By Amanda Schaffer
Anxiety is not only the most common mental problem in the United States, it verges on a national obsession. Last year, New York Magazine declared it the signature diagnosis of our time with Xanax as its pharmacological mascot, taking over from depression and Prozac in the 1990s. The New York Times devotes an entire ongoing series to probing the anxious mind. And the online forum the Edge asks as its key question for 2013: "what should we be worried about?" All this worrying represents our own apocalyptic myopia. Before we know it, we're not just worrying about love, death, sickness, children, money — we're worrying about the worrying itself.
The punishing epicenter of anxiety obsession is women's fertility and pregnancy. Women who have trouble conceiving often believe that their own distress is making it harder to conceive. And who can blame them, when even fertility centers urge them to create a "stress-free environment." And of course, with pregnancy, the worry doesn't end — it's just beginning. Scattershot reports link anxiety to miscarriage or preterm birth with random speculation, as in: Will Kim Kardashian's divorce stress hasten the birth of her baby? Will emotional symptoms during pregnancy cause developmental delays? A finding here, an anecdote there — women can easily get the wrong idea.
And the reigning impression is wrong: The weight of evidence suggests that moderate levels of stress and anxiety do none of the things we fear. They seem not to affect whether women are able to conceive, whether they carry the fetus to term, or whether their kids reach normal developmental milestones. (If anything, some maternal stress during pregnancy seems to make kids mature a little faster.) This doesn't mean, of course, that women with anxiety shouldn't seek care and support. But they should do so for their own sakes — not because distress will ruin their shot at motherhood or somehow damage their fetuses.