Anxiety during pregnancy & parenting

It might be the most-awaited and exciting time of your life, but it’s also normal to suffer from anxiety during pregnancy and after birth. Anxiety is a normal emotion characterised by feelings of worry, tension and physical symptoms. Anxiety assists in alerting us that something in our life is physically or emotionally threatening, and feeling anxious helps us to act in order to keep ourselves safe.

Physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Feeling sick
  • Changes in breathing
  • Stomach upsets
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Tightness or pain in your chest
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Feeling very tired
  • Pins and needles

Worried mom on couch suffering from anxiety

Normal anxiety is intermittent and is expected in response to some situations, for example speaking in front of an audience. However, sometimes anxiety is beyond what’s “normal” and healthy, and often thoughts and feelings can spiral out of control and be debilitating. It can cause a loss of happiness and negatively impact on your work and relationships.

With anxiety, you might be unable to concentrate on day-to-day things, have problems functioning at home or work, have obsessive negative thoughts, and not enjoy things that used to bring joy.

Here are the different types of anxiety you might experience during pregnancy and after the birth:

Anxiety and pregnancy

Everyone worries during pregnancy, but if it’s all-consuming and you aren’t finding much joy, then that could be antenatal anxiety.

Symptoms of antenatal anxiety include:

  • Finding it hard to relax
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Having panic attacks
  • Feeling worried most of the time
  • Having recurring thoughts that won’t go away
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling worried that bad things will happen
  • Worrying excessively about your baby and your health

Factors that might increase the chances of having high anxiety during pregnancy include:

  • History of depression and/or high anxiety
  • High-risk pregnancy
  • History of miscarriage
  • History of infertility
  • Major problems, such as financial ones
  • Perfectionism

“With anxiety, you might be unable to concentrate on day-to-day things, have problems functioning at home or work, have obsessive negative thoughts, and not enjoy things that used to bring joy.”

Tokophobia – intense fear or dread of childbirth

It’s normal for moms to feel worried about labour and birth, but for some, it can be so overwhelming that it affects daily functioning and takes away any joy from the pregnancy. This severe fear of birth is called tokophobia, of which there are two types. Primary tokophobia occurs in women who haven’t had a baby before. For these women, the fear of birth could come from a past traumatic experience such as sexual abuse. It might also be connected to witnessing a complicated birth, or being exposed to birth stories that are embarrassing or scary.

Women with secondary tokophobia have likely had previous traumatic birth experiences which have left them scared to give birth again. Symptoms of tokophobia include panic attacks, sleep disturbances, nightmares, depression, and a huge fear of problems during birth such as death and birth defects.

Stressed mom with anxiety sitting in baby's nursery

Anxiety with breastfeeding

D-MER (dysphoric milk ejection reflex) is a rare condition which can cause anxiety during breastfeeding. It is characterised by negative emotions that occur seconds before a mother’s milk ejection reflex when breastfeeding. Not much is known about D-MER, but the understanding is that it occurs due to abnormal activity of the hormone dopamine when the milk ejection reflex is activated.

Your baby is here, everything is going well, but do you still have anxiety?

Anxiety is normal after birth and common symptoms include feelings of dread, excessive worrying, racing thoughts, and inability to sleep. While postpartum depression results in sadness, postpartum anxiety manifests in excessive worry. Postpartum anxiety is often caused by hormonal changes after birth, along with sleep deprivation, life changes, and the responsibility of looking after a baby all the time.

How to assist with anxiety

Kathy Krishnan, a Johannesburg-based psychologist has this advice: When there’s a complication in the experience of the mom’s emotional state, whether anxious, depressed or compromised, it is always helpful to ascertain first if there is a concern that requires medication.”

With a psychiatric evaluation, a doctor will determine if the mom-to-be or mom will benefit from medication, and prescribe something that is safe for during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Sessions with a psychologist can provide support too, whether the mom is taking medication or not.

The bottom line, though, is to seek professional help if your anxiety feels debilitating or beyond your control. Not adequately dealing with your anxiety can lead to not only self-harm but a detachment from your baby.