Feeling stressed during pregnancy is normal, but panic attacks can take the discomfort of anxiety to a whole new level.
If it’s your first time having a panic attack during pregnancy, you may wonder, why now? And more importantly, what can you do to prevent it from happening again?
In this guide, we’re discussing panic attacks during pregnancy and what you can do to manage them.
What Are Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks are sudden episodes of severe anxiety that cause physical reactions. Even if there is no real danger or you don’t know the cause, you may feel you’re losing control of your reactions. Some people confuse panic attacks with health issues like a heart attack or the feeling of dying. Although it can feel like your body is failing and they can be debilitating, panic attacks aren’t life-threatening.
Those who experience panic attacks may have just one or a few in their life. Others have frequent panic attacks and may be unable to predict when the next one will happen. This may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder, such as panic disorder.
Panic attacks should be treated so they don’t affect your life or get worse. Treatment can include medication, psychotherapy and lifestyle changes.
Panic Attack During Pregnancy Symptoms
If you have a panic attack, you may experience:
- Fear or sense of danger
- Pounding heart
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Hot flashes or chills
- Feeling detached, unreal, depersonalization
These physical sensations are accompanied by an intense fear. You may be able to pinpoint it, or you may have a general sense that you’re dying. This sometimes leads people to mistake their symptoms for a heart attack.
Why Do Panic Attacks Happen During Pregnancy?
Panic attacks are caused by episodes of intense anxiety. During pregnancy, you may experience more anxiety, leading you to have your first panic attack. Others may have a history of anxiety and experience continued or more frequent symptoms.
History of Anxiety or Panic Attacks
You’re more likely to have panic attacks during pregnancy if you’ve experienced anxiety prior or have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. For example, one mother writes about how her anxiety disorder got worse while expecting.
“In addition to struggling with sleep, I worried constantly about the pregnancy, fearing something bad was going to happen. I couldn’t sit still and my thoughts were racing all the time,” Irina Gonzalez wrote in The Washington Post.
If you have a history of anxiety, you should talk to your doctor about developing a plan to manage stress during pregnancy. Since the life change can come with added pressure, it’s a good idea to have a toolbox of coping strategies ready.
Onset of Panic Disorder in Pregnancy
Having a panic attack during pregnancy may also be a sign of panic disorder, even if you’ve never experienced it before. Although you may have a one-off panic attack, having frequent ones likely points towards a condition. According to studies, many women suffer from the onset of anxiety disorders during pregnancy.
One-Off Panic Attack
It’s possible that you experienced one panic attack while expecting and won’t have one again. Since pregnancy can bring periods of heightened stress, as your anxiety calms, panic symptoms may go away forever.
Causes of Panic Attacks in Pregnancy
There can be several causes of panic attacks:
- Personal or family history of anxiety
- Major stress
- Sensitivity to stress
During pregnancy specifically, you may be more or less likely to experience panic attacks. Since pregnancy brings about new stresses, many women experience mental health changes during this time. One poll showed that 52% of women reported anxiety or depression while pregnant.
With that being said, not every woman has more stress while expecting. Some experience a reduction in anxiety during pregnancy, according to research.
Many people who have a panic attack their first time don’t know the cause. For example, they may be stressed in general, but not at that particular moment. As such, they may not even recognize it as a panic attack.
Manage Panic Attacks During Pregnancy
If you’re having panic attacks during pregnancy, there’s some things you can do to manage your symptoms, making you less likely to have them.
Remember that taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health. If you feel guilty about taking that time for yourself, consider this: Your mental health can affect your baby. Although normal stress is unlikely to cause harm, research has shown that chronic stress is associated with negative pregnancy outcomes. For example, one study showed that prenatal stress and anxiety may lead to delays in infant development and greater emotional reactivity.
It’s not good to stress about getting stressed. But knowing your mental health affects your baby may allow you to see treating your anxiety as a selfless act instead.
There’s a variety of therapies that can be used to treat panic or anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular options and involves changing thinking and behavior. A therapist can work with you to develop coping strategies that manage your anxious feelings.
If you have health insurance, check to see if you have coverage for psychotherapy. If you don’t, therapists who work on a sliding scale may be affordable for you.
Some local community health services may provide counseling for free. You may also find some relief in self-help guides, such as Mind Over Mood. Here’s a free cognitive behavior therapy-based guide for pregnant women written by BC Mental Health & Addiction Services.
Although medication is commonly prescribed for anxiety, not all options are safe during pregnancy. For example, selective reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been shown to increase the risk for pulmonary hypertension in newborns. It may also increase the risk of birth defects. However, while it may increase your risk, your risk overall may still be low.
When deciding if medication is appropriate, your doctor will weigh the potential benefits against the risks. For this reason, if you’re already taking medication, you shouldn’t stop without your doctor’s advice.
It should be noted that medication works best when combined with therapy.
Self-care is an important component to feeling your best mentally. That can be broken down into different parts:
- Exercise— Physical activity releases your body’s feel-good chemicals (endorphins!). It’s known to help treat stress, depression and anxiety. Read: Exercise During Pregnancy – The Benefitsand 11 Easy and Super Fun Pregnancy Exercise Ideas That You’ll Actually Do.
- Sleep— Fatigue is a common pregnancy symptom, so you’ll probably need more sleep than usual. Read: Sleeping During Pregnancy: Your Ultimate Guide.
- Nutrition— What you eat matters. Try to make time for healthy, home-cooked meals. If you’re busy, try using a slow cooker or meal prepping rather than take out. Remember to take your prenatal vitaminstoo!
- Time for yourself— Between work, chores and preparing for the baby, make some time to do something you Something that doesn’t have a purpose except for you enjoying it. That could be having a bath, reading, knitting, yoga, etc.
Research shows that your mental health is related to the support you have during pregnancy. Support can be practical, like cooking meals or helping with chores. But it can also be social, such as who you talk to when you get stressed or sad.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your support system during pregnancy. If you don’t have many close friends or family, consider ways you can expand your social circle. Taking prenatal classes or joining pregnancy Facebook groups can be a good way to gain support with people going through similar things. To learn more, read Social Support During Pregnancy: Why It’s Critical & 10 Ways To Get It.
#5 Eliminate Caffeine
You should limit your caffeine intake during pregnancy because it may be associated with risks like low birth weight. Many experts recommend keeping to one cup of coffee a day, but those with anxiety may want to cut it out completely.
A common side effect of caffeine is the “jitters” and increased anxiety. Although your coffee may not be causing your panic attacks, it could lead to the build-up in anxiety.
Nesting is known as the urge to clean, organize and do things around the home during pregnancy. Many women experience this stage but you can also use it as a coping mechanism.
One woman wrote about channelling her anxiety into nesting, making her feel more prepared and calm. She spent her time building furniture, organizing baby clothes, and painting photo frames. Here’s 17 Ideas for Nesting.
Mindfulness has been shown to decrease anxiety. It can be defined as the ability to stay present in the moment, accepting it as it comes. Training these “muscles” in your brain can help strengthen your ability to withstand stress. Here’s 9 Super Easy Mindfulness Exercises For A Calmer and More Enjoyable Pregnancy.
Summary: Panic Attacks During Pregnancy
If you’re experiencing panic attacks during pregnancy, your first step is talking to your doctor. He or she may recommend treatment, such as medication and therapy. If you don’t have health coverage for therapy, see the section above for free recommendations.
Along with treatment, lifestyle changes can help you feel less anxious and less likely to have panic attacks. Practicing self-care, eliminating caffeine and making use of your social support circle can help.
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