The list of things you need to do before labor keeps growing.
And pregnancy symptoms are getting worse. And maybe the finances are getting tight. And your life is about to change forever. And you still have to take care of daily life on top of it.
For most women, pregnancy is an exciting but stressful experience. Although it’s normal for your stress levels to rise during this time, if they get too high, it could impact the health of your baby.
In this post, we’re outlining 10 easy ways to reduce stress hormones, like cortisol.
Does Stress Affect Pregnancy Health?
How stress affects pregnancy isn’t completely known. The evidence we have so far suggests that chemicals involved in stress may impact you and your baby’s health. However, more research needs to be done to confirm the link and to understand who is most at risk.
Before we delve into how stress affects pregnancy, we should consider how it affects our health in general. Short-term, you may notice high blood pressure, headaches or eating changes. Long-term chronic stress has also been linked to:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Weight problems
- Making autoimmune diseases worse
Given that stress can have short and long-term effects on anyone, it makes sense that it can also affect pregnancy. If you realize you’ve been stressed and are panicking that you’ve hurt the baby, take a breath! Almost every woman goes through ups and downs during pregnancy and that’s normal. Since it’s a new experience, you’re bound to feel some overwhelm.
When we talk about stress impacting pregnancy, we’re usually speaking about long-term experiences. For example, one bad day at work or overwhelm about baby shopping is unlikely to impact your health. However, if the situation is prolonged—and the stress doesn’t go away—there’s more chances of it affecting you. Examples of chronic stressors could be toxic relationships, toxic workplaces, taking care of a sick family member, financial issues, etc.
How Does Cortisol Impact Pregnancy?
Cortisol is a major stress hormone that your body releases when you’re stressed. Although rising cortisol levels during pregnancy are often thought of as harmful, it’s normal and sometimes even necessary.
During pregnancy, a mom’s cortisol levels increase by 2 to 4 times. This has a positive impact on neural development. However, problems can start occurring when there’s excess cortisol. Research shows that stress may negatively impact the growth and development of a fetus. Another study found that if cortisol levels were higher in the first 3 weeks after conception, miscarriage was more likely. There’s also some evidence that hormone levels can impact the child’s amygdala volume and affect, a part of the brain involved in experiencing emotions.
While these findings can be startling, freaking out or feeling guilty about stress is likely to add to it. Instead of judging ourselves for how we feel, we can use this information to ask ourselves about coping strategies.
10 Ways to Lower Cortisol During Pregnancy
Are there any chronic stressors in your life? If so, how are you dealing with them? Are your coping strategies healthy or unhealthy? Do they work? Are there any ways you can improve them?
Ask yourself these questions as you read this section on ways to lower your cortisol.
#1 Get Good, Regular Sleep
Especially when you’re stressed, getting good sleep can be easier said than done. But studies show that insomnia can spike cortisol for up to 24 hours. Even if you don’t have insomnia, sleep deprivation over time can cause increased levels. Research also shows that those who work rotating shifts can have increased fatigue and other symptoms that can lead to higher cortisol. Since even small interruptions can affect your sleep, do what you can to limit distractions. And, try your best to stick to a regular sleep routine.
Cortisol actually increases after exercise; however, it leads to lower levels at night. If you’re worried about the temporary increase in hormones, you should be assured that the level it increases at lessens over time with training. And, exercising your hardest will likely still lead to lower bedtime levels.
If you don’t like strenuous exercise, you can still lower stress with other forms of physical activity. Research shows that yoga can reduce cortisol levels. You can learn more about the mind-body movement by attending a local class or searching for a free one on YouTube.
#4 Tai Chi
Tai Chi is another light exercise that can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. If you don’t know what it looks like, it’s a series of moving stances. Like yoga, proper form and mind-connection are also important. In a 2014 study, researchers found that the exercise significantly reduced cancer survivors’ cortisol levels.
#5 Spend Time with a Pet
The benefits of a pet are science-based! Not only do they reduce your baby’s chances of developing allergies but they also reduce stress. A small 2012 study found that interacting with dogs had a significant impact on cortisol levels.
It should come as no surprise that laughing makes you feel good. And science backs it up. Research shows that after watching an hour-long humorous video, cortisol drops. Anything you do to get some good-spirited laughter may help:
- Watching funny YouTube videos
- Watching a comedy
- Watching a stand-up comedy
- Playing a funny game
- Finding the humor in day-to-day life
#7 Get Spiritual
Whether or not you consider yourself a religious person, there’s evidence that faith practices can lower stress. For example, one study asked volunteers to repeat a mantra (spiritual phrase) throughout the day. They found that after 5 weeks, their cortisol levels had reduced. Whether it’s repeating a mantra, praying, meditation, connecting with nature or any other spiritual practice—try a few options according to your own beliefs and see if any work for you.
Unlike the other suggestions on this list, mindfulness may be more difficult to grasp. In essence, mindfulness is the ability to be present in the actual moment rather than thinking about the past or future. When you’re giving your full attention to this moment, you’ll notice certain things, like:
- Your thoughts
- Your breathing
- Any physical tension
- Your heartrate
Noticing these factors has 2 purposes. First, they can let you know when stress starts. For example, instead of just going about your day fighting the feeling, you become conscious of it. You understand that your racing heart is a product of the thought you had about a work project.
Secondly, recognizing your thoughts makes it easier to change them. For example, when you realize you’re having catastrophizing thoughts about your work project, you can shift your attention to something else, like your breathing or the physical sensation of walking. One small study found that the ability to describe stress, as taught in their mindfulness program, was associated with lower cortisol.
#9 Listen to Music
Studies show that listening to music can also help reduce stress levels. Everyone who’s ever used a song to get through a tough time can attest to this. However, listening to gentle, relaxing, instrumental music may have a similar stress-relieving effect. In one study, listening to relaxing music before a stressor affected the psychological stress response.
Another study showed that patients who listened to music before and during surgery had changed cortisol levels. Music also appeared to have a sedative effect—the patients required less medication to reach a light sedative state.
#10 Have Healthy Relationships
Out of this entire list, this tip will be the hardest to implement. That’s because having a healthy relationship isn’t an activity but a long-term commitment. Even more difficult is that, since we can’t change people, having a healthy relationship with someone may be impossible.
When we’re evaluating our stress levels, it’s important to take a look at who’s in your life. If the quality of the relationship isn’t great, how can you both make it better? If they aren’t willing to change, is it healthier to end the relationship?
These are tough questions but the answers are important because people affect our cortisol levels. Conflict can result in short-term cortisol rises. While it returns to normal, it does so quicker if their partner is non-judgemental and empathetic. And, when we’re going through something stressful (like pregnancy), the support of a partner can help reduce our rising cortisol.
Summary on Lowering Cortisol During Pregnancy
Although more research needs to be done, science has linked long-term, chronic stress to negative pregnancy outcomes. If you’re someone who is stressed, stressing about stressing will only make it worse—so don’t feel guilty. Instead, consider what you can do to make yourself feel better. Scroll through the list of cortisol-busting activities above and see which makes you feel calmer.
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