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Pregnancy Anxiety? Here's How to Keep Calm and Carry On

Pregnancy is a time of overwhelming emotions—some anxiety is normal! Use these four indispensable tips to keep calm so you can enjoy this magical time.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
Episode #273
stressed and pregnant
The Quick And Dirty
  • Most women feel significant anxiety at some point during pregnancy.
  • Educate yourself about the things that make you worry. 
  • Practice radical acceptance when it comes to things you cannot control or predict. 
  • Get in touch with your body by paying attention to its sensations and needs.
  • Get lots of social support—it takes a village to prepare for your new life.

If you're pregnant and experiencing anxiety, you're in good company. Approximately 60% of women will feel significant pregnancy anxiety at some point. This includes both mental components, like worrying about worst-case scenarios and riding extreme mood swings, and physical components like feeling tension and having a hard time relaxing into sleep.

Pregnancy is amazing. In 40 weeks, two cells go from just meeting each other to having turned into a tiny human. For some, having a baby is a surprise, and for others, the result of a long and arduous journey to conception. For some, it’s a terrifying prospect; for others, it's something they were born ready to do. For everyone, the experience is unique. 

Pregnancy is amazing. In 40 weeks, two cells go from just meeting each other to having turned into a tiny human.

The weeks when you're expecting a child are a special time full of change. For a pregnant woman, the amount of physical, mental, and existential changes that happen in such a short time can be dizzying. I'm expecting my first baby in February 2020. For me, it’s been a mix of emotions all happening on top of seismic changes in my body. During a process as life-changing as this, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.

It's normal to have anxiety during pregnancy

You may be particularly at risk for anxiety and other mood problems during pregnancy if you:

  • Have a high-risk pregnancy
  • Have had a mood disorder in the past
  • Had previous difficulties with pregnancies or fertility
  • Have high levels of stress in your life and relationships. 

That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to have a bad pregnancy experience. Even if you do experience anxiety, know it's totally normal to be nervous—after all, you're going through one of the biggest life changes there is.

To help yourself enjoy this time and take it all in stride, here are some tips for keeping calm so you can carry on.

1. Educate yourself about pregnancy

A healthy amount of knowledge and preparation can go a long way toward easing anxiety about pregnancy and childbirth. Often, the things we worry about are scary because we don’t know exactly what we’re scared of. Ever notice how, in horror movies, it’s always the lead-up to opening the door that’s the worst part? As the music is getting tenser, dread is building because you don’t know when the monster is going to leap out for the jump-scare.

Instead of stewing in your own vague, abstract, imagined fears, look the monster straight in the eyes.

For example, one thing many women are terrified of (yours truly included) is the pain of childbirth. How can you blame us? I’ve certainly had nightmares about what it’s going to feel like, what it’s going to do to my body, and whether anything will go wrong in the process. It's gotten to the point where I’ve covered my ears and sang “la la la” when childbirth comes up in conversation.

But I'm not doing myself any favors by sticking my head in the sand. Knowing what to expect, and what your options are, can be tremendously helpful.

Talk to your healthcare professionals about your options for pain management. There are risks and benefits, for example, to getting an epidural. Knowing your options and the science behind them helps you to make an informed and empowered choice.

Tour the place where you'll give birth. It can be helpful to have an idea of where you’ll be and how you’ll be taken care of.

Take a childbirth preparation class. You don't want to be surprised. You'll learn that, for example, it’s normal for the mucus plug to come out many days before labor starts. (I’ll let you Google that so I don’t have to describe it.) You’ll also learn how a support person might be able to help you through the process, which can take off some pressure.

Talk to your friends about their experiences. Even though every woman’s childbirth experience is personal and unique, you’ll at least hear that most people get through it fine despite scares. You might also learn some tips and tricks for keeping your cool.

2. Ease anxiety by radically accepting uncertainty

That said, there's only so much preparation you can do. Many of us tend to over-research and over-plan, thinking that the more we map out the impending birth experience, the better off we’ll be. But the theme I keep hearing from everyone, moms and healthcare professionals alike, is that things never quite go as planned.

In fact, you might be worried about something going wrong during pregnancy. There are certainly some possibilities that range from annoying to heartbreaking. You may be especially fearful if you’ve had pregnancy complications or losses in the past, or you had a difficult time getting pregnant.

The theme I keep hearing from everyone, moms and healthcare professionals alike, is that things never quite go as planned.

This type of worry is so tough because nobody can reassure you 100 percent that the worst won’t happen. So much is outside of your control. Especially if you’re the type of person that likes to plan. If your diligence has always paid off in school or at your job, you might find that the same approach to pregnancy can backfire. Hard work doesn’t necessarily guarantee you more control.

That’s where radical acceptance comes in.

Radical acceptance is an idea you already know instinctively. Every time you get into your car, you radically accept that you could die in a freak car accident. You choose to drive anyway because it allows you to pursue something else you value—seeing your friends, doing your work, and participating in your community.

The idea isn't to quell them or judge those emotions and thoughts, but to acknowledge how valid they are.

During pregnancy, this radical acceptance may take more practice. When you catch yourself Googling miscarriage rates for the fourth time, you may want to take that moment to check in with your emotions and thoughts.

The idea isn't to quell them or judge those emotions and thoughts, but to acknowledge how valid they are. Then, sit with them through the storm of discomfort that comes with uncertainty. If you allow the discomfort for long enough without giving in to the urge to control your feelings—whether it’s by hitting WebMD again or asking for reassurance from your spouse—I promise it will pass, or at least become bearable.

3. Get in touch with your pregnant body

Along the same lines, I like to think of pregnancy as an especially good time to get in touch with your body in the here and now. There are so many incredible things happening during this unique time. Your body is building a new human and experiencing all sorts of new sensations and needs. Maybe you’re having some crazy cravings, maybe your sex drive is different, and at a certain point, you start to feel your little one kicking, hiccuping, and generally causing a ruckus inside.

Don’t miss out on these experiences by time traveling with your mind instead of hanging out with your body.

Don’t miss out on these experiences by time traveling with your mind instead of hanging out with your body. Uncomfortable sensations like heartburn, back pain, swelling, pressure, or the occasional panic attack are definitely unpleasant. But if they're unavoidable, you might as well be there for them to earn your full mom badges. Appreciate that your body is doing all this to create a new life. Even the annoying parts are preparing you to be bonded body and soul to your future child.

The more you pay attention to how you feel, the better you can respond to your body’s needs. For example, if you have an office job, listen to those feelings of swelling and stiffness so you can remember to take regular stretch breaks. Listen to fatigue and sleepiness, so you know when to rest, and when not to force yourself to sleep. Listen to the tension or jitteriness, so you know you’re carrying stress. Then, slow down to take some belly breaths and remind yourself of radical acceptance. 

You can practice getting in touch with your body by doing daily body scans or other meditations. 

4. Calm pregnancy anxiety by getting lots of social support

As with any life change, having your village is your best shot at surviving and thriving. We humans are social animals, and until pretty recently, most cultures cared for pregnant and postpartum women by surrounding them with lots of sisters, aunties, moms, and friends. Just because we live more independently now doesn’t mean we’ve outgrown that need.

Not only do women need logistical support—like help with setting up the house to be baby-ready, getting to prenatal appointments, and managing nutrition—we also need knowledge and emotional support.

  • Ask for details. There are some things that your healthcare provider, no matter how good they are, might not tell you in the terms you need to know. At my baby shower, I got vivid descriptions of after-birth self-care that are, let’s just say, graphic but necessary. The nitty-gritty details may be cringe-inducing, but it’s better to know than to be surprised when you’ve just given birth and a nurse hands you an adult-sized frozen diaper.
  • Reach for emotional support. Be clear about what you need from your spouse, parents, friends, and coworkers. You can’t expect others to know whether you prefer practical advice or you'd just like some reassurance. Are you exhausted by hearing other people's birth experiences, or do you crave more information? Speak up for yourself.
  • Practice accepting help. You may be an independent woman with Beyoncé vibes, but everyone needs help during pregnancy. There’s absolutely no shame in accepting it. Starting now, allow yourself to ask people for specific favors, like dog-sitting or helping you assemble your crib. Thank them and refrain from apologizing for needing them. You'll need even more help after you give birth, so now's the time to practice accepting it gratefully and graciously.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show. 

Disclaimer: All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

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