Understanding perinatal anxiety
Pregnancy is a period of significant change, future planning and lots of anticipation, so some stress and worry is normal and expected. There is much uncertainty for prospective parents about when their baby will be born, what the birth will be like and how they will manage early parenthood.
Uncertainty is particularly difficult for people who usually like to feel like they are in control of situations. For some parents, the usual worry evolves into anxiety that is hard to manage and affects their daily life. Up to one in five people experience anxiety during pregnancy or after birth.
Physical symptoms such as morning sickness, disrupted sleep and hormonal changes can contribute to anxiety during pregnancy. Other possible factors include a personal or family history of mental health issues (although not always); desire to be a “perfect” parent and having very high standards for yourself; concerns about finances and job security; relationship conflict and family violence.
Some common signs of anxiety include but are not limited to:
- Frequently fearing or imagining the worst.
- Noticeable disruption to sleep, appetite and other daily activities for more than two weeks.
- Avoiding things that seem scary or unsafe (e.g. leaving the house).
- Physical symptoms such as a racing heart, tightness in chest, tingling in the hands.
- Panic attacks.
- Intrusive thoughts.
It is important to know that anxiety is treatable – early intervention helps, professional support is available, and a range of treatment options can help a person manage and cope. Seeking treatment is a sign of resourcefulness, rather than a sign of weakness or failure.
Speaking with a trusted person is a useful first step for someone who is concerned about their anxiety levels. This could be a partner, someone in your social network or a professional such as a midwife, G.P. or obstetrician.
A related mental health issue that can emerge during pregnancy or post birth is called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). A person may have been diagnosed with OCD previously or it can start during pregnancy. It is often hidden from others or is able to be managed prior to pregnancy but may become more apparent during pregnancy or after the birth. Parents may be scared about keeping their baby healthy and safe in utero and look for ways to ease this anxious feeling by performing rituals e.g. handwashing. OCD can be distressing to live with and have a significant impact on daily life. It is important to seek supportive treatment from an experienced doctor or psychologist in order to help manage the distress and treat the OCD.
Date of Last Review: August 2021