How Does Stress Affect Pregnancy?
Everyone deals with stress. You have to deal with the stress of paying your bills on time, work meetings and family events. Now that you’re pregnant, you’re dealing with even more stress. If you’re a first-time mother, you’re likely concerned about how to be a good mother and constantly wondering if your baby is healthy. If you’re already a mother, you could be concerned about how to provide for another child and how your children will react to a new baby. Either way, your stresses are justifiable and normal.
However, when your stress is ongoing and tied to life situations, it can decrease your health and your baby’s health. Studies have shown that chronic stress poses many risks to a fetus, both short-term and long-term. Read on to find out if your baby is affected by your stress.
Stress During Pregnancy: The Science
When you’re stressed, you go into “fight or flight” mode, a response originally discovered by American physiologist Walter Cannon in the 1920s. This means that your body responds with its primitive, automatic response to either “fight” the harm or threat, or to “flee” from it. When this response is activated, the hypothalamus —an area of our brain — is activated and releases chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. This chemical release causes physical reactions, such as increased respiratory rate, dilated pupils and increased awareness.
The physical responses are the body’s way of preparing us to either fight or flee. In this way, it puts us into “attack mode” or “survival mode.” This explanation may sound dramatic, but our bodies automatically react this way because we needed to be able to react quickly to evolve. For example, we had to react quickly to threats, such as a lion. However, today, that “lion” has become everyday stresses, such as worrying about your baby’s health or getting ready for a baby. We even now react to perceived threats, meaning threats that aren’t even real.
If you deal with a stressful situation and move on, your body can go back to normal. However, when you dwell in a stressful situation or when stressful situations keep arising, your body will stay in this mode. When we describe stress like this, it becomes easy to see how moving from stressful situation to stressful situation will lead to complete burnout and decreased health.
Does Stress Affect the Baby?
We know that high stress levels can diminish a woman’s health even if she is not pregnant.
In the short-term, stress can cause:
• Loss of appetite
• Upset stomach
• Difficulty sleeping
Long-term stress can cause:
• High blood pressure
• Weight problems
• Heart attack
Pregnant women may experience these effects, but they also face a different set of effects.
A 2013 study concluded that severe stress might make the developing fetus more susceptible to childhood and adult obesity and dysregulated glycemic control.
“It is important to appreciate the fact that maternal–placental–fetal hormones and cytokines play an essential role in orchestrating key events underlying cellular growth, replication, and differentiation in the brain and peripheral tissue,” the study reads.
This means that if there are changes in the level or time of the exposure to certain biological effectors, the normal structure or function is likely to be changed as well. Changes in brain development may lead to behavioral issues as the child gets older.
Studies have shown that elevated stress levels in pregnant women can affect the immune system and activate an inflammatory response. Inflammation has been linked to problems with the development in babies and with a decrease in pregnancy health.
Further, some studies have also concluded that high chronic stressors may be associated with earlier births and lower birth weights.
African American women give birth pre-term twice the rate of white women. Research has hypothesized that this is because of the chronic stress associated with minority status. This ongoing stress causes inflammatory responses, which can lead to pre-term birth.
A 2002 study found a link between high levels of pregnancy-related anxiety and preterm birth. However, the association was higher in women with one or two additional disorders related to a primary disorder (for example, a woman with anxiety and Parkinson’s disease).
Seven to eight percent of the depressed or anxious women studied had babies pre-term, according to a study in the Netherlands. This is compared to 6 percent of women without these symptoms that gave birth early. Since pre-term birth causes life-long effects for a child, the small difference is important, researchers argue.
Does Stress During Pregnancy Cause Miscarriage?
Whether stress can cause miscarriage has been debated by researchers. A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that women who were stressed were three times more likely to have a miscarriage within the first three weeks of pregnancy. However, at such an early stage, the women studied didn’t realize they were pregnant. More research needs to be conducted in order to come to a decisive conclusion.
Can Stress Cause Fertility Problems?
Stress can also cause fertility issues. Research has found that women with high levels of a stress hormone stop ovulating, making them unable to conceive. After therapy, 80% of the women started ovulating again and some even became pregnant within two months. Researchers in the study say women with hectic jobs are at the most risk.
Is Stress Normal During Pregnancy?
It is important to note that a certain level of stress is normal in daily life and when you’re pregnant. When your life is quickly changing and you’re facing the challenges of bringing another human being into this world, of course, you will have some worry. Small stresses are not likely to affect your pregnancy. Small stresses include a general care about your pregnancy, meeting a certain deadline or getting your car fixed. These are worries that are not constant and will generally subside when the situation is resolved.
In the studies mentioned above, researchers studied women with chronic stress, which is much different than acute stress. Chronic stress is a long-term stress that does not subside and that may affect a fetus. This could include an unhappy marriage, dysfunctional family or high-stress workplace. These are ongoing issues that do not have a quick fix and therefore can impact your health on a deeper level.
How to Be Less Stressed During Pregnancy
Now that we’ve explained the possible adverse effects of chronic stress, you may be trying to evaluate your stress levels to determine if they have affected your baby. But don’t stress about stress! Pregnancy is a time to prepare, but it’s also a time to relax. After all, when the baby comes, you won’t have much time to yourself. Here are a few tips to distress:
Try to Target your Stress
What’s making you feel stressed? Maybe you have a demanding, high-stress job. Maybe you’re having relationship issues. Maybe you’re worried about money. Try to pinpoint your stressors and evaluate how large of a role each stressor is playing.
Talk to Your Doctor
Talk to your physician about your stress levels and express your worry that it will affect your pregnancy. Your doctor may be able to give more precise advice if you can pinpoint your stressor. He or she may recommend exercise, meditation or a psychologist to help you distress. Talking to a psychologist may be the most beneficial way to control your stress. He or she will help you dig into the deeper reason why you’re stressed and give you specific ways to counteract it to help you change your brain patterns.
Talk to a Friend
If you don’t yet feel comfortable approaching a professional about your stress, you can speak to a trusted friend or your partner about what’s bothering you. Some women feel a great sense of relief after they are able to talk their problems through.
Yoga and Meditation
Yoga and meditation are great, cheap methods to reduce your stress. Studies have shown that only 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation can reduce stress. Free yoga classes and guided meditations can easily be found on YouTube. If you’re new to yoga or meditation, taking a class in your community may be the most beneficial.
In today’s world, we are constantly inundated with different forms of communication. Even when we’re away from the office, we get work emails. When we’re in the office, we get texts from family and friends. When we’re trying to relax and enjoy a moment alone, noises of text messages, Facebook messages or emails interrupt us. All of these little events can act as a constant pestering, reminding us that we have to answer to all of these people. Turning off your phone, computer and every other device can instantly lift a burden.
Relaxing looks different to every woman. Realize that you’re pregnant and that you’re not expected to do it all. Kick back your feet and find an activity that puts you into a meditative mindset. This could include:
• Taking a bath (Make sure its not too hot)
• Going to a spa or giving yourself a manicure
• Reading a novel
• Doing crafts
• Meeting a best friend for lunch
• Taking a long walk in nature
• Having a hot cup of tea (Safe Pregnancy Teas)
• Watching your all-time favorite movie