Pregnancy is an exciting, but difficult, time for most people. You’re excited for the arrival of your new baby, but being pregnant is physically draining. You might also be worried about all the upcoming life changes that are going to happen after the baby is born. Maybe you’re having thoughts like, will I be safe during childbirth? or what if we can’t really afford this baby?
But are these types of worries normal, or can pregnancy cause a diagnosable anxiety disorder? And if you already have an anxiety disorder, can pregnancy make it worse? Here’s everything you need to know.
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Why does pregnancy make people anxious?
Whether your pregnancy was expected or not, it’s normal to feel some anxiety while you’re waiting for your baby’s birth. It’s no secret that life with a newborn is stressful. On top of that, hormonal changes that your body is going through during pregnancy can cause some fluctuations in your mood and overall mental health.
Everyone has some worries while they’re pregnant, but sometimes those worries cross the line into being a diagnosable anxiety disorder. You might be experiencing an anxiety disorder if you:
- Are consumed with worries most of the time
- Are anxious and fearful about your own or your baby’s health
- Feel that your anxiety is out of your control
- Are having a hard time concentrating
- Have muscle tension, stomach problems, or headaches that can’t be explained by a medical condition
- Are having problems sleeping
- Feel restless, agitated, or irritable
There are several different anxiety disorders that can present themselves during pregnancy, including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
If you already have any of these disorders, then it’s possible that pregnancy will make it more severe. If you’re planning to have a baby, start talking to your doctor or mental health provider early on about how you will manage your anxiety during pregnancy. The earlier in pregnancy you get support for anxiety, the better.
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Can anxiety affect an unborn baby?
One of the most common questions people have about anxiety during pregnancy is, can high levels of anxiety affect my unborn baby?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. High, unmanaged anxiety during pregnancy has been linked to low birth weight, the likelihood of preterm birth, and a smaller head and brain size in the fetus.
That’s why it’s so critical to learn about pregnancy-related anxiety and ways to manage it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’ve felt your anxiety creeping up during pregnancy. But the more you can take care of yourself and ease your anxiety, the better it will be for your baby.
How to manage anxiety during pregnancy
If you’re pregnant and feeling more anxious than usual, you’re not alone. Anxiety during pregnancy is incredibly common - one study report states that 1 in 10 pregnant people experience anxiety. Anxiety is nothing to feel ashamed of, and there are effective ways to manage it.
Unless your doctor has indicated otherwise, it’s usually safe for people to get moderate physical exercise during pregnancy. Physical activity is consistently proven to be one of the best things you can do for your overall mental health; it’s been shown to significantly decrease levels of depression and anxiety.
What type of exercise feels nurturing to you? Many people enjoy yoga or walking when they’re pregnant. Talk to your doctor about the types of physical exercise you’re interested in to make sure it’s safe for your pregnancy. Don’t dismiss physical exercise as a mental health intervention; our bodies and minds are connected, and physical activity is necessary for our overall well-being.
When we feel anxious or stressed, our sympathetic nervous system takes over. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for activating our fight/flight/freeze response, which can be helpful when we’re facing real danger. When your sympathetic nervous system is activated over a long period of time, though, this can be harmful to your body (not to mention that it presents risks to your unborn baby).
The practice of mindfulness can physically counteract the sympathetic nervous system’s effects on the body. Relaxation practices like mindfulness and meditation activate the parasympathetic nervous system. If you don’t know where to start with mindfulness, join a local meditation group or think about downloading an app or online program that can help guide you.
Get mental health support
Lastly, it’s nothing to be ashamed about if you need or want to get professional mental health support for your anxiety during pregnancy and beyond. Considering the potential detrimental effects of unmanaged anxiety on your unborn baby, it’s actually a selfless act to get treatment for your anxiety while you’re pregnant, for your own sake and for your child.
Many people are reluctant to take psychiatric medications while they’re pregnant because there is no conclusive evidence about whether or not they increase the risk for birth defects. Anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines and antidepressants are sometimes controversial during pregnancy because of some reported possible risks. However, high levels of unmanaged anxiety also carries its own risks for your baby. Your healthcare providers will only prescribe you with these types of medications if they feel that their benefits outweigh the risks.
Psychotherapy is often recommended as the first line treatment for anxiety disorders, and doesn’t carry the same risks of side effects and birth defects as medications. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular has been found to be incredibly effective for helping people deal with their anxiety symptoms. CBT can help you identify the irrational thoughts that you’re repeating to yourself that make you anxious, and challenge them with more accurate, helpful statements.
Therapy can give you a safe, non-judgmental place to explore what pregnancy is bringing up for you. Whether or not you’re struggling with increased anxiety during your pregnancy, seeing a mental health therapist isn’t a bad idea.