Experiencing some anxiety when you're pregnant is normal. There's a lot to process when you find out you're expecting, especially since half of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned.
Even if you revel in watching your bump grow, it's common to worry about what could go wrong. Approximately 40 million U.S. adults have an anxiety disorder, and nearly 10% of women experience anxiety during pregnancy.
But since the pandemic, rates of pregnancy and postpartum anxiety have more than doubled. A June 2020 survey showed that while 29% of pregnant women reported having anxiety prior to the pandemic, a staggering 72% reported it during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, fewer than 40% of people with anxiety seek treatment. Many assume it’s just a normal part of life or their personality. All their lives, they've been labeled as a "worrier" or "nervous Nellie."
But it's not JUST anxiety. Symptoms such as fear of leaving the house or being unable to relax can increase your risk of social isolation, depression, and sleep deprivation. And continual stress elevates your adrenaline system – the body's fight-or-flight response. Feeling constantly on edge can wear you down and increase your risk of heart issues, preeclampsia, or having a preterm or low-weight baby.
The good news is there are safe, effective treatments to manage symptoms before, during, and after pregnancy. My colleague, Meitra Doty, M.D., is a psychiatrist with expertise treating anxiety during pregnancy and the postpartum period. I've invited her to discuss common types of anxiety and safe options to manage symptoms, particularly during the pandemic.
Take a virtual tour of our labor & delivery suites
Before your big day arrives, get a preview of the accommodations for new moms at UT Southwestern's Clements University Hospital. From the chef-prepared meals to the roomy, high-tech labor and delivery suites, we want to make sure that you, your baby, and your family have the opportunity to bond in a safe and soothing environment.
4 options to manage anxiety during pregnancy
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health conditions we treat at UT Southwestern's Psychiatry and Psychology Department.
The three types we see most often during pregnancy include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder, which involves persistent, excessive worry about life in general: money, family, work, and so on. Nearly 10% of pregnant women may experience GAD, particularly during their first trimester. Women are twice as likely as men to develop GAD, which can cause nervousness, a sense of impending doom, and trouble concentrating.
- Panic disorder causes sudden bouts of overwhelming fear or dread. Also commonly referred to as panic attacks, the condition’s related symptoms include weakness, sweating, and irregular heartbeat. Some patients can identify specific triggers for panic attacks, while others have them out of the blue.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, affects approximately 1% of U.S. adults and its most common symptoms involve obsessive thoughts and compulsive motions. A patient may experience distressing thoughts, which they try to resolve by doing ritualistic actions. For example, touching their nose 10 times or doing a task "just right," no matter how long it takes.
While anxiety is not as immediately threatening as depression, it can be debilitating – and you deserve to feel happy and healthy. The pandemic has the potential to magnify these feelings, so expectant moms should consider accessing these effective, pregnancy-safe treatment options.
1. Attend therapy – virtually
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for anxiety that helps you learn to recognize symptoms and shape your reactions to them. CBT typically requires weekly appointments, with a co-pay due at each visit.
Your psychologist will talk you through what triggers your anxiety or panic attacks, as well as how you feel during an episode. Many patients find that within 10-12 weeks, they are able to replace inaccurate or fearful thoughts with more positive thinking.
In April, Texas lifted restrictions to expand telehealth options for behavioral health care. Through video visits, we can diagnose new conditions, start patients on therapy, and continue therapy for existing patients. UT Southwestern intends to keep offering virtual visits after the pandemic. Telepsychiatry is more convenient for patients with busy schedules or transportation challenges.
2. Try medication
Anxiety often goes hand-in-hand with depression. Most medications used to treat both are safe during pregnancy for existing and new conditions.
If you already take medication, discuss your prescriptions with your doctor. For some conditions, we might recommend switching to a different medication during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
It's important to not stop taking your medication unless your doctor says it's safe. Your health is a priority, and we will keep a close eye on your wellness – and the baby's – throughout the pregnancy.
Related reading: Managing your mental health in a pandemic
Keeping life on track during COVID-19
UT Southwestern Psychologist Kipp Pietrantonio, Ph.D., explains the importance of developing healthy routines for sleep, exercise, and eating during the pandemic, and how maintaining social connections using video conferencing tools and regular phone calls can help with your mental health.
3. Limit your news and social media intake
For many people, it’s hard to stay off social media. We want to connect with friends and family, especially since we can’t be together in person right now.
But if the constant stream of political or pandemic news causes you stress, stop scrolling. Instead, watch one scheduled news segment to get a synopsis. You'll be up to date without going down the rabbit hole of infuriating comments on social media.
In the same spirit, be mindful of what you can and can't control. We all feel passionate about certain causes, such as racial equality, saving the environment, and helping the homeless.
However, none of us is Superwoman – you can't fix everything, but you can focus impactfully on one or two causes. Contributing how you can will give you a sense of satisfaction and control.
Related reading: Pregnancy and social media
4. Practice self-care
Do you know how flight attendants tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs? Stress and anxiety require that same mentality.
Many women are raised to put our own needs last. But when it comes to our health, we must sometimes put ourselves first and practice self-care.
Exercise. Enjoy a healthy, delicious meal. Knit a couple rows and set some boundaries. Taking breaks from everyday demands can help refresh your mind and spirit. When you're happy, you will be better equipped to share your best self with your family, friends, and colleagues.
Related reading: Tips to manage 'pandemic pregnancy' stress
Pregnancy can be a stressful time, especially during the pandemic. But you are not alone, and help is available.
If you're feeling anxious, talk with your Ob/Gyn about your symptoms. We'll help you connect with a mental health expert so you can have a healthier, less stressful pregnancy.