By Emily Pierson, M.Ed., Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
Finding out you’re pregnant can bring lots of wonderful emotions. Happiness, joy, bliss, excitement at feeling every kick, awe at your changing body, and wonder at seeing your little one on the ultrasound for the first time. However, one of the not so fun symptoms of pregnancy, can be an increase in anxiety. Hormonal changes, and fatigue can lead to difficulties in controlling worrisome thoughts that may creep in even amongst the excitement and joy. What if something goes wrong? What if my baby isn’t healthy? How will I bring this tiny human into the world and keep them safe? Am I doing every ‘right’ thing humanly possible to ensure that I have the next Albert Einstein? These spiraling thoughts can affect many areas of life, but there are ways to cope with and manage them.
Is anxiety during pregnancy normal?
Some anxiety is a shared human experience. It’s what keeps us safe from making decisions that could put us in harm’s way. For example, you wouldn’t willingly walk down a highway blindfolded because there is a pretty good chance of being hit by a semi-truck. This worry is considered healthy and normal. There is, however, a fine line between a healthy level of worry, and overwhelming anxiety that can quickly take a toll on one’s mental health and everyday life. Unfortunately, higher levels of anxiety are more common than not during pregnancy. According to Harvard Health Publishing, anxiety can surface during or after pregnancy, but it is most likely to be present during the first trimester and after delivery when hormones fluctuate the most (1). Some women experience manageable increases, others experience none at all. Still others, experience anxiety that becomes overwhelming, unmanageable, and leads to other symptoms.
What’s the difference between normal ‘worries’ and anxiety?
Mothers-to-be may worry about everything they put into their bodies, have stress about how they will care for their newborn, and think about what changes this new bundle of joy may bring to their lives. While to some extent these thoughts and worries are normal (it is definitely important to think about how to care for a newborn), when they become intrusive and uncontrollable, it is cause for concern. You may find yourself obsessing over things related to your pregnancy and your baby, and it have a negative impact on your life. Other signs and symptoms of anxiety may include (2):
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty concentrating
- Inability to sleep
- Excessive worry about your baby
- Concern for your own health
- Feeling out of control
While some worries keeps us healthy, if the above symptoms are present, your worries may be more serious than the normal level of anxiety. If so what can be done about it?
What Can I Do to Reduce Anxiety While I’m Pregnant?
There is a lot of stigma surrounding anxiety in pregnant women. Have you ever heard things like “you’re growing a miracle, you should be so happy” or “just stop worrying”, followed quickly by “make sure you’re doing (this, that, and the other thing) so you can to have a healthy baby.” In other words, “if you don’t, it’s your fault”. No pressure right? However, just like you would go to the doctor to get help for excessive morning sickness, take prenatal vitamins to help with fetal development, or use compression socks for swollen ankles, it is very much ok to get help with anxiety symptoms during or after pregnancy, just as you would for another medical condition. Here are some tips for coping with anxiety during and after pregnancy.
- Give Yourself Some Grace
Easier said than done, right? But still, very important. What would you say to a good friend who was experiencing anxiety with their pregnancy? Would you tell them to “get over it”? Whether you are a person who doesn’t like to ask for help, or someone who feels like they are asking for help all the time, remember that your body is going through big changes throughout your pregnancy and delivery. You are sharing your physical space with another human all while going through hormonal swings, physical changes, and possibly even experiencing some limitations. Remember that it is ok to ask for help.
- Practice Self-Care
As you’ve been told, and as previously mentioned, having a baby is a big life change. Take advantage of these next few months without your baby, and make an effort to practice some of your favorite stress relievers. Get outside, read a book, journal, practice breathing exercises, listen to music, take a (not too hot) bubble bath, sleep an extra hour when you can, spend time with your spouse, partner or friends. All of these activities can help to relieve stress and anxiety. If possible, make an effort to spend 10-15 minutes or more a day doing something for you. See our blog about self-care for some more great ideas, and for more information on self-care (3).
