Preparing for the arrival of a new baby can be an anxious time. Will the baby be OK? Are you eating the right foods? Is it really risky to sleep on your right hand side? And what is childbirth actually going to be like? If you are plagued by unanswered questions, remember that you are not alone. It is very normal to experience anxiety during pregnancy and almost all expectant mothers worry at some point. A little bit of anxiety is part of being pregnant and it would be strange if you didn't worry!
Thanks to pregnancy hormones your emotions might also be haywire and preparing for the arrival of a new baby is a really big deal, so it's perfectly normal to feel excited, anxious and even a bit scared about what lies ahead. However, pregnancy can amplify your worries, so if your anxious thoughts and feelings are dominating your every waking thought and preventing you from enjoying this magical time, it might be worth seeking help.
Dr Louise Wiseman looks at pregnancy anxiety symptoms, causes, risk factors and when to ask for help:
What is pregnancy anxiety?
Anxiety can happen to anyone at any stage of their life. It is characterised by a feeling of worry, unease or nervousness, often with recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. Anxiety can be fleeting or persistent and it can lead a sufferer to avoid certain situations or feel very isolated.
More than 10 per cent of pregnant women suffer from pregnancy anxiety, also known as antenatal anxiety, at some point. It may be a new symptom, or they may have had a pre-existing diagnosis of anxiety before pregnancy. Mental health problems in general affect between 10 and 20 per cent of mothers around the perinatal period, including anxiety and depression and can arise during and after pregnancy.
Many women also worry about how their anxious feelings may affect their unborn child and whether crying and stress will have an effect on the baby. But by being aware of the symptoms, women can use stress relieving methods of self-care to alleviate pregnancy worries and help them enjoy a happier pregnancy.
Pregnancy anxiety symptoms
It's perfectly normal to worry sometimes when you have a baby on the way. But if you experience one or more of the following pregnancy anxiety symptoms or experience a sense of panic, fear or restlessness on a regular basis, then it is worth seeking help:
Difficulty concentrating or feeling like your mind goes blank
Feeling irritable, snappy or restless
Feeling anxious all the time (and not necessarily sure why)
Feeling a sense of dread or on edge
Heart palpitations or feeling your heart beating fast
Muscles feeling tense especially around your neck and shoulders
Some mums-to-be experience panic attacks
Sweating, trembling or shaking
Feeling of loss of control
No longer enjoying things that used to make you happy
Shortness of breath or breathing faster than normal
Nausea in excess of morning sickness
What causes pregnancy anxiety?
Pregnancy is an important time and it can cause anxiety for a number of different reasons, but the following are the most common causes of pregnancy anxiety:
❤️ Adjusting to change
Alongside the happiness and excitement of preparing to meet your new baby, there are many emotions associated with pregnancy which might be overwhelming, including hormonal changes, adjusting to your changing body (or worrying that your body isn't changing enough) and feeling anxious about how life will change once the baby has arrived.
❤️ Life with a new baby
Most expectant parents worry to some degree about whether their baby is healthy, how they will cope with a newborn, what the delivery will be like, alongside all manner of practical life concerns including financial or career worries and even how the baby will fit in with an existing family and siblings.
❤️ Childbirth fears
Later in pregnancy, women may start to feel anxious about childbirth, particularly if it's a first baby or they have previously experienced a difficult labour. If any of these anxieties becomes more than just simple worries, some women also start to feel guilty about worrying a lot when this is supposed to be a happy time.
❤️ Hormonal changes
The natural hormones of pregnancy allow the changes that are needed for the developing baby, placenta and enlarging womb. However, oestrogen and progesterone have strong effects on mood and the way we think. For about a third of women, the higher progesterone encourages a feeling of calm and reduces anxiety. But different women may respond differently to the new levels of hormones in pregnancy.
Pregnancy anxiety risk factors
While it's perfectly normal to feel anxious about the impending birth of your baby, any of the following factors may make anxiety more likely:
Stress at home or at work
Previous pregnancy loss or complication
History of traumatic events or abuse
Chronic medical conditions, including chronic pain
Fertility problems prior to conception
Medical or family history of depression, anxiety or mental illness
Previous drug or alcohol abuse
Diagnosed pregnancy complications
If you had chronic conditions that existed prior to pregnancy such as thyroid disease or known mental health problems, speak to your midwife. With the right support, these can be managed by the NHS in joint antenatal clinics with specialist consultants working with the obstetric antenatal team.
