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A Bump in the Road? How To Manage Anxiety During Pregnancy

Pregnancy — particularly a first pregnancy — is a thrilling, terrifying and fast-changing time. Your body and your future are changing at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to keep up and, naturally, you’re concerned about the well-being of your unborn child.


There are many questions. What to eat, what not to eat, how to sleep… Nurturing a new life in your own body brings many women a new sense of responsibility and it’s natural to have some anxieties during pregnancy.


In fact, over a third of women experience elevated anxiety during pregnancy [1], so you’re not alone. Remembering this fact might even be the first step to calming your nerves.


If you’re experiencing anxiety during pregnancy, the best thing to do is face it head-on. Gather the facts, talk to your partner and doctor, and learn how to manage these feelings. You’re in the right place.


What Causes Anxiety During Pregnancy?


Anxiety is common during pregnancy because of the complicated interplay of hormonal, physical and emotional factors.


Fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone play a significant role as these hormones affect mood regulation. Mood swings are very common during pregnancy, and anxiety is just one side effect of the physical changes happening to your body.


Additionally, the physical and emotional demands of pregnancy, concerns about the health of the baby, fear of childbirth, and potential lifestyle changes can all contribute to heightened anxiety. Previous mental health conditions or a history of anxiety can also exacerbate these feelings, but are by no means a prerequisite. Anxiety can affect anyone.


Does anxiety in pregnancy affect the baby?


Don’t let this fact heighten your anxiety, but yes — excessive levels of anxiety can affect your fetus. 


Elevated levels of stress hormones like cortisol can cross the placenta and affect fetal development. Research suggests that high levels of maternal anxiety are associated with preterm birth, low birth weight, and developmental issues in the child [2].


Further, prolonged anxiety can contribute to postpartum depression (PPD), which affects around one in seven women [3]. Severe PPD can impact your child’s development, making it vital to spot the signs of anxiety and tackle your feelings.


Spot It: The Symptoms of Anxiety During Pregnancy


Recognizing anxiety during pregnancy is essential for seeking timely help. Common symptoms include excessive worrying about the baby’s health, feeling overwhelmed by pregnancy-related changes, and experiencing irrational fears about childbirth.


Of course, concerns and anxieties around pregnancy are common, and even inevitable given the changes your body is going through. Discuss these with your ob-gyn and partner to help understand if they are becoming excessive.


These emotional symptoms are often accompanied by physical manifestations such as:

  • Restlessness: A constant sense of unease or inability to relax.

  • Fatigue: Extreme tiredness that doesn’t improve with rest.

  • Insomnia: Difficulty falling or staying asleep despite being tired.

  • Muscle tension: Persistent muscle aches or soreness without a clear physical cause.

  • Heart palpitations: Noticeable heartbeats, which can feel rapid or irregular.


These physical symptoms of anxiety are often disguised and can be mistaken for common pregnancy-related discomforts. For instance, fatigue and muscle tension might be attributed to the physical strain of carrying a baby, while insomnia could be blamed on hormonal changes. When these symptoms persist and significantly interfere with daily functioning, it’s important to consider anxiety as a potential cause.


How to Treat Anxiety During Pregnancy


Anxiety can always be treated, and even if your pregnancy anxiety feels more acute there are many steps you can take. Discuss these with your ob-gyn, and build a support network that you can share your feelings with. Remember — many women have been through the same thing and have experienced their own anxiety during pregnancy.


Anxiety Treatment


Treatment for anxiety during pregnancy should be approached with care, keeping both maternal and fetal health in mind. Options include:


  • Therapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is particularly effective for managing anxiety. It helps identify and change negative thought patterns.

  • Medications: In some cases, healthcare providers may prescribe anti-anxiety medications. It’s crucial to discuss the risks and benefits with a healthcare professional to ensure the safety of your fetus: some antidepressants may carry an additional risk of miscarriage, while SSRIs are generally considered safe while pregnant [4].



  • Lifestyle Changes: Regular physical activity, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep can improve overall well-being and reduce anxiety


Anxiety Coping Strategies


In addition to formal treatment, several self-help strategies can help manage anxiety:


  • Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga can reduce stress and promote relaxation.


  • Support Networks: Talking to friends and family or joining a support group can provide emotional comfort and practical advice.


  • Education: Understanding what to expect during pregnancy and childbirth can alleviate fears and reduce anxiety.



Wrapping Up


As a mother-to-be, your welfare goes hand in hand with that of your unborn child. Pregnancy anxiety is common, but if left unchecked it can harm your own mental health, as well as the healthy development of your fetus.


But you’re not alone. Many women experience anxiety during pregnancy and coping strategies, support networks and professional intervention through therapies like CBT can have a huge positive impact, throughout pregnancy and far beyond.


New treatment options are emerging every day. At oVRcome we’re pioneering how virtual reality can help treat phobias and anxiety disorders, and there’s already evidence that VR can reduce anxiety before noninvasive pregnancy tests [5].


While there’s no oVRcome program for pregnancy, we can offer support for a range of specific phobias and anxiety disorders. Try our free social anxiety test to discover if oVRcome’s virtual reality exposure therapy could help you.


References


1. Radoš, S. N., Tadinac, M., & Herman, R. (2018). Anxiety During Pregnancy and Postpartum: Course, Predictors and Comorbidity with Postpartum Depression. Acta Clinica Croatica, 57(1), 39-51. https://doi.org/10.20471/acc.2018.57.01.05


2. Grigoriadis S, Graves L, Peer M, Mamisashvili L, Tomlinson G, Vigod SN, Dennis CL, Steiner M, Brown C, Cheung A, Dawson H, Rector NA, Guenette M, Richter M. Maternal Anxiety During Pregnancy and the Association With Adverse Perinatal Outcomes: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Clin Psychiatry. 2018 Sep 4;79(5):17r12011. doi: 10.4088/JCP.17r12011. PMID: 30192449.


3. Mughal S, Azhar Y, Siddiqui W. Postpartum Depression. [Updated 2022 Oct 7]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519070/


4. Suarez EA, Bateman BT, Hernández-Díaz S, et al. Association of Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy With Risk of Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Children. JAMA Intern Med. 2022;182(11):1149–1160. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2022.4268


5. Yilmaz Sezer N, Aker MN, Yücel A, Çalışıcı D. The effect of virtual reality and music on anxiety, non-stress test parameters, and satisfaction of high-risk pregnant women undergoing non-stress tests: Randomized controlled trial. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2024 May;296:52-58. doi: 10.1016/j.ejogrb.2024.02.038. Epub 2024 Feb 21. PMID: 38394716.

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