Can Anxiety Attacks Cause Complications During Pregnancy? | E-Counseling.com

Can Anxiety Attacks Cause Complications During Pregnancy?

Jennie Lannette, MSW, LCSW
September 16, 2020
anxiety during pregnancy

There’s plenty you can do to help yourself during pregnancy, even if you have anxiety or panic attacks.

Many new (or seasoned) parents worry about the effects of mental health, such as anxiety struggles, on pregnancy. Having such concerns, among others, is perfectly normal. It is unrealistic, if not impossible, to attempt to have no worries during a time like pregnancy.

In some cases, anxiety can begin to spiral to higher levels than normal and could lead to anxiety or panic attacks. The term “anxiety attack” is used to refer to different experiences.

Some people consider an anxiety attack to simply be intensified anxiety. Others equate it with a panic attack, which describes a specific set of symptoms and can be part of a broader diagnosis called panic disorder.

A panic attack, which is the term most often used by doctors and therapists, generally describes an episode with the following symptom/s (some may experience just one of these while others experience multiple symptoms):

  • Heart beating faster
  • Sweating
  • Changes in breathing
  • Feeling increased fear and/or impending doom
  • Stomach pains
  • Nausea or dizziness
  • Numbness
  • Feeling detached or dissociated from the moment

Some doctors suggest that the changes in hormones that affect other emotions during pregnancy might lead to some people experiencing higher anxiety and panic attacks during pregnancy. We also know that some people are simply more biologically prone to have high anxiety and get panic attacks.

Discussing concerns on the subject can be tricky, because adding more things to worry about, such as these effects, could contribute to further anxiety and panic attacks. Likewise, looking for areas to blame yourself for birth complications, either before or after the fact, is simply not productive for anyone involved. Instead, try to think of your anxiety as a biological condition to understand and address, just like any other health issue during pregnancy.

The truth is, there are many unknowns about this area of science. In one often-cited study involving Taiwan women, it was found that those who had severe panic attacks during pregnancy were somewhat more likely to have complications, including lower birth rates and pre-term delivery.

In this study, they only found the increased risk in those who had panic attacks so severe that it led to a visit to the hospital. It is unknown if less severe anxiety or panic attacks had any effect, and those who were diagnosed as having panic disorder (without a case of visiting the hospital for it during their pregnancy) were not found to have increased complications.

There are other important limitations to note about studies such as this one:

  • The limited studies about panic disorder and pregnancy focus on small population sizes. More research is needed to fully understand these effects.
  • Such research is limited in the sense that we don’t know if the chicken or the egg came first. For example, could having other problems that might increase the risk of a panic attack actually contribute to pregnancy complications?
  • Certain factors in the studies are difficult to control, such as overall health, smoking, and diet habits. These factors could also play a broader role in birth complications.
  • Even having a severe panic attack during pregnancy in no way guarantees that there will be birth complications. While the study did show an increased risk, most women who have severe panic attacks still did not experience birth complications.

Taking into account the limitations of current research, and keeping in mind that blaming yourself is not productive, we can consider ways to prevent, manage, and respond to panic attacks during pregnancy.

Create a Mindfulness Routine

One way to decrease panic attacks and anxiety-related issues is to create a regular routine of relaxation and mindfulness techniques. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, including through yoga, Tai chi, meditation, and mindfulness apps. Practicing these techniques every day, or most days, can help decrease overall anxiety that might contribute to attacks.

Try Grounding to Stop an Attack

Practice grounding techniques if you feel your anxiety increasing or if you think you’re having a panic attack. Grounding includes any sensation that involves the four senses. For example, noticing your toes in your shoes and your feet on the ground is sensory. Other more instant forms of grounding might include holding an ice cube, taking a warm or cold shower, or chewing on a piece of sour gum. For some, this can slow or stop attacks.

Process Your Fears

Sometimes the brain cycles through anxiety and panic as a way to avoid underlying fears. The worrying itself can become compulsive, and a way to avoid deeper feelings and thoughts. By facing your fears, through writing about them, talking to a friend or therapist, or allowing your brain to work through them, you can zap some or all of their power. When working through your fears, look for the things you do have control over and take action. Then notice the things that you can’t control and accept that there’s nothing you can possibly do about them, so worrying doesn’t help.

Get Professional Help

If you have a history of panic disorder or other types of high anxiety, consider getting support before or after you’re pregnant. A qualified therapist can help you to process and question the types of worry that can tend to spiral and get worse over time. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular has been shown to be helpful for panic disorder and other anxiety issues.

Talk to a Qualified Doctor

While medication isn’t always the best first option, if your panic is severe, you may consider talking to a specialist who works with pregnancy about medication. However, note that most anxiety experts caution against benzodiazepines, even when not pregnant. This is typically due to the rebound effect that can be caused by such medications, making anxiety worse in the long run.

Finally, Don’t Panic About Panic

If you do experience a panic attack during pregnancy, don’t assume the worst. Remember that most people who experience severe panic attacks don’t have birth complications. If you are still concerned, seek a specialist who provides evidence-based treatments for panic and other anxiety disorders.

Jennie Lannette, MSW, LCSW

Jennie Lannette is a licensed therapist who specializes in trauma, PTSD, and related issues. She has trained extensively in multiple evidence-based treatments. She has a decade of experience in inpatient, community, and private practice settings.

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