Pregnancy anxiety and risk to the baby
If you experience pregnancy anxiety, it's also normal to be concerned that your feelings of stress could be affecting the baby too. However, worrying about worrying creates a vicious circle of anxiety and it might start to feel like there is no way out.
Provided that you look after yourself and eat a healthy diet, it is highly unlikely that your unborn baby will be affected by your anxiety. However if you have any concerns whatsoever, seek help. With the right support managing your symptoms, you stand the best chance of having a healthy pregnancy and birth.
Research has shown that women who experience anxiety during pregnancy are more likely to have postpartum depression after the baby is born, so don't be afraid to ask for help. Your midwife or doctor won’t judge you for feeling anxious or unhappy. For all health professionals the priority is the health of the mother and child during and after pregnancy. Many pregnant women experience anxious thoughts and the antenatal clinic will be experienced in how to provide support, so the sooner you speak up the quicker they can find the right treatment to help you recover.
Tips for coping with pregnancy anxiety
If your anxious thoughts and feelings during pregnancy are overwhelming, speak to your GP or midwife as soon as possible. In the meantime, to cope with anxious thoughts and give yourself the best chance of a healthy and happy pregnancy try the following 8 self-care tips:
1. Talk to a friend
Talk about your feelings to a family member or a close friend. Many mums-to-be also find huge support speaking to other women in supports groups such as NCT. If you're really worried speak to your midwife or health advisor.
2. Relaxation techniques
Look at ways to help balance your stress hormones and relax during pregnancy. Consider self-care such as exercising, walking or meditation. Studies have also shown that pregnancy yoga can help with mind-body balance and have a hugely restorative effect on growing stress levels.
3. Try mindfulness
Meditation has proven health benefits for people suffering from anxiety. It's also worth considering acupuncture or massage (with an experienced practitioner well versed in pregnancy care), listening to music or calming podcasts, trying relaxation or mindfulness apps or even journaling to help allay your worries.
4. Prioritise sleep
Pregnancy can be an exhausting time and requires lots of rest. If you're overtired this can also exacerbate anxious thoughts, so rest as much as possible and create a positive sleep hygiene routine in the run up to bedtime.
5. Focus on nutrition
Aim to eat whole foods, reduce your intake of overly processed foods, sidestep too much refined sugar, and add plenty of fresh produce to your plate. Eating well can help encourage a healthy gut microbiome, which will have a positive effect on the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, which can improve your mood.
6. Learn about pregnancy
Learning about pregnancy and childbirth will help to settle anxious thoughts and can also be empowering, so become an expert in the field of childbirth. Reading pregnancy books and attending antenatal classes can also help you understand the changes in your body and be aware of what to expect during delivery.
7. Speak to your partner
If you have a partner, tell them how you're feeling and share your worries. Taking care of your baby is not your sole responsibility now or in the future and a problem shared is a problem halved, so discuss your worries with your co-parent. Talking it through can alleviate many of your fears and help you to bond as a family.
8. Seek help
If you experience overwhelming anxiety about anything to do with your pregnancy and you feel like you can't cope, speak to your GP or midwife ASAP. The sooner you seek help the quicker you can receive the correct treatment.
Pregnancy anxiety treatment
If you experience pregnancy anxiety symptoms on a regular basis, then it is worth seeking help. Speaking to a trusted professional will help with your anxiety and also the chance of postpartum depression, which can be more likely in those who have untreated anxiety in pregnancy. The doctor will also need to exclude other possible causes of anxiety symptoms such as thyroid issues.
A GP will try to find out what is causing the anxiety to make sure you receive the right treatment. They may refer you to a therapist for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to improve the thoughts and behaviours that are making you worry.
If you or your doctor think you might need to consider taking antidepressants, any decision to use medication during pregnancy will be a careful one weighed up against any risks or side-effects for you and the baby. Some birth complications can be increased with certain medications given early in pregnancy but the risks are low and research is constantly evolving.
Further help and support
For additional help with anything related to parenting and your mental health try one of the following resources:
Pre and Postnatal Depression Advice & Support: support for families.
Samaritans: free, 24/7 emotional support to anyone in distress.
Tommy's: support for parents-to-be providing info and research.
Cry-sis: support for parents with crying and sleepless babies
NCT: charity for parents through your pregnancy, birth and beyond.
Last updated: 23-02-2021
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