Is It Normal to Feel Anxiety After a Miscarriage or Stillbirth?

Anxiety, Stress, and OCD After Pregnancy Loss

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Is it normal to feel stress and anxiety after a miscarriage or stillbirth?. Jim Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images

Research shows that it's not uncommon for parents to develop problems with anxiety and depression after having a miscarriage or a stillbirth. Most people know the signs of depression, but recognizing the signs of an anxiety disorder can be a little more challenging—and some research suggests that anxiety disorders after a miscarriage may actually be more common than depression.

Let's look at some of the specific forms of anxiety that may occur, as well as the symptoms.

Keep in mind that these diagnoses are not meant to label you or in any way make you feel shame about your reactions to your pregnancy loss. Rather, in recognizing the symptoms of these stress disorders you may be better able to understand what is happening with you and seek out the help you need to heal through your loss.

Specific anxiety disorders which may occur after pregnancy loss include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Acute stress disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder after Miscarriage or Stillbirth

Some women may develop generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, after a pregnancy loss.

People with GAD have worries about daily life that are out of proportion to what would normally be expected. Even if they're able to recognize that the worry is excessive, they may have some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Inability to relax
  • Startling easily
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep problems
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension/aches
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Trembling and twitching
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness

After a miscarriage or stillbirth, you may be diagnosed with GAD if you have excessive worry for at least six months.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Pregnancy Loss

At least one study has found a risk of developing obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD following a miscarriage.

Although the popular stereotype of OCD is of compulsive hand washing and house cleaning, there's more to OCD:

  • Persistent thoughts of a disturbing nature
  • Use of rituals to control the upsetting thoughts
  • Either the rituals or the thoughts (or both) are disruptive to the person's daily life

The disturbing thoughts might include thoughts of violence or harm to loved ones or unwanted sexual thoughts. These can be particularly distressing after pregnancy loss.

If you have OCD after a pregnancy loss, you may not get any joy out of the rituals you do, but performing them may give you temporary relief from the unwanted thoughts. Thankfully, there are many effective OCD treatments available.

Acute Stress Disorder

According to anecdotal reports by physicians, acute stress disorder develops in about 10 percent of women who have had a miscarriage or pregnancy loss. Symptoms of acute stress disorder include:

  • A sense of numbing or lack of emotional responsiveness
  • Feeling of being in a daze
  • Inability to recall aspects of the trauma
  • Persistent reliving of the event through recurrent thoughts, dreams or flashback episodes
  • Avoiding stimuli that are reminders of the miscarriage
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Distress impairs the person's daily functioning

Acute stress disorder is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder but lasts for a shorter amount of time. To qualify for the diagnosis the symptoms must last for at least two days but a maximum of four weeks.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

About one percent of women develop post-traumatic stress disorder post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD after a miscarriage. The symptoms of PTSD are basically the same as in acute stress disorder, but the PTSD label is used if the symptoms last longer than a month.

Anxiety That Won't End

If the anxiety that came on after your pregnancy loss hasn't gone away even after you had a healthy baby, you're not alone.

You may be surprised to hear that this is somewhat common. A study of 13,000 women published in 2011 found that 15 percent of women who miscarried had clinically significant anxiety and/or depression during and after their pregnancies for as long as three years. That's how long the study lasted, so for some of these women, the psychological repercussions of their loss may have continued even longer. 

You might want to consider getting help from a mental health professional if you're experiencing ongoing anxiety or other psychological problems after a pregnancy loss. Whether your loss happened early in your pregnancy or later, there is no shame in asking for help so you can get on the road to feeling more like yourself again.

Sources:

Bergner, A., Beyer, R., Klapp, B., and M. Rauchfuss. Pregnancy after early pregnancy loss: a prospective study of anxiety, depressive symptomatology and coping. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2008. 29(2):105-13.

Blackmore, E., Cote-Arsenault, D., Tang, W. et al. Previous Prenatal Loss as a Predictor of Perinatal Depression and Anxiety. British Journal of Psychiatry. 2011. 198(5):373-378.

Daugirdaite, V., van den Akker, O., and S. Purewal. Posttraumatic Stress and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder after Termination of Pregnancy and Reproductive Loss: A Systematic Review. Journal of Pregnancy. 2015. 2015:646345.

Gold, K., Boggs, M., Muzik, M., and A. Sen. Anxiety Disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder 9 Months After Perinatal Loss. General Hospital Psychiatry. 2014. 36(6):650-4.

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