Anxiety During Pregnancy

Anxiety disorders are common among women, but how does this affect pregnancy?

Current Research on Anxiety During Pregnancy

Researchers at the MGH Institute of Health Professions recently conducted a systematic review of anxiety disorders during pregnancy. They examined the literature to answer the following questions:

  1. How common are anxiety disorders during pregnancy?
  2. What is the impact of pregnancy on the experience of anxiety disorders?
  3. Are there any factors that increase the risk of anxiety disorders during pregnancy?
  4. What outcomes are associated with anxiety disorders during pregnancy?
  5. What can be done to treat anxiety during pregnancy?

Before looking at the results of the review, what exactly is an anxiety disorder? According to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), anxiety disorders fall into six categories: phobias, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), acute stress disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These disorders are unique but they have the following symptoms in common: irrational/excessive fear; apprehensive/tense feelings/difficulty managing daily tasks and/or stress stemming from daily tasks.

Based on this comprehensive review of the available research, it’s not yet clear if pregnant women experience are more likely to experience anxiety disorders than the general population. However, anxiety during pregnancy is of significant concern for many reasons. Untreated prenatal anxiety disorders can negatively influence pregnancy and birth outcomes for both mothers and babies. The researchers found that prenatal anxiety disorders put mothers at risk for postpartum anxiety disorders and postpartum depression. There is a great need for more work exploring the connection between anxiety during pregnancy and infant outcomes but the researchers noted a connection between prenatal anxiety and increased fetal heart rate as well as increased infant cortisol levels.

“After going through a scare early in my pregnancy, I began to worry all day and night about losing the baby. I would worry so much that I couldn’t sleep at night and I would end up crying out of sheer exhaustion. I was a mess for months.”

To help women and infants who might be or have been affected by anxiety during pregnancy, we need to know more about when and how this happens and what can be done to make it better.  More pregnancy-specific research is needed to advance this subject and to increase quality of life for pregnant women with anxiety disorders. The researchers recommend that screening for anxiety disorders be integrated into standard pregnancy care. Future research is needed to determine what types of treatment are best suited to pregnant women experiencing anxiety disorders but therapy and medication are options.

If you’re pregnant and experiencing anxiety, talk to your care provider especially if your symptoms cause you distress or keep you from working, socializing or handling daily tasks. If you’ve been diagnosed previously with an anxiety disorder or another mental health issue, this should be considered throughout your pregnancy and postpartum period.

Remember, you do not have to live with untreated severe anxiety. Anxiety disorders cannot be “brushed off”. Many expecting parents worry about their health and their baby but anxiety is not the same as worrying. People who suffer from anxiety often realize that their worried feelings and reactions are irrational but they have little control over their anxiety symptoms. You are not alone! As many as 10 to 20 per cent of pregnant women experience mood disorders during pregnancy. It’s time to end mental health stigma and make sure that every one gets the health care they need. Let’s start with YOU!

Local Resources in Halton, Hamilton and Peel Regions

If you live in or are planning to deliver your baby in Oakville, Milton, Halton Hills or Mississauga, you can receive care at the Women’s Reproductive Mental Health Program at Trillium Health Partners. Speak to your main care provider (your family doctor, obstetrician or midwife) if you’re interested as referrals to this program must come from a health care professional.

In Burlington, Joseph Brant Hospital provides support through Community Mental Health Services. A doctor or counselor’s referral is required.

If you’re in Hamilton or Burlington, help is available from the Women’s Health Concerns Clinic at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. You do not need a professional’s referral to this program; you can refer yourself by contacting the clinic.

Free walk-in counseling is also available through the Canadian Mental Health Association – Halton Region Branch.

“When I finally talked to someone about what I was going through, I realized I had convinced myself that worrying was just my personality and that every mom feels this way when they’re pregnant. As soon as I put it all out there with my doctor, I knew I needed help for the sake of myself and my baby.”