It’s common to have some concerns and worries about being pregnant, having a healthy child, giving birth, and parenting your little one, according to Pamela S. Wiegartz, Ph.D, and Kevin L. Gyoerkoe, PsyD, in their book, The Pregnancy & Postpartum Anxiety Workbook: Practical Skills to Help You Overcome Anxiety, Worry, Panic Attacks, Obsessions and Compulsions.
However, for some moms-to-be, anxiety becomes so severe and distressing that they’re unable to function day-to-day.
It’s only recently — over about the last decade — that researchers have begun exploring anxiety in pregnancy. Consequently, much more work is still needed.
But here’s what we do know.
1. Even though we don’t hear as much about anxiety disorders in pregnancy, they’re actually more common than depression. Estimates of anxiety disorders vary greatly. In their book Wiegartz and Gyoerkoe note that researchers have found that 5 to 16 percent of women struggle with an anxiety disorder during pregnancy or postpartum.
2. Untreated anxiety holds risks for both mom and baby. According to Wiegartz and Gyoerkoe, “severe, prolonged, or incapacitating anxiety can be harmful and needs to be addressed.” They cite several studies that suggested various risks for both mom and baby.
Some research has found that babies of anxious mothers may be susceptible to premature birth. (This study, however, didn’t find a link between anxiety in pregnancy and preterm birth.) There’s also evidence that mom’s anxiety may affect her infant’s temperament and lead to behavioral and emotional issues later on (see this study and this one on impulsivity).
While the above findings may stress you out even more, the good news is that anxiety during pregnancy is treatable. But obstetricians don’t regularly screen for anxiety. That’s why if you’re struggling with anxiety or anxious thoughts, it’s very important to talk to your obstetrician.
If your obstetrician doesn’t appear to be knowledgeable about anxiety disorders or dismisses your concerns, find another doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment. For instance, you might make an appointment with a mental health professional or a psychiatrist. Below is a list on how to find help.
3. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps to treat anxiety during pregnancy. Research has established that CBT is highly effective for anxiety disorders. But very little research has been done on CBT in pregnant women. One study found that CBT reduced anxiety in pregnancy and improvements lasted postpartum.
4. Taking medication during pregnancy may be OK — or not. Antidepressants – specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) — and benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders and have been shown to reduce symptoms.
Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether taking these medications during pregnancy harms the baby. This article in Psychiatric Times provides insight into pharmacological treatment.
Mental health blogger Anne-Marie Lindsey shares her experiences and what she’s learned about medication during pregnancy in this excellent piece, which also includes links to additional information and resources.
Essentially, some research has shown that medication may lead to adverse effects. But untreated anxiety also has risks. In some cases, moms-to-be do need to take medication. If there’s any consensus, it’s that taking medication is an individual decision that must be thoroughly discussed with your doctor.
Finding Professional Help
If you’d like to seek professional help, check out these resources from Wiegartz and Gyoerkoe’s The Pregnancy & Postpartum Anxiety Workbook:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Pre- or Postnatal Care
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
- National Women’s Health Information Center, 800-994-9662