- Move Your Body and Your Mind
Physical activity has been proven to be very beneficial to pregnant women. Exercise does not have to be intense to be effective either. Even five minutes of physical activity has shown to be positive on health (2). Running, walking, swimming, dancing, hiking and yoga are all great aerobic options. Make sure to check with your doctor before performing any new exercise routine, and discuss intensity levels before starting.
Exercising your mind can aid in relieving anxiety as well. Interacting with others, doing a crossword, playing cards or reading may help in avoiding “pregnancy brain”. Research from the May Clinic, shows that practicing mindfulness activities, such as deep breathing exercises, living in the moment, and meditating can ease anxiety and stress, as well as other symptoms (4). When you’re present and ‘in the moment’ it may become easier to find joy and pleasure in the little things, making the scary things seem less overwhelming.
- Talk to Your Doctor
Your doctor is a great resources for helping ease anxiety surrounding pregnancy. They can often provide reassurance by answering any of the millions of questions you may have, and by giving some insight into the funky pregnancy symptoms that you might experience. Peace of mind sometimes comes by just knowing everything is ok with your health and your baby. Another way your doctor can help, is by talking about your anxiety with you. They may be able to help by prescribing an appropriate medication that can ease severe anxiety related symptoms, or they can refer you to a mental health professional. Either way, it is important for them to know as it may affect your body and overall health.
- Get Help from a Friend, Partner or Professional
In the same way that consulting your doctor can help, sharing your concerns with a close friend, family member, spouse, partner or counselor can help to ease anxiety. Sometimes, even just saying you feel anxious to someone, is enough to help make these thoughts less overwhelming (2). Seeking help from a therapist or counselor may be very beneficial. They provide a safe place to express anxious feelings, and can assist you in brainstorming other healthy coping skills to relieve symptoms. They can also work with you to reframe negative thoughts that lead to anxious, overwhelming feelings (3). Whomever you chose to talk to, it’s important that someone knows how you are feeling.
What Happens After I bring My Bundle of Joy Home? Everything Gets Better, Right?
After having a baby, there is an accepted belief that things should go back to normal and that women should ‘bounce back’ very quickly. This is very unrealistic. While it is less studied that postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety (PPA) is becoming more and more prevalent, especially in first time moms (5). In addition to having more hormonal changes, you now are sleep deprived with a newborn that you love very much, to care for. The above tips can be helpful in alleviating some anxious symptoms. If you begin to experience dread, constant worry or racing thoughts, talk to your doctor or a loved one and seek help (5). You don’t have to do it alone.
Having a baby is a wonderful, joyous, scary event. In an instant, “everything” changes. It is ok, even normal, to feel some anxiety or worry. You love this tiny, beautiful human so much, how could you not worry about them a little bit? However if these feelings begin to overwhelm you, don’t be afraid to ask for help. In the long run, it will be beneficial to your health, and the health of your baby to cope with these feelings rather than let them interfere with your everyday life. You got this mama. But you don’t have to do it by yourself.
By Emily Pierson, M.Ed., Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
- How Can You Manage Anxiety During Pregnancy? Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-can-you-manage-anxiety-during-pregnancy-202106252512. Accessed July 11, 2021.
- 7 Tips for Coping With Anxiety During Pregnancy. Healthline. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/pregnancy/anxiety-coping-tips#causes. Accessed July 11, 2021.
- Taking Self-Care to Heart. Wellness Matters Blog. Retrieved from: http://wellnessmattershealth.com/index.php/taking-self-care-to-heart/. Accessed July 11, 2021.
- Mindfulness Exercises: See how mindfulness helps you live in the moment. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/mindfulness-exercises/art-20046356. Accessed July 11, 2021.
- What You Need to Know About Postpartum Anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/pregnancy/postpartum-anxiety#symptoms. Accessed July 11, 2021.