Pregnancy and Anxiety: How to Manage Your Mental Mayhem
You can’t catch your breath. Your heart and your mind are both racing.
You can’t sleep, and when you finally do, your dreams turn into nightmares, fueled by worry about your pregnancy.
You are being hunted by a madman, and his name is anxiety.
He can strike at any time, with sneaky subtlety or full force, and his attacks can leave you breathless and mentally paralyzed.
I’m sure you may know by now that pregnancy is not all “sunshine and rainbows”. We think we are supposed to have a pregnancy glow inside as well as out, but not all pregnant women have it that easy. While the last thing you need is one more thing to worry about, antenatal anxiety is very real – and fortunately, very treatable.
Pregnancy stress vs. full blown anxiety.
If you are having anxiety for the first time, it’s easy to get it confused with your normal every day “blessings” of pregnancy, such as lack of sleep, nausea, and feeling lightheaded.
The difference between being stressed out and actually experiencing anxiety will sometimes be hard to tell, but if you are experiencing a combination of mental and physical issues, you should definitely let your doctor know.
According to Anxiety.org, the symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder are:
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
- Excessive worry, apprehension, or feeling of dread
- Nausea and/or diarrhea
- Restlessness and lack of ability to concentrate
- Muscle tension and aches
- Insomnia and fatigue
While these symptoms alone can just be a part of pregnancy and (surprise, surprise) your reaction to your changing hormone levels, if you are having a combination of these symptoms along with an excessive amount of worrying, you may be having antenatal anxiety.
Many women who suffer from anxiety and other symptoms of depression, unfortunately, do not receive adequate treatment, but you don’t have to be one of them. There are plenty of treatment options available, and the first step to treating this illness is your ability to talk about it before it gets any worse.
Panic attacks are no joke – but you are not alone.
As many as 10% of women experience panic attacks during pregnancy. The symptoms are similar to a heart attack (dizziness, pain in the chest, trembling or shaking, and inability to catch your breath).
During a panic attack, you may lose your ability to function and feel like you are going to die. The first thing you need to remember is that a panic attack won’t kill you – what is really happening is your body’s natural response to the stress your mind is experiencing, and it will pass.
A recent article in The Players’ Tribune shows us that even famous NBA players can be affected by anxiety and panic attacks; Kevin Love perfectly describes what it was like the first time he had one (during a game in November): “It’s hard to describe, but everything was spinning, like my brain was trying to climb out of my head. The air felt thick and heavy. My mouth was like chalk.”
Love’s story comes in the wake of fellow NBA player DeMar DeRozan’s recent comments about suffering from depression in an interview for the Toronto Star. These two stories are proof that the stigma of mental illness is changing: more and more are now willing to talk about it, no matter how tough they are on the exterior.
This opens up so many possibilities for the millions of people who suffer from anxiety and other forms of mental illness: we can now have the conversation without shame or weakness being attached, and find the help we need without feeling like we are “weird” or “crazy”.
You may think it is “all in your head” or that you can deal with this on your own, but sometimes you may need some outside help. With treatment, you can learn what is triggering these attacks and techniques to calm yourself before it gets to that point.
Who is at risk?
Anxiety can be very isolating, and it’s easy to believe that you are alone or that nobody understands what it feels like.
However, a majority of women have had the same experience: a 2009 online poll conducted by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that 52 percent of women reported increased anxiety while pregnant.
If any of the following applies, you may be more likely to develop antenatal anxiety or depression:
- Previous diagnosis of depression or an anxiety disorder
- Family history of anxiety or depression
- A previous miscarriage or stillbirth
- Pregnancy complications or being on bed rest (which is barely ever prescribed anymore for this very reason)
- Thyroid imbalance
- A stressful job or financial situation
- Living alone or being a young mother
- Certain hormone sensitivities and reaction to major hormonal shifts
Having these risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean that you will develop anxiety during your pregnancy, nor does it mean that you won’t have anxiety if you don’t have experience with something on this list.
It can happen to anybody at any time, and the fact that it’s something you can’t physically see can make you feel pretty helpless.
There is hope, however, as more and more are now recognizing how important mental health is – and that there is help out there if you need it.
What you can do about it.
Anxiety is a clinically recognized disorder and should be taken as seriously as any other physical disease, like diabetes or heart disease. With proper management, you can stop it from taking over.
Your doctor should be the first point of contact when deciding on any treatment – they will assess how serious your situation is, and come up with a treatment plan that could include a combination of:
- Therapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), in which a licensed professional will teach you new ways to think and manage your stress.
- Diet and lifestyle changes, such as increasing intake of certain vitamins, such as Omega-3 fatty acids (which are proven to improve your mood). Making sure you stay active is imperative to your health, as well – light physical activity works wonders to combat anxiety, even if it is the last thing you feel like doing.
- Meditation & acupuncture, which are both practices used throughout history to reduce stress and improve your mood.
- Medication, which is usually a scary idea for a pregnant woman, but sometimes it is necessary. Some studies have shown links between certain medications and a moderate increase in occurrence of certain birth defects as well as premature birth, but if your doctor sees that your condition is serious enough to warrant a prescription, it’s best to at least weigh the risks. If you were already on antidepressants before you became pregnant, do not stop taking them cold turkey, and make it a priority to talk with your doctor about possibly weaning off or switching to a safer alternative.
Don’t stress about it.
While previous research found links between anxiety and certain birth complications, a recent study done by the Yale School of Medicine set out to prove that these results were outdated (and somewhat inaccurate since certain factors were not taken into account in the original research).
The study was conducted on more than 2600 women during their pregnancy and the following weeks, and the conclusion was that having anxiety and/or depression during pregnancy did not produce any of the same complications as before – which is great news!
The belief that anxiety will directly affect your baby is thankfully becoming a thing of the past.
Don’t dismiss depression.
While anxiety and depression are separate conditions, where there is one, there is usually the other.
Anxiety is a symptom of depression, but it can also develop into depression – which can be serious if left untreated.
If your anxiety worsens and you start seeing these signs of depression, it is time to get some help:
- Decreased interest in the things you used to enjoy and/or the world around you
- Being in a depressed mood a majority of the time for two weeks or more
- Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Thoughts of suicide or harm to your baby
While it is normal and only natural to be worried about your pregnancy.
Once these feelings start becoming physical ailments or mentally all-consuming, it is time to communicate: with your loved ones, your doctor, and anyone else you feel comfortable talking to. For some, this is easier said than done: anxiety tends to make you anti-social, and it can be very hard to describe.
As someone who has struggled with anxiety in the past (to the point where I couldn’t keep even a bite of food down), and whose soulmate fights a daily battle with it, I know how hard it is to actually talk about it. But you don’t have to feel this way, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to hide it, either.
Nobody will judge you! In fact, there are plenty of people out there who want to hear how you’re feeling, from support groups to trained professionals (who literally get paid to hear you out).
With the proper treatment, you will learn how to battle anxiety – because you are stronger, and you will win.
For more information about anxiety and where to find help, visit:
- Women’s Mental Health
- Anxiety Hotline Info