Are you pregnant? Do you sometimes have difficulty breathing, feel nauseated, and even have the sensation that you might die? What you are experiencing is a condition known as a panic attack. You are more likely to experience panic attacks during pregnancy if you experienced them when you were not pregnant¹. However, if you never had panic attacks before becoming pregnant, you still might experience them during pregnancy¹.
Pregnancy can be an exciting time, but it also causes you to feel more stress and anxiety, which can lead to panic attacks. Researchers estimate that as much as 10% of women who are pregnant experience episodes of panic attacks¹. In this article, we’ll cover the symptoms of panic attacks followed by the causes of panic attacks during pregnancy and the associated risks. Next, we will discuss ways for women to deal with panic attacks and the reasons for seeking help with this serious condition.
Symptoms of Panic Attacks
People who experience symptoms of panic disorder often feel a period of intense fear that usually reaches its highest intensity within 10 minutes². An intense feeling of fear does not automatically mean that you are having a panic attack; whether you are having a panic attack depends on the physical symptoms you are experiencing. Physical symptoms include trembling, upset stomach, and rapid heartbeat.
To be more specific, look for any four of the following symptoms to determine if you are having a panic attack²:
- feeling faint
- feel light-headed or dizzy
- nausea or stomach upset
- fear of death
- shaking or trembling
- chills or hot flashes
- smothering feeling or choking
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- rapid heart beat
- fear of losing control or becoming crazy
Causes of Panic Attacks during Pregnancy
Medical researchers understand the many causes of panic attacks, but why certain people are more prone to having them than others is somewhat of a mystery³. Similarly, researchers understand the causes for pregnant women being more susceptible to panic attacks, but they do not know why certain pregnant women experience panic attacks while others do not³. Researchers feel there could be a genetic condition that affects certain people and is activated by one or more of the following³:
- Hormonal changes – Changes in the hormone levels in your body are the most common explanation for panic attacks during pregnancy. Hormones influence your emotional state and control as well as your sensitivity to physical changes in your body. Pregnancy brings about large hormonal fluctuations that can lead to more panic attacks.
- Too much focus on health condition – Although not a cause of panic attacks, researchers have found that, if you are too sensitive about your medical condition, this can lead to panic attacks. For pregnant women, this can be a common trigger because many of them constantly check their health to make sure there is no problem with their pregnancy.
- Panic attacks before pregnancy – If you experienced panic attacks before becoming pregnant, then you are more likely to have them when you are pregnant. Pregnancy causes many significant physical and emotional changes in your body that can act as panic attack triggers.
- Your age – Panic attacks are more likely to happen in a particular age range, and women tend to become pregnant during this age range. Therefore, if you get pregnant during the ideal childbearing age of 20 and 35 years old, you are prone to having panic attacks during this stressful period.
Risk Factors for Panic Attacks
Feeling stress and anxiety is normal during pregnancy, but it is a problem when you feel anxious regularly or you experience sudden and extreme episodes of anxiety, which can be considered panic attacks. The symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks, therefore, are similar, except that panic attacks have the additional symptoms of the feeling of inability to breathe, a fear of death, and a sense that you are going crazy. The risk factors for developing panic attacks are the same as those for having anxiety, and they are…
- You are feeling a higher amount of stress
- You are taking drugs that can be considered illegal
- You have relatives who experienced panic attacks or anxiety
- You have experienced panic attacks or anxiety before
- You are experiencing depression
- You went through a traumatizing experience (e.g., car accident, death in the family)
Dealing with Panic Attacks during Pregnancy
There are two methods to deal with panic attacks: non-medication and medication. For pregnant women, non-medication types of therapy seem to be the most effective. Here are three types of non-medication therapy¹:
- Cognitive therapy – This kind of therapy involves replacing your scary or negative thoughts with positive, happy thoughts.
- Behavioral therapy – Behavioral therapies like mindfulness help you to think about current events instead of worrying about the past or future.
- Relaxation – Relaxation methods like deep breathing can help to reduce the intensity of a panic attack.
Use of medication to deal with panic attacks during pregnancy should be minimized to prevent the fetus from being exposed to the medicine. Drugs like benzodiazepines can penetrate the placenta and impact the fetus². Benzodiazepines are very effective at calming you down during a panic attack, but it should be used sparingly, especially if you are pregnant.
Why You Should Seek Help
Having panic attacks while you are pregnant is a cause for concern because the attacks can affect the fetus. During a panic attack, the flow of blood to the fetus can be lessened to a point where it can cause premature labor and reduced birth weight¹. Also, too many panic attacks during pregnancy can impact the relationship between the mother and child and reduce the mother’s coping ability after the birth of the child¹.
Having panic attacks while pregnant is dangerous because the attacks can impact the fetus. In this article, we discussed the symptoms of panic attack, their causes and risk factors, how to treat them, and why it is so important to seek help. Pregnancy can be quite an emotional roller coaster, and this in itself can lead to panic attacks, even if you have never had them before. Now that you have this knowledge, you are better prepared to recognize a panic attack and how to deal with it.
Have you ever had a panic attack while you were pregnant? What did you do to deal with it? Let us know in the comments.