There you are, going about your (very pregnant) day as usual when suddenly, terror grips you. Your heart races, and you can't catch your breath. Frightening thoughts roll in like waves, one after another. You're sweating and feel as if you might vomit. You wonder if you're having a heart attack, and if you're going to die. These are classic symptoms of a panic attack, a terrifying event at any time of life — and especially when you're having a baby. What happens if you have an anxiety attack while pregnant?
Romper reached out to Karen Kleiman, MSW, Founder and Director of The Postpartum Stress Center, and author of several books on postpartum depression and anxiety, including Therapy and the Postpartum Woman. Kleiman tells Romper that anxiety attacks during pregnancy most often strike women who already have a history of anxiety. "Panic attacks are scary and unsettling, and while they are not dangerous in and of themselves, high levels of anxiety are not ideal for mom or the pregnancy."
According to Kleiman, therapy can help you regulate your emotional responses by teaching skills like breathing exercises and mindfulness. Psychotherapy can offer additional support, tailoring solutions to your specific fears. If symptoms are severe and the attacks continue, however, Kleiman notes that a "pregnancy-compatible medication" might be necessary.
What if you're not having anxiety attacks, but simply feel overwhelmed? How much anxiety is "too much?" According to Kleiman,
"When anxious feelings and thoughts take up too much of your time or energy, or you find yourself worrying more times of the day than not, that's too much worry ... Getting permission to let go of some worry can be enormously reassuring and helpful."
Kleiman says that speaking to a professional can put worries in perspective — what scares you most may not make sense, and a professional can help separate real issues from those that aren't worth worrying over.
For instance, while I was pregnant, I stopped walking through the beautiful community garden right outside my door. One day my partner noticed that I was taking the long way around, and asked me why.
"Toxoplasmosis," I said instantly.
He knew to tread carefully. "OK. How can you get toxoplasmosis just from walking through a garden?"
I walked him through my logic — such as it was — and it immediately became clear that my fear didn't make sense. One illogical thought was an important clue that my stress levels were rising, and we needed to keep an eye on things.
A full-blown panic attack is a less subtle clue, and if you're having multiple panic attacks, you might be diagnosed with panic disorder. A review of the research in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry noted that while anxiety symptoms in pregnancy are quite common, severe anxiety may affect infant birth weight and contribute to premature delivery. Researchers believe adverse effects are related to high levels of cortisol.The Psychiatric Times also noted that serious pregnancy anxiety is a risk factor for postpartum depression.
But you don't need research to tell you that what you feel during pregnancy matters. (In fact, what you feel always matters.) Pregnancy is a time of immense change, so some amount of anxiety is expected. After all, now that there's a baby on board, your identity shifts, your physical body transforms, and no matter how many books you read, you have no idea what to expect at the end of a sometimes harrowing nine-month journey.
Kleiman writes that if at any point you don't feel like yourself, or simply don't like the way you're feeling, it's time to let a doctor or other healthcare provider know. Therapy can be immensely powerful, and help you feel more resilient, more capable, and less alone.
If you're having panic attacks, or your anxiety is otherwise out of control, your body is trying to get your attention, and if you're pregnant, it's time to listen. You deserve the healthiest, happiest pregnancy possible, and you definitely deserve to walk your pregnant self through the summer gardens without fear.