle around the block. The challenges of running while pregnant were hard for me to accept.
Soon brutal morning sickness set in, and I happened to be one of the unlucky women who felt nauseous morning, noon, and night without a break. Food aversions began to dictate my diet, and my usual nourishing meals morphed into mostly bland carbs and whatever little bits I could stomach each day. A prescription medicine for morning sickness helped me slightly but made me feel drowsy and dizzy. Running stopped feeling good and being out in the summer heat left me with headaches and increased nausea. Finally, feeling sick, exhausted, and defeated, I decided to stop running altogether about 7 or 8 weeks into my pregnancy. I did make a plan to start up again once my nasty first trimester symptoms subsided though.
Struggling With Sudden Changes
As a person who relied heavily on running as an integral part of my anxiety management, it’s not hard to imagine how suddenly halting this part of my routine (especially at a time when my hormones were surging and I was feeling desperately ill) did not do good things for my mental health. Although I was definitely not feeling physically up to running and was trying to listen to my body, I felt guilty. Running had provided me with mental clarity, a daily surge of endorphins and a much-needed energy boost, and now I had no energy or motivation.
I’m no stranger to the tie between mental and physical health. I have Hashimoto’s Disease, a thyroid disorder that has affected my running ability, fertility, metabolism, and mental health. Also, I have perfectionist tendencies, and in hindsight, I realize I had begun to view running through the lens of perfectionism. I was only happy because my stats were showing steady improvement. Slowing down, ending my run streak, and then quitting running altogether (even for a short time) felt like a huge failure on my part, and I regularly beat myself up for failing to live up to my visions of the perfect, glowing, pregnant runner.
My anxiety began to rapidly get worse. At first, it was easy to blame it on the fact that I was feeling too sick to run. Then, I learned that pregnancy had worsened my hypothyroidism significantly and I blamed my increased anxiety on that. Soon the second trimester rolled around and my morning sickness cleared up and new thyroid medication brought my numbers back in range. Despite all this, my anxiety worsened.
My Perinatal Diagnosis
The second trimester of pregnancy is often referred to as the most enjoyable trimester, but I spent most of mine under a dark, swirling cloud of intrusive thoughts and fear. At this point, my anxiety had reached depths it had never been to before, and it scared me. I was experiencing panic attacks at home, at work, while driving, and even in the middle of the night. On top of that, I was too exhausted and panicky to attempt to run and spent most of my free time compulsively Googling pregnancy symptoms, ruminating over fears of the future, and crying. I felt like such a failure for not being “strong” enough to keep my anxiety under control. I began to blame myself for not running, for not doing enough self-care and for a myriad of other “failures” that made no logical sense.
Overnight, I had gone from feeling strong and well, to spiraling out of control and that was something I didn’t want to admit to. Finally, I overcame the shame and opened up to my husband and my therapist about my anxiety, and I was diagnosed with perinatal OCD. For the first time in my life, with the aid of my OBGYN and my therapist, I made the difficult decision to start an SSRI medication. I’d always thought I had a very accepting attitude toward antidepressant use, but realized I had trouble applying this logic to myself. Deciding to start taking medication for my anxiety (especially during pregnancy where I was avoiding every medicine from antacids to Tylenol as much as possible) felt like a final admission of failure and defeat.
The Strength to Start Treatment
In hindsight, all I can say is thank goodness for my husband and my medical team for pushing me in the right direction. Would I have needed to start medication if I had been able to keep running? Who knows, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. Over the next several weeks of slowly increasing my dose, I felt the dark curtain of anxiety lifting more and more each day. Now, ten weeks into treatment with medication and therapy, I finally feel like myself again. The swirling, looping thoughts have subsided and my daily anxiety is finally well under control, and perhaps even better managed than it was before pregnancy with therapy and running alone. Looking back over the past few months and realizing what a dark place I was in, I feel immense gratitude that these life-saving medications exist. There is NO shame in getting the help you need.
My new psychiatrist believes pregnancy hormones and the loss of my coping mechanisms (running included) triggered my perfectionist and obsessive tendencies to morph into full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder, in addition to worsening my existing panic disorder, and agoraphobia. I’m so thankful that my doctors and I were able to recognize that I needed a different kind of help for this form of severe anxiety that was new to me. I’m now in my third trimester of pregnancy and I finally feel happy, connected to our baby, and ready for the future.
But, I am still not running.
The Right Decision for Me
Even though I finally feel mentally well and my perinatal OCD is managed, after several months of not running and after emerging from the darkest episode of anxiety I have ever experienced, I feel comfortable and confident that now is a great time to allow my body a much-deserved rest. In these final months and weeks of my pregnancy, I’ve switched to taking walks around the block, along my same routes, where just a few months ago I scored new PRs and hit new speed records. While I was testing my physical endurance here just a few months ago, I am now testing my mental endurance as I practice letting go of the perfectionist voice in my head and making room for rest.
Every person is different and while many women thrive while running in pregnancy, this feels like the right decision for me, hard as it has been to accept. Running will still be there for me when I feel ready, and I look forward to crossing my first finish line with a new tiny sidekick in a jogging stroller. Our daughter’s middle name will be Grace and I just love that name, because as I’ve carried her, she has already given me so much wisdom and taught me what it means to give myself grace.
It is so easy to get caught up in the idea of self-improvement and healing as a perfect, linear graph. In reality, running, healing from trauma, and fighting mental illness are not at all linear. There are peaks and valleys, PRs and injuries, progression and plateaus that can leave you soaring or sidelined. This is life, and ups and downs are normal and healthy. For me, pregnancy has proven to be a crash course in self-acceptance, in letting go of visions of perfection, and in checking my own biases around taking medication. I don’t know what the future will hold, but for now, I will rest and feel confident that soon enough, when my body and mind are ready, still I’ll run.