Panic attacks during pregnancy aren’t pleasant, but how worried should we be? Why do they happen? Is there anything we can do to prevent them?
I’d never had a panic attack before I got pregnant. Then, in my first trimester, I was hit with one out of nowhere. One minute, I was completely fine. We’d just been to the cinema, we’d gone to the cafe for a drink and all of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe. I was terrified I’d pass out and I had no idea what was happening to me.
Unfortunately, this panic attack was far from an isolated incident — at one point, when I was seven months pregnant, I had four panic attacks in one week and I was terrified for the health of my baby. I’ve since learned that panic and anxiety attacks during pregnancy aren’t that uncommon. For anyone who might also be struggling with panic attacks during pregnancy, I’ve outlined what I’ve learned over the years.
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Anxiety Attack Vs Panic Attack
Before We get into things, I wanted to quickly discuss the difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks. Although sometimes used interchangeably, the two are different, although they share similar symptoms.
One big difference is how they come about. While anxiety attacks often have a trigger, panic attacks can happen seemingly for no reason. Panic attacks also tend to come on quickly, while anxiety attacks can gradually become more intense, sometimes lasting days.
Panic Attack Symptoms
Panic attacks won’t feel exactly the same for everyone, but panic attack symptoms include:
- A racing pulse
- Pain in your chest
- Shortness of breath
Panic attacks tend to be over in about twenty minutes, but afterwards, you might feel physically exhausted from all the tension. The after-effects were almost worse for me — I’d feel spaced out and numb for ages after an attack. I’d also inevitably feel a little foolish (although, I know, I really shouldn’t have).
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Risk Factors for Panic Attacks During Pregnancy
I was confused when I started having panic attacks, but now I’ve done my research, I do have certain risk factors for panic attacks. My mother has suffered from panic attacks for years. I had been silently struggling with depression for years and I was in a stressful period of my life.
Although I was happily married and thrilled to be pregnant, everything was a little uncertain. We were just about to move down south to live with my parents, my husband had recently lost his job and he didn’t have another job lined up. I am also generally kind of an anxious person, although you probably wouldn’t think it to look at me. I cover it well, but internally, I am a real worrier and tiny, seemingly insignificant things keep me up at night.
Interestingly, women are also more likely to suffer panic attacks than men, so it’s no surprise that so many women are worried about panic attacks during pregnancy.
Feelings of Guilt
Panic attacks during pregnancy might lead to feelings of guilt. They certainly did for me. Whenever I had a panic attack, I was worried that my baby wasn’t getting the oxygen he needed — after all, if I couldn’t breathe, how could he? On top of this, I felt hugely guilty about breaking down at a time when I should have been over the moon.
If this is the case for you, please don’t blame yourself, and don’t feel guilty. I know it’s easier said than done, panicking about a panic attack can create a vicious cycle.
You didn’t choose to experience these panic attacks — they’re happening to you. And feeling guilty won’t make things any better. All you can do is acknowledge what’s happening to you and reach out for help. This isn’t something you are going to snap out of — nor should you. Confide in your nearest and dearest and talk to your doctor. You need all the support you need, and so does your baby.
If you suffer from guilt relating to your toddler’s separation anxiety, you might want to read this blog post, discussing separation anxiety and how to cope.
Panic Attacks: Coping Mechanisms
Panic attacks are never easy to navigate, and I don’t think they’re entirely possible to avoid altogether. But with the help of my mother, my husband and Doctor Google, I found a few coping mechanisms that worked for me:
- Remind yourself what’s going on. The first time I had a panic attack, I had no idea what was happening to me, even though I’d heard about panic attacks before. Logic didn’t come into it — my brain wasn’t functioning the way it was supposed to. The second time, however, I knew what had happened to me and I knew that I had to wait it out. I didn’t fight it, and I knew I wasn’t going to die. Remind yourself what’s happening to you and that in all likelihood, you’ll be fine in about half an hour. This knowledge might help you in the midst of an attack.
- Take deep, calming breaths. The number of times my mum had to sit me down and remind me to actually breathe when I was experiencing a full-on panic attack! I’m glad I had her there, coaching me to do something that was supposed to be a reflex. It really helped. Do your best to take slow, regular breaths. Breathe in for five seconds, hold your breath, then slowly release. Hold for a second, then repeat until you feel things returning to normal.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques. The first time I had a panic attack during my pregnancy — back in the cafe after the movie — my husband talked me through a CBT technique that helped. He forced me to tell him: Five things I could see, four things I could touch, three things I could hear, two things I could smell and one thing I could taste. It forced me to focus. The exercise got me out of my head and grounded me in the present, reconnecting me to reality.
- Focus on peaceful, relaxing images. I found it to help to close my eyes and focus on calming images and scenes.
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Reaching Out For Help
If you’re anything like me, asking for help isn’t easy. I never told my doctor about my panic attacks, which I really regret. It could have made my pregnancy much more pleasant, and it might have made me more inclined to discuss my postnatal depression symptoms earlier. There is so much that can be done to help you, including various therapies (from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to ‘talking’ therapies) and prescribed medicine. Anything that worries you is worth mentioning in your midwife appointments — they’re there to help you and they genuinely want to make your life as easy as possible.
Related: I’d love to help lessen the stigma of paternal postnatal depression (PPND) — read more about it to learn more.