Antenatal anxiety: Symptoms and treatment

Pregnancy is a major, life-changing event, and adjusting to these powerful changes can be hard. It’s natural to feel worried, anxious, or stressed to a degree when expecting, but if it becomes excessive or drastically impacts on your life and relationships, you might be experiencing an anxiety disorder.

If you are, you certainly aren’t alone – it’s estimated that 1 in 5 women experience antenatal (which means before birth) anxiety, and perhaps even more fathers-to-be will experience an anxiety condition during this stage.

Sadly, all too often the symptoms are overlooked or not recognised, and put down to just a normal part of pregnancy. So, it’s important that you know that what’s not normal is when you’re having the following symptoms nearly every day, they’re difficult to manage or they’re distressing, or when they interfere with your health, relationships, and your ability to cope on a daily basis.

Symptoms of antenatal anxiety

According to the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) and Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) some of the symptoms to look out for include:

  • Worrying thoughts that keep coming to your mind, like something bad is going to happen to you or your baby.
  • Excessive fear about the pregnancy, birth, and what kind of parent you’ll be.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Racing thoughts and catastrophising.
  • Constantly feeling restless, ‘on edge’, and irritable.
  • Feeling tense in your muscles and chest.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Feelings of isolation, loneliness, and fear even around loved ones.
  • Having trouble concentrating.
  • Thoughts like ‘I can’t handle this’ or the urge to self-harm.
  • Changes to libido.
  • Appetite changes.
  • Developing obsessive or compulsive behaviours, such as cleaning.
  • Increased arguments with loved ones.

Types of anxiety conditions 

There are a number of different anxiety conditions, each of which has varying signs and symptoms.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

  • Feeling anxious and worried most of the time, not just in stressful situations.
  • Worries are intense, persistent, and interfere with normal day to day life.
  • Worries relate to more than one aspect of life, including the health of the baby, finances, and work.
  • You may have GAD if these signs and symptoms are present for 6 months or more.
  • People with GAD may also have depression, social phobia, or other anxiety conditions.

Panic disorder 

  • A panic attack can feel like overwhelming panic or fear, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, dizziness, excessive perspiration.
  • A panic disorder is frequent and recurring unexpected attacks of intense feelings of anxiety that feel like you can’t control them.
  • Worrying that you’re going to have another panic attack, and avoiding certain situations.

Social phobia

  • Intense fear of criticism, being embarrassed or humiliated, even in ordinary everyday situations.
  • May present as excessive perspiration, nausea or diarrhoea, blushing, stammering, trembling.
  • Avoiding situations where you fear you’ll act in a way that’s embarrassing or humiliating.

Specific phobia

  • Fearful feelings about a particular object or situation, such as a fear of needles or childbirth.

Treatment for antenatal anxiety

The first step is to talk to your GP. They can assess your anxiety, and refer you for psychological treatment. Sometimes medication can be effective in treating anxiety. Your doctor can give you a mental health care plan so that you get a Medicare rebate with a mental health professional.

How to cope with anxiety during pregnancy

  • Ask for and accept offers of practical help from family and friends.
  • Find activities that relax you or recharge you, such as meditation, having a bath, reading a book, listening to music or a podcast.
  • Practice daily deep breathing and gratitude journaling.
  • Join a local or online support group to connect with other pregnant women who are going through a similar situation.

Further support for antenatal anxiety

The sooner you get treatment for anxiety, the quicker you can get these anxious thoughts and negative physical feelings under control. You can then get on with enjoying your pregnancy.

You can speak to your obstetrician or midwife about any issues you’re having throughout your pregnancy. To find a professional or service that provides support for antenatal anxiety, search the e-COPE directory, or phone Beyond Blue’s helpline anytime to talk to a mental health professional for free. You could also phone the Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) helpline on 1300 726 306.

If you’re having thoughts about hurting yourself or your family, speak to your GP immediately or phone Lifeline Australia on 131 114.

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