A review of research conducted over the course of nearly 40 years has lead scientists to comment that experiencing anxiety symptoms during pregnancy is not associated with an increased risk of having a longer labor or a low birth weight baby. According to the authors, previous research examining whether anxiety during pregnancy does cause harmful effects had shown mixed results.
Still, researchers believe additional research is needed as a number of important outcomes that have been theorized to be affected by anxiety, such as development of pre-eclampsia have not been studied. The review, by University of Texas Medical Branch scientists, will be presented at the 114th annual convention of the American Psychological Association (APA).
“Pregnancy can be an emotional time for women and, for some, anxiety associated with the pregnancy can be compounded by pre-existing difficulties such as having an inadequate social support system,” said lead author Heather Littleton, PhD. She and coauthors Carmen Breitkopf, PhD, and Abbey Berenson, MD, from the University of Texas Medical Branch sought to evaluate if there is a correlation between the anxiety experienced during pregnancy and adverse perinatal outcomes. Anxiety was defined as either current levels of anxious symptoms such as tension and worry or a woman’s general tendency to become anxious in stressful situations.
Previous research examining whether anxiety during pregnancy does cause harmful effects has shown mixed results until now. This meta-analysis of research that spanned 39 years and included 50 studies of 48 sample groups of women recruited from prenatal clinics and other medical settings, clarifies that within the range of normally experienced variations in maternal emotional distress, no effects on reproductive outcomes are evident. Perinatal data was collected from participants’ medical charts or from a physician’s report.
While anxiety was not found to have a direct effect on perinatal outcomes, a number of important outcomes that have been theorized to be affected by anxiety have not been studied. This includes the development of pre-eclampsia during pregnancy and having a small weight for gestational age infant. In addition, more work is necessary to determine if these findings generalize to women with very high levels of anxiety, such as those who have an anxiety disorder.
“This review of the literature clearly shows that additional research is necessary to completely understand how to best treat an anxious pregnant woman,” says Dr. Littleton, “and such work evaluating the mental and physical health of women during pregnancy could help to increase the number of healthy babies that are born.”