Whether you’re a first-time parent or are adding to your family, struggled to get pregnant or got lucky without trying, nine months of pregnancy can raise all sorts of concerns. You may wonder: Why is the baby kicking so much…or so little? How will I bear the labor pains I’ve heard so much about? How can I be a good mother if I’ve got no clue what it’s like to care for an infant? These are all normal worries, since joining the first-time mama’s club means you’ll have plenty of questions only experience can answer. The reality is, nearly every woman — under that baby belly and “pregnancy glow” — is a bit anxious, worried or hesitant about some aspect of pregnancy, childbirth or parenting. But when should anxiety be a cause for concern? And how can it be treated during pregnancy? The answers are information that every expecting woman should hear.
What’s a normal amount of anxiety?
Anxiety is not only part of being pregnant; it’s part of being human! Everyone worries about their lives, and pregnancy can often amplify those worries. Some women are mostly worried about whether their babies are healthy (previous pregnancy losses or fertility problems can make this an especially overriding worry). Others might worry about whether they’ll be good parents, how their relationships with their partners will change, how siblings will react to a new baby, or the financial aspects of having a child (and even if you worry about all these things, that’s normal too).
But there’s a difference between normal worrying and all-consuming anxiety during pregnancy, also known as antenatal anxiety. It’s time to talk to a healthcare provider if you’re unable to concentrate on your day-to-day life; have trouble functioning at work or home; experience a frequent sense of panic, fear or restlessness; have obsessive thoughts; or don’t enjoy things that used to make you happy. Other signs of a more serious anxiety disorder can be physical, including heart palpitations and muscle tension. This level of anxiety isn’t normal or healthy — but treatment can help.
Who’s most at risk?
Just about anyone can develop anxiety during pregnancy. In fact, a poll by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that 52 percent of pregnant women report increased anxiety or depression. That said, there are a few criteria that put you at higher risk for a severe anxiety disorder, which means that you should pay extra-close attention to how you’re feeling when you’re expecting:
- A previous diagnosis of an anxiety disorder
- Anxiety during a past pregnancy
- Previous pregnancy loss or fertility struggles
- Pregnancy with complications or bed rest (though practitioners rarely prescribe strict bed rest anymore, in part for this reason)
- Stress at home or work
All of these factors can contribute to a heightened risk of anxiety during pregnancy.
Why seek help?
Many women are under the mistaken impression that the best way to deal with anxiety is to just put up with it. But if your anxiety is severe and all-consuming, there are a few reasons it’s best to seek help. Although you might tell yourself “I’ll just feel better once the baby is here,” research has actually shown that women who have anxiety during pregnancy are more likely to have postpartum depression after baby is born. So although anxiety and depression don’t necessarily occur together, they are closely related — and by learning ways to control your anxiety before your new little one arrives, you’ll increase the odds that you’ll be able to enjoy those joyful first few months. Another reason to explore treatments: Long-term, severe anxiety during pregnancy can affect your baby’s development. Studies have shown that anxiety or depression during pregnancy can increase the odds of preterm birth and low birth weight, and even make it more likely a child will, down the road, have emotional or behavioral challenges.
Anxiety medications during pregnancy
Most drugs that treat anxiety fall into the same class of pharmaceuticals as antidepressants, which means some can be tricky to prescribe during pregnancy. While studies have shown no long-term effects of exposing babies to these drugs, many clinicians admit that could be because there are so few studies done on expecting women. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology cautions that prescribing these types of medications during pregnancy should always include a careful risk-benefit analysis.
If medications are necessary to ensure your well-being and/or your baby’s, your practitioner and a qualified therapist can work with you to decide which one offers the most benefits for the fewest risks (and how low a dose you can take and still get those benefits). If you’ve been on a medication for panic attacks, anxiety or depression pre-pregnancy, a change or adjustment of dose might be necessary, too.
Other anxiety treatments during pregnancy
While medication is one solution to anxiety disorders, it certainly isn’t the only one. In fact, therapy sessions with a psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor is always the first and best way to help pinpoint what’s causing your anxiety and develop a plan to help you ease your worries or learn relaxation techniques. The following anxiety-alleviating strategies can help, too:
- Catch more zzzs. Some research has found that lack of sleep could exacerbate anxiety, so aim for seven to eight hours a night whenever possible. Having trouble snoozing? Try these sleep-busting strategies. If problems persist, talk to your doctor about sleep aids: Many, including Unisom, Tylenol PM, Sominex and Nytol, are generally considered OK for occasional use during pregnancy.
- Eat whole, fresh foods. A growing amount of research has shown that what you eat can have a big effect on your mental health. Eating a well-balanced diet — nutrient-dense, whole and unprocessed foods (including fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, dairy and whole grains) — instead of processed and fast foods is thought to support healthy bacteria in the gut, which in turn may help lessen anxiety.
- Stay active. Something as quick and easy as a 10-minute walk can decreases levels of tension. Research has found that people who get regular exercise are 25 percent less likely to develop anxiety or depression.
- Arm yourself with knowledge. Learning the ins and outs of pregnancy and parenting can go a long way in helping you feel prepared. So read up and consider taking a childbirth class.
- Build a support system. Spend time with experienced parents or friends who are also expecting. You can also join an online community to connect with others who are coping with the same feelings as you.
- Schedule time in your day to relax. Scientists have found that regular meditation and acupuncture have benefits for people with anxiety. Or try yoga, listen to music or get a massage from a professional or even just your partner.
Lastly, try to learn to remind yourself that you really will know what to do when your bundle of joy arrives. Even if you’ve never held a baby, instinct is on your side — and what your baby will really need more than anything is simply your love.