Recent research by the American Psychological Association suggests that women who have anxiety about their pregnancies are more likely to give birth earlier compared to women who do not have such anxiety. In a study of nearly 200 women who were assessed on four different measures of anxiety, those who suffered from anxiety specifically about their pregnancies were the most likely to give birth early.
The propensity for peripartum or postpartum depression is a risk factor that is assessed by practitioners regularly these days. However, anxiety tends to get less attention—so this is an important wake-up call for obstetricians, midwives, and general practitioners providing care for pregnant women.
But one potential concern about these findings is that women may put even more pressure on themselves to not feel anxious—which can paradoxically increase their stress. If a woman who already fears preterm labor, for instance, is worried that every time she has a stressful afternoon, she is putting her baby at higher risk of being born even earlier, we could be looking at a situation where placing too much attention on the risk increases the risk itself. This potential becomes increasingly concerning when we see that it was the specific type of pregnancy-related anxiety in the third trimester—as opposed to more generalized anxiety—that had the strongest association with preterm birth.
Frankly, the last thing we need is another generation of women being told, “Just calm down, or you’ll harm your baby!”
Nonetheless, these findings point to something very important—that sustained stress and anxiety do potentially exacerbate health risks for both mother and child. And many pregnant women are desperate for more support. Just as the prevalence of anxiety disorders in the general population has ballooned as of late, overtaking depression by many measures, we should view the prevalence of anxiety in pregnant women with increased attention as well.
Our culture gives pregnant women plenty to be anxious about, from the physical effects of pregnancy to its consequences on their lives and careers. And giving them anxiety about their anxiety is not helping matters.
Empathetic, informed medical practitioners who remove the shame from talking about the experience of anxiety and who assure pregnant women that there is effective psychological treatment and support and help them get it can no longer be considered a luxury. These practices should be part of standard medical care—as they can have medical consequences.