For those couples that have been trying for a baby, there is nothing quite like that moment when you see that second line on your positive pregnancy test. Pregnancy is a time of joy, but if you have experienced problems in the past or suffer from anxiety, it can be complicated. The incidence of anxiety has increased significantly recently with the Covid-19 pandemic. You might have worries about catching Covid-19, job security or unemployment, money, isolation and missing your family, home-schooling, or having your baby without your partner present.
At every twist and turn along the road, you might feel that something could be wrong; a feeling you just can’t shake which could start to affect your everyday life.
Even without the pandemic, worries and irrational thoughts can take over. “ Will I be a good mother?”, “ Will I bond with the baby or be able to breast-feed?” “ What if the food I’ve been eating has harmed the baby?” “Has my sickness harmed the baby?”, “ Will my body ever be the same?”, “Will I lose the baby?”, “Could I die during childbirth?” These examples are extreme, but late at night these fears exist, and for some, there is always a small possibility that these things could actually happen. The unknown is always scary, no matter how it is perceived.
Pregnancy is also a time of enormous change – to your body, lifestyle and relationships. Some of these feelings and sensations are welcomed, while others are uncomfortable and can sometimes be frightening. Complications or other issues may arise that can cause you to have sleepless nights as you worry about what it might mean.
However, the very real threat of coronavirus has increased these fears even further, with the hospitals and clinics restricting the presence of partners and visiting, and fears of catching the virus and passing it on to your family or your baby. The distress of facing your worst fears alone is terrifying and with the current restrictions, out of your control.
It is natural to worry during pregnancy, especially if it is your first baby. You may have faced problems in the past, such as miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy or later pregnancy loss that give you reason for greater concern. But if these worries start to interfere with everyday life, you may have anxiety.
It is commonly known that post natal depression is a major concern for women after delivery. But there are other mental health conditions that may affect you during your pregnancy. More than 1 in 10 pregnant women experience anxiety at some point, and this figure is undoubtedly higher during the pandemic. Hormonal changes during pregnancy may also affect the chemicals in your brain causing anxiety.
The symptoms of anxiety include:
- feeling an uncontrollable sense of anxiousness, and fearing the worst
- worrying excessively about things, especially your health or baby
- Being unable to concentrate or make decisions
- Feeling restless and unable to keep still
- Feeling irritable, angry or agitated
- having tense muscles, backache or headache
- having pins and needles
- Feeling light-headed and dizzy
- Hot flushes/ sweating
- Insomnia (poor sleep)
- Panic attacks (where you cannot catch your breath, your heart rate increases, and you feel a sense that something bad is going to happen)
Mild cases of anxiety usually don’t require any specific treatment, though it’s a good idea to mention your feelings to your doctor or midwife. In severe cases, your doctor may recommend medication after assessing the benefits and risks, or refer you for Talking Therapy. But there are some self-care options to try if you start to feel stressed and anxious.
Tips for coping with anxiety during pregnancy
- Talk about it
If you’re feeling very anxious during your pregnancy, it’s important to tell someone, whether it is your partner, a close friend, or family. As the old saying goes, a problem shared, is a problem halved. Simply sharing your thoughts and feelings may be enough to keep them from taking over your everyday life.
- Shift your focus
Thinking about what might happen is a very normal response in these uncertain times. We like to feel in control of things, so looking for answers and trying to predict what will happen is just our brain’s way of trying to help us feel safe and secure. But focussing excessively on these fears can become unhelpful because you will find yourself asking a lot of questions that you don’t have the answers for. Only now matters because this is what you can control. Focus on how you feel now and what you’re doing now. Concentrate on things that you are able to control, like making a cup of tea. If you are feeling anxious about something, try shifting your focus of attention to something else, such as watching the birds in the garden, reading or walking the dog.
Try to avoid watching or reading news updates on coronavirus, social media or googling symptoms on the internet. This will only increase your anxiety.
- Find a release
Engaging in activities that help to lower stress and anxiety may be a good option for you. Physical activity helps your body release endorphins. These act like natural painkillers in your brain. Moving your body is one of the most recommended ways to manage stress. Just do what you love! Anything that gets your body moving can help, such as walking, running, yoga, swimming or dancing around the room to your favourite music. Aerobic activity for as short as five minutes has been shown to have positive benefits, but speak with your midwife before starting a new exercise routine during pregnancy.
You can try activities that help your body release endorphins without exercise, including running a relaxing bath, or try a new hobby such as painting, knitting, or colouring books. You could even learn to play a musical instrument.
You could learn to meditate. There are many apps such as Calm and Headspace which are designed to enhance your mental health. Meditation and deep breathing exercises are really useful ways to beat stress, and deep abdominal breathing for 20 to 30 minutes per day can help with anxiety, increasing levels of oxygen to your brain and stimulate your nervous system. Get in a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. Imagine yourself smiling inwardly and release tension in your muscles. Then visualize that there are holes in your feet. Breathe in and imagine the air circulating through your body. Exhale and repeat.
Ecotherapy incorporates nature into therapeutic activities, and has proven in lockdown to be of great benefit to those experiencing anxiety. Try to enjoy being outdoors by gardening, a simple nature walk in the countryside, or volunteering in a local community wildlife group. You don’t necessarily need a garden to enjoy the wildlife around you.
When lockdown is over, you could try acupuncture or massage therapy with a local therapist.
- Make sure you are getting enough rest
It’s important to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Though sleep may seem elusive during pregnancy, and difficult if you have young children to look after, making it a priority may help significantly with your anxiety symptoms. Do you wake up often at night? Try napping whenever you feel the urge. Be kind to yourself.
- Write about it
Sometimes you may not feel like talking. All those thoughts need somewhere to go. Try starting a journal where you can let out your feelings without fear of judgment. You may find that writing down your thoughts and feelings helps you organize or prioritize your worries and fears.
- Ask your doctor
If your anxiety is affecting your daily life or you’re having frequent panic attacks, call your doctor. The sooner you get help, the better. There may be medications you can take to ease your most severe symptoms. You should never feel embarrassed about sharing your thoughts and feelings, especially if they concern you.
- Contact specialist organisations
Charities like MIND, Anxiety UK and online CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) programmes are there to help, and more accessible due to the pandemic.
Research has proven that there is good reason to get your anxiety under control. High levels of anxiety during pregnancy are associated with a risk of developing conditions like preeclampsia, premature birth, and low birth weight.
Anxiety during pregnancy is common. It’s also highly individual, so what may work to help others may not alleviate your own worries. Keep talking with the people you love, try some stress management techniques, and communicate with the health professionals looking after you if you feel you need more support. The sooner you get help, the sooner you’ll be able to gain peace of mind for your health and the health of your growing baby.