Do You Have Typical Pregnancy Jitters, Or Is It Medical Anxiety?
It's natural to feel worried, but experts say there’s a point where it becomes something more serious.
Real talk: Pregnancy and childbirth are nerve-wracking AF, and that's without mentioning all the natural worries of keeping a tiny human safe and well for years to come. But if you're someone with medical anxiety, those usual fears could be amplified tenfold, causing you serious physical and emotional distress.
So, how can you differentiate between standard pregnancy/parenting jitters and genuine anxiety? And WTF are you supposed to do about it? Two pros tell Scary Mommy what to look for and assure us that you can tackle your fears, no matter how overwhelming they may seem.
"Medical anxiety — also known as health or illness anxiety — tends to involve excessive and persistent worry, fear, or preoccupation with health-related issues that may not be proportional to the actual risk," says Dr. Sarah Oreck, MD, MS, reproductive psychiatry and member of the Perelel Panel.
Oreck explains that this type of anxiety typically includes fixating on "specific health conditions or worries around pregnancy, overinterpreting symptoms they may have and constantly monitoring for bodily symptoms or changes — and during pregnancy and postpartum, there can be many normal changes. It's often accompanied by frequent online searches to Dr. Google and visits to doctors seeking reassurance."
There are some hallmark symptoms to look out for, adds Brandi Jordan, IBCLC, pediatric sleep consultant, Black maternal health advocate, doula, and member of Swehl's Motherboard:
- Persistent dread and inability to rest
- Unable to perform skills necessary for daily living
- Panic attacks
- Excessive worry
- Repeated thoughts or images of terrible things happening to self or baby
"The level of impairment and distress is also important to consider," says Oreck. "Medical anxiety can significantly impact your daily functioning, relationships, and overall quality of life. It may lead to avoidance behaviors, social withdrawal, and frequent visits to doctors seeking reassurance. While they can be stressful, standard pregnancy/parenthood worries and concerns are typically manageable and don't interfere with your ability to function."
Not sure how to decipher run-of-the-mill worries from medical anxiety? Oreck says that the former is "usually short-lived and focuses on broader aspects of the pregnancy or parenting experience," adding, "They are the typical worries that most expecting or new parents experience, such as concerns about the baby's health, development, or adapting to the new role of being a parent."
While it can feel incredibly isolating, both pros assure us that these fears are likely far more common than is reported or researched. Jordan notes that "perinatal and pregnancy-induced anxiety occurs in about 1 in 10 women, and that only accounts for those who are screened and who report." Oreck adds: "Studies indicate that about 1 in 5 women deal with postpartum anxiety, and these numbers could be higher in BIPOC women as well as LGBTQ+ populations." At the same time, Jordan says that prior history of abuse, attachment, or trauma can compound these feelings.
How To Deal
Both pros emphasize the importance of checking in with a trained professional, ideally before your feelings become all-consuming. "Select a healthcare provider you can talk to and trust," says Oreck. "Open and honest communication with your healthcare provider is crucial in managing your anxiety and developing a plan that works for you. This can get complicated, however, and I recognize that high-quality healthcare in the U.S. is a privilege that is not accessible to all. Unfortunately, not all healthcare is high-quality or patient-centered, and the medical system itself can be traumatizing."
Whether you want to get pregnant (or you already are) or you've already welcomed your baby, Oreck recommends that you:
- "Share your concerns with your partner and/or close loved ones. Having their understanding, support, and involvement can provide significant emotional support during this time."
- "Prioritize self-care activities that promote relaxation, stress reduction, and overall well-being. Engage in activities such as exercise, meditation, deep breathing exercises, or mindfulness practices to help manage anxiety symptoms. Ensure you are getting enough rest and eating well."
- "Consider reaching out to a mental health professional (therapist and/or psychiatrist) specialized in perinatal mental health. They can provide strategies and techniques to manage anxiety, help you develop coping mechanisms, and provide a safe space to express your concerns and fears. I acknowledge that obtaining mental health care, especially specialized care, often feels inaccessible."
- "Seek out support groups or online communities where you can connect with other individuals who have experienced or are currently experiencing similar anxieties about pregnancy and childbirth. Sharing experiences, hearing others' stories, and receiving support from those who can relate to your fears can be comforting and empowering."
Though these groups can be helpful during uncertain times, Jordan says, "I've lost count how many times I've seen people crowdsourcing potentially dangerous medical and psychological symptoms that deserve the assessment and advice from a trained professional."
"Continue to seek out accurate information from reliable sources (and that's not Dr. Google)," suggests Oreck. "Establish a trusted relationship with your child's pediatrician and, most importantly, remember that children are resilient and that you must do work to manage your own anxiety."
"Most importantly, instead of getting stuck in concerns about what could possibly go 'wrong' in the future, focus on the present," she adds. "Celebrate and enjoy the moments when your child is thriving. Redirect your attention to the positive aspects of parenting and the joy your child brings you."
"Remember, it's normal to feel concerned about your child's health, but excessive anxiety can be overwhelming," says Oreck. "If your medical anxiety becomes unmanageable, interferes with your daily functioning, or causes significant distress, consider seeking support from a mental health professional who can provide guidance and strategies specifically tailored to managing medical anxiety in the context of pregnancy and/or parenting."
And if you ever experience intrusive thoughts of harming yourself or your child, Jordan says that receiving emergency care is crucial. No matter what you're feeling, you are not alone, and you deserve all the love, care, and support in the world, Mama.