Antenatal Anxiety

You’ve probably heard of postpartum depression and maybe even postpartum anxiety, mental health issues that can occur years after baby is born. But it is also possible to experience mental health issues during pregnancy. The incidence of antenatal, prenatal, or pregnancy anxiety is unknown, but likely many more people experience it than report it. Read on to learn about the symptoms, causes, and treatments for this potentially debilitating condition.

Symptoms of Antenatal Anxiety

A certain amount of worry is normal during pregnancy. A lot is changing very quickly in your body and in your life. You might occasionally feel overwhelmed about how you’re going to wrap up everything at work before the baby arrives or how your other children or pets will react to a newborn in the house. But often, prenatal anxiety can start out as typical worry or fear and then spiral out of control.

If your worries lead to feelings of dread, are constant, are more present than not for two weeks, or make it feel as though you can never relax, you may have pregnancy anxiety. Symptoms also commonly manifest as irritability towards people close to you, such as your spouse or other children, tense muscles, and trouble getting a full night’s sleep, either because your mind won’t turn off at the beginning of the night or when you’re awakened part way through the night.

Severe cases of antenatal anxiety can lead to panic attacks—your body’s response to your intense anxiety. Panic attacks can look different for everyone, but may include feeling like you’re going to die, racing heart, chest pain, tingling appendages or face, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Antenatal anxiety can also lead to perinatal depression.

Causes of Antenatal Anxiety

Pregnancy anxiety can happen to anyone at any time during pregnancy. Your hormones change rapidly throughout the process of growing a baby, and some people’s brains react strongly to those hormone fluctuations. Plus, as discussed above, pregnancy is a time when it is normal to worry at least a little bit, and sometimes those fears can escalate. One common concern that pregnant people have is that the anxiety they experience is bad for the baby, which can turn into a vicious cycle of worrying about how your worry will affect your child. Below are some other things that predispose you to developing prenatal anxiety:

  • Past trauma, especially related to pregnancy, labor, or birth
  • Personal or family history of anxiety, panic attacks, or depression
  • Having experienced any kind of abuse or currently experiencing abuse or feeling unsafe
  • Chronic pain
  • Stress from any source, particularly relationships, employment, finances, or housing
  • Phobias, especially those related to medical procedures or birth

A certain amount of worry is normal during pregnancy. A lot is changing very quickly in your body and in your life. But often, prenatal anxiety can start out as typical worry or fear and then spiral out of control.

Coping with Antenatal Anxiety

If you think that you might be experiencing antenatal anxiety, call your care provider. If it’s not during business hours, you can leave a message for your doctor or midwife. Briefly explain your symptoms and tell them you’d like to talk about your options for treating prenatal anxiety. They may suggest medication—there are options that are reasonably safe during pregnancy—or refer you to a mental health professional. If you want to try talk therapy, but your care provider does not suggest it, you can always seek out a therapist yourself. If you don’t get the help you need from your care provider, talk to other trusted people in your life until you get the help that you need. You don’t have to suffer.

Other things you can try that might help you manage your anxiety:

  • Exercise: walking, swimming, and yoga are not only great for your body, but also for your mind.
  • Meditate: mindfulness meditation, in which you focus on your physical and emotional experiences without judgment, may help release some anxiety.
  • Breathe: breathing is not just for labor. It can also help alleviate anxious symptoms.
  • Rest: try to rest whenever you can, especially if you’re not sleeping well. Rest helps your body and brain cope with stress, which could decrease your anxiety.
  • Journal: sometimes just getting your thoughts and feelings out of your head onto paper can help make them less scary.
Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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