Emotional, physical and psychological impacts of unexpected news
Emotionally, you might well be experiencing a lot of strong emotions. Fear, anger and sadness are all common and understandable. You may feel shock, despair or disbelief at the diagnosis and struggle to process or accept it – some people feel completely numb. Guilt and a sense of failure can surface, even though logically this doesn’t fit. Commonly, people’s moods and emotions change more suddenly than usual.
Your brain and body are trying to absorb unexpected news that can feel like a bombshell. You may notice sudden changes in appetite and sleeping patterns. Often, people experience “brain fog”, forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. It might be impossible to complete tasks that are usually straightforward . Some people find going to work a helpful distraction during this time, while others might be too overwhelmed to manage. Please obtain a medical certificate from a doctor if you need it.
For some people, a prenatal diagnosis isn’t the first challenge or heartache they have faced on the path to parenthood. Many people have experienced fertility struggles, IVF, miscarriage, termination of a pregnancy or other difficulties. These can add up and affect people’s capacity to cope. Cumulative grief is a term that describes this type of grief. If you have experienced previous grief or trauma, try and acknowledge that this can make things harder for you right now.
Mental health distress
If your distress is acute and constant, with no or little relief for several days in a row, it may be worth talking with a GP regarding short-term relief, or phoning a counselling helpline during a moment of high distress. For example, if you don’t sleep at all or very little for several days in a row, this can become a stand-alone issue regarding your health and wellbeing. Some people may find symptoms of anxiety or depression re-emerging, or a person may experience acute distress for the first time. Sometimes distress can show up in unexpected ways, such as thoughts of suicide, self-harm or harm to your baby. This doesn’t make you “crazy” or “bad”. Please let a trusted person know and speak with a health professional as soon as possible.
If you feel at immediate risk regarding your safety, please phone an ambulance or go to a local hospital emergency department. The reactions and scenarios mentioned above certainly don’t mean that there is something wrong with you – they show that your body and mind are signalling for extra resources and help to get through the shock and distress of what you are experiencing.
Partners supporting each other
If you are going through this process with a partner, try and talk about what you each need and how you can support each other. This is a helpful conversation before medical appointments, tests and procedures. It is common for two people to process information in different ways, to deal with emotions differently and to have varied coping mechanisms. Where possible, acknowledge and allow these differences in each other – they are normal in times of stress and shock.
One short-term dilemma is what you share with people around you, if anything. People differ greatly in their need for privacy or openness, their desire to talk or to process internally. Sometimes, fear of judgement from others or worries about religious, cultural or social factors influence these decisions. You may feel comfortable telling some family members but not others, for example.
Parents have a right to agency over their “narrative” or story – in a situation where you feel like you have so little control, this is even more crucial. Your experience with your pregnancy belongs to you and you can decide what you share and how much. You are in the early stage of understanding and processing what is happening and what the future holds – how you tell your story or explain your situation to others may change over time.
If you decide to share the news with others, it sometimes helps to create a Whatsapp group or identify a trusted person who can pass information on for you. This can help with:
- Providing information for a social/family network that is frequently checking in for “news”
- Communicating boundaries to loved ones to manage their expectations of you during this time
- Letting others know whether you want visitors
- Contacting your workplace/colleagues if needed
- Asking for help with appointments, meals, chores, childcare
Another avenue of support is counselling. If the diagnosis is genetic, you will probably be offered an appointment with a genetic counsellor through your hospital or health provider. They can help you make sense of the genetic information you have received and support you through this.
There may be support organisations for specific medical conditions that can help with information and support. Explore the TTU Diagnosis Specific Organisations Directory or talk to your healthcare team for help finding the right organisation.
In addition, some people seek a therapist who is registered for non-directive pregnancy counselling or perinatal grief and loss. Rather than giving you medical advice about what to do, counselling can help you identify and cope with strong emotional reactions, allow your experience to be heard and validated, and provide some support for your mental health. You may decide to attend counselling by yourself or with a partner. You can explore options for professional or peer-led counselling and support through our Mental Health and Wellbeing page. We have already developed another resource all about coping with unexpected news.