Although pregnancy is often a time of great anticipation, it can also cause immense anxiety. You might experience various physical, emotional, or behavioral symptoms, such as heart palpitations, obsessive thoughts, or trouble sleeping.
While some degree of anxiety or nervousness is entirely normal, anxiety that is prolonged or interfering with your quality of life can be debilitating. To better understand what it means to have an anxiety disorder, bookmark and read What You Need To Know About Anxiety.¹
In the meantime, if you’re pregnant and struggling with anxiety, know that you’re not alone. Recent studies² show that as many as 20% of pregnant women meet the criteria for having an anxiety disorder.
According to a 2020 review article³ by the Journal of Mental Health and Clinical Psychology, “Elevated anxiety levels and the onset of anxiety disorders during pregnancy and in the postpartum period has been increasing and is highly prevalent.”
Pregnancy can trigger new-onset anxiety — meaning that even if you have no history of anxiety, you begin to feel symptoms. Pregnancy can also intensify pre-existing anxiety.
Fortunately, there are safe and effective ways to manage your anxiety. Keep reading to learn four different ways to calm anxiety while pregnant.
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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) effectively manages anxiety and improves the quality of life in people who suffer from anxiety disorders. CBT holds that our thoughts and behaviors influence our emotional states.
In CBT, you will work with your therapist to challenge unhelpful thoughts and behaviors and replace them with helpful ones. A usual course of CBT consists of six–12 sessions.
While CBT is widely used to treat anxiety, research examing its effectiveness for pregnant women is somewhat limited but shows promise. For example, researchers in a small 2020 study⁴ involving 51 pregnant women reported that “more than half of the patients responded to CBT, and their symptom severity was significantly reduced.” Please speak with your healthcare provider about CBT to determine if it’s suitable for your needs.
An imbalance in neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) may play a role in your anxiety.
The main medications for anxiety are drugs commonly known as SSRIs and SNRIs.
SSRI stands for “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor,” while SNRI is short for “serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor.”
Serotonin and norepinephrine are chemical messengers that relay messages between your brain cells.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
SSRIs work by increasing available levels of serotonin in your brain. Usually, serotonin is reabsorbed (re-upped) by your brain at a specific rate. SSRIs slow reabsorption, leaving more serotonin to improve communication between brain circuits.
Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors
SNRIs block the reabsorption of serotonin AND noradrenaline, leaving more of these neurotransmitters to transmit messages between brain cells.
NoteResearch examining the safety of reuptake inhibitors for pregnant women and developing fetuses is mixed, with some studies⁵ indicating their use may cause temporary or long-term problems.
When deciding whether or not to take SSRIs or SNRIs to calm anxiety while pregnant, it’s crucial to weigh all the pros and cons. However, leaving anxiety untreated can also negatively affect you and your baby. With that in mind, having a detailed conversation with your doctor about treatment options and their associated risks and benefits is vital.3. Exercise
Moderate exercise during pregnancy is safe and healthy in most circumstances.The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends “at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week during pregnancy and postpartum.”⁶
Additionally, a 2018 systematic review of 15 studies with 675 patients found that “exercise is a viable treatment for anxiety.”⁷
High-intensity exercise was found more effective than low-intensity exercise. However, even low-intensity exercise such as walking has benefits. You will likely need to reduce exercise intensity as your pregnancy progresses.
It is usually OK to continue your pre-pregnancy exercise routine. However, speak with your doctor if you play contact sports or activities that put you at risk of having a fall or collision. Also, if your pregnancy is in a high-risk category, ask your doctor how to proceed.
Mindfulness and meditation are safe practices for managing anxiety, whether pregnant or not.
Mindfulness refers to cultivating a state of non-judgmental awareness, in which you observe your present experience, including your sensations, thoughts, and surroundings. Practicing mindfulness is about encouraging openness, curiosity, and acceptance to mitigate stress.
A 2017 systematic review⁸ of mindfulness interventions during pregnancy and outcomes mentions that “mindfulness training alone may not be sufficient to reduce levels of perceived stress during pregnancy consistently.” Instead, it suggests combining additional treatments, such as therapy, exercise, and possibly medication.
Anxiety impacts roughly one in five pregnant women, but it is treatable through interventions like exercise, medication, mindfulness, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, if your anxiety interferes with your quality of life, speak with your doctor as soon as possible. Anxiety during pregnancy is treatable. Seeking treatment and support can improve your condition.
What is anxiety? | Healthmatch
Physical activity and exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period | American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists