Pregnancy and childbirth can be overwhelming and nerve-wracking experiences for any expectant parent. The natural worries of keeping a tiny human safe and well for years to come can already cause a lot of stress. But for those with medical anxiety, these fears can be amplified to an even greater extent, causing significant physical and emotional distress.
So, how can you determine if your concerns are just standard pregnancy jitters or if they indicate genuine anxiety? And what can you do about it? Two professionals, Dr. Sarah Oreck and Brandi Jordan, provide some insights and assure us that regardless of how overwhelming our fears may seem, it is possible to overcome them.
Medical anxiety, also known as health or illness anxiety, involves excessive and persistent worry, fear, or preoccupation with health-related issues that may not be proportional to the actual risk, explains Dr. Sarah Oreck, a reproductive psychiatrist. This type of anxiety often includes fixating on specific health conditions or worries related to pregnancy, overinterpreting symptoms, and constantly monitoring for bodily changes. Oftentimes, individuals with medical anxiety turn to online searches and frequent doctor visits for reassurance.
Brandi Jordan, a pediatric sleep consultant and doula, highlights a few hallmark symptoms to look out for, including persistent dread and inability to rest, an inability to perform daily living skills, panic attacks, excessive worry, and repeated thoughts or images of terrible things happening to oneself or the baby. It’s crucial to consider the level of impairment and distress caused by these symptoms. Medical anxiety significantly impacts daily functioning, relationships, and overall quality of life and may lead to avoidance behaviors, social withdrawal, and excessive doctor visits. In contrast, standard pregnancy or parenthood worries and concerns are typically manageable and do not interfere with one’s ability to function.
Differentiating between typical worries and medical anxiety can be challenging. According to Oreck, standard worries are usually short-lived and focus on broader aspects of the pregnancy or parenting experience. They include concerns about the baby’s health, development, or adapting to the new role of being a parent. On the other hand, medical anxiety tends to persist and fixate on specific health issues.
While it may feel isolating, the professionals assure us that these fears are likely more common than reported or researched. Jordan notes that perinatal and pregnancy-induced anxiety occurs in about 1 in 10 women, while postpartum anxiety affects approximately 1 in 5 women. These numbers could be higher in BIPOC women and LGBTQ+ populations. Additionally, individuals with a prior history of abuse, attachment issues, or trauma may experience compounded anxiety during pregnancy and childbirth.
To deal with medical anxiety, both experts emphasize the importance of seeking help from a trained professional early on, ideally before the anxiety becomes overwhelming. Oreck suggests finding a healthcare provider with whom you can openly communicate and trust. Sharing your concerns with your partner and loved ones can provide significant emotional support. Engaging in self-care activities that promote relaxation, stress reduction, and overall well-being such as exercise, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness practices can help manage anxiety symptoms. Seeking assistance from a mental health professional specializing in perinatal mental health is also recommended. These professionals can provide strategies, coping mechanisms, and a safe space to express concerns and fears.
Connecting with support groups or online communities of individuals experiencing similar anxieties about pregnancy and childbirth can be comforting and empowering. However, it’s essential to remember that potentially dangerous medical and psychological symptoms should be assessed and addressed by trained professionals, rather than relying solely on crowdsourcing information.
Ensuring that you receive accurate information from reliable sources, establishing a trusted relationship with your child’s pediatrician, and acknowledging that children are resilient are also important steps to manage anxiety. Redirecting your attention to the positive aspects of parenting and cherishing the moments when your child is thriving can help shift focus away from worries.
In summary, while it’s normal to feel concerned about your child’s health, excessive medical anxiety can become overwhelming and interfere with daily functioning. Seeking support from a mental health professional who can provide guidance and strategies tailored to managing medical anxiety during pregnancy and parenting is crucial. If you experience intrusive thoughts of harming yourself or your child, it is essential to seek emergency care. Remember, you are not alone, and you deserve all the love, care, and support as you navigate these challenges of pregnancy and parenthood.