Panic Attacks in Pregnancy

By Leanne Williams

Almost all people who suffer from a panic disorder feel a degree of anxiety, but this excessive worrying is magnified if the sufferer is pregnant. Not only have they got the fear of further panic attacks, there is the worry about how their unborn child will be affected or, if they have a long term panic disorder, how they might have to cope without medication to control the attacks. Sadly, panic disorder in pregnancy is an under researched area.

For some women, their first panic attack occurs while they are pregnant. This is more likely to happen in women with a history of anxiety or depression, and the attacks can be triggered by the fluctuating hormone levels, additional stress caused by the physical effects of pregnancy or the overwhelming emotions from an imminent life changing event. They are most common in the first trimester when the HCG hormone rapidly increases. Women who had one or more panic attacks prior to pregnancy are likely to notice an increased frequency while pregnant.

The number one worry for most women affected is can panic attacks affect the baby? A lack of research means this cannot be definitively answered. An attack is very unlikely to cause distress to the unborn child as the womb is well designed to protect the fetus. A 2009 study did conclude, however, that there was a very slight increase in the risk of preterm delivery or a low birth weight baby if the mother had one or more panic attacks while pregnant. There does also seem to be a link between anxiety and depression related disorders during pregnancy and children growing up with mental health disorders. But this link might be down to nurture by a parent with their own disorder or a genetic predisposition, rather than changes triggered in the womb.

Although doctors try to avoid prescribing medication to pregnant women, drugs may be given to women with a severe panic disorder. These medications mostly carry a low to moderate risk to the unborn child. Natural treatments for panic attacks, such as St John’s Wort, are not suitable for use by expectant or breastfeeding mothers and should be avoided. Therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, is often the safest approach for treatment of mood disorders in pregnant women. Measures to reduce stress and depression, such as taking moderate exercise or making time to focus on a hobby, may also be beneficial.

Leanne is a contributing writer to an online pregnancy guide. Her articles include topics such as pregnant but no symptoms.

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