Anxious Times

Why the going gets tougher when you're pregnant.


I think it's time we talk about anxiety again. Quite a few of you have asked me about it recently but there's one reader, in particular who's really going through a rough patch, poor dear.

She emailed from an island off of South Africa that she's having a hard time dealing with anxiety. She describes panic attacks, "palpitations" and real feelings of fear in social situations, especially around specific family members she can't avoid. It sounds like she's experienced anxiety throughout her life but now that she's pregnant its really causing problems.

I'm not going to name this reader because her story is probably your story too. It doesn't matter if you're in Mauritius, San Francisco or Ireland; anxiety is universal. It affects every woman (and man) at some time in her life and many women experience it more acutely during pregnancy. Honey, let's see if we can help you out a little, if only by helping you understand why your anxiety is flaring up right now. Why do so many of us feel anxious during pregnancy? We're vulnerable, that's why. No matter how strong, powerful and in charge you are in your normal, non-pregnant life; you're pregnant, now. Welcome to your new normal.

Let's define the terms and see if we can make sense out of them. The National Institute of Mental Health says, "Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress." It keeps you on your toes, helps you focus and alerts you to potentially dangerous situations. It's a coping mechanism. But when anxiety gets out of control, it's messing with your life and you dread of everyday situations (like annoying relatives), anxiety can become disabling. Not normal.

How about vulnerability? To be vulnerable means: capable of being physically or emotionally wounded or open to attack or damage. Well if that's not a nutshell explanation of why we're anxious during pregnancy, I don't know what is.

Your body, mind and spirit are going through total upheaval. You're growing a brand new human being who has her own body, mind and spirit and that's not so easy. Your job is to protect that little person with everything you've got. There's no guarantee your protection will be enough though because, ehem, stuff happens and you have to be at least a little bit prepared for worse-case scenarios.

What's more, even though most pregnancies are entirely healthy and safe, you're still putting yourself in harm's way. The discomforts of pregnancy and risks of childbirth mean sacrificing some of your own physical well-being. Emotionally, you have to make room in your heart to love and commit for the rest of your life to a completely dependent person you've never met. Oh, and they won't let you sleep, they'll scream at you even when you're doing your best and they'll worry you silly. When you look at it that way, it only makes sense you'd feel anxious. You're totally vulnerable.

Even in these modern times when many of the dangers of pregnancy are no longer as threatening as they once were (unless you live in a really poor country), pregnancy is a primal experience. Most women tap into the same ancient feelings women experienced thousands of years ago. You're also riding hormone waves that take PMS to a whole new level. Whether you're in a sleek apartment in New York City, a bungalow in Ohio or a lean-to in India, you're a pregnant woman and you're experiencing the exact same reactions as all women do and always have. You're vulnerable and you're life, body and heart are changing fast.

So, what to do about anxiety? It's all about support and stress reduction. If your anxiety has crossed the border into disorder-land, you also need medical help. I want you to read my previous blog post for stress-relieving tips. I also want you to:

  • Find a close friend or family member (preferably a woman who's had a baby and who loves you) and tell her what you're going through.
  • Talk to your husband/partner. Seriously, he doesn't know what you're feeling or how to help unless you tell him explicitly but there's nothing that makes him feel better than rescuing his damsel in distress. Is that old-fashioned? You bet – he's having a primal experience too. Tell him: I'm frightened. Hug me, talk to me; make tea for me. Make your family back off.
  • Ask friends and family for help, protection and buffering from anxiety-producing situations.
  • Take really good care of yourself.

Then, know that you're in good company. You have about 130 billion pregnant sisters in the world and they're all experiencing at least a little of what you're going through. Find your village of women and let them take care of you. Allow yourself to accept some good old-fashioned loving care. It's the best remedy for anxiety. And then, know this too: You are strong enough to be a mother but you don't have to do it alone. We'll help you, honey.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to

This Fit Pregnancy blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician. Before initiating any exercise program, diet or treatment provided by Fit Pregnancy, you should seek medical advice from your primary caregiver.