Last updated Aug. 29, 2017.
For almost all of us, stress is a part of life. We worry about our jobs, our relationships, our families, ourselves, and lots of other things. Pregnancy can cause even more stress than usual — you’re worried about becoming a parent, being responsible for a new baby, and how that will change the rest of your life. Unfortunately, the effects of your stress can also affect your growing baby.
Here’s what you need to know about stress and pregnancy, what cortisol does to your baby (and you), and how to reduce stress and have a happy, healthy pregnancy!
The Stress Response: Fight or Flight with a Baby on the Way
Imagine you’re going in to interview for your dream job. You’ve worked hard for years to get this opportunity, but you know there are lots of other applicants and you’re going to need to make a great impression to get the position. As you wait to be called in for the interview, you may notice your heart is beating faster than usual. Your palms may get sweaty. You feel on-edge and jumpy. That’s your body’s stress reaction. It’s actually the fight-or-flight response.
When you’re stressed, your body gets ready to react to anything. In early humans, that might have meant fighting off a competitor or running from a hungry predator. You’re not likely to run into a saber-tooth tiger today, but your body’s reaction is the same.
Sometimes, stress is a good thing — it can motivate us to get things done or to make important changes in our lives. It gives us that little kick of adrenaline we need to push through a difficult task. But stress is also hard on our bodies. It causes wear and tear even in short bursts, but chronic stress is particularly dangerous.
When you first experience something that causes stress, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol. That’s what boosts your heart rate and breathing rate, sharpens your senses, and releases extra sugar into your blood so you’re ready to leap into action. That’s great when you’re running away from that hungry saber-tooth tiger or when you need to be at your sharpest to get the big job. When whatever is causing the stress goes away, your levels of stress hormones drop and your metabolism and other functions go back to normal.
So, the stress reaction is a good thing when you need to avoid a car accident, for example — that’s an “acute” form of stress. You may also experience acute stress as a result of noise, crowding, or experiencing (or even remembering) a traumatic event. In those instances, your stress reaction will run its normal course.
Unfortunately, many of us face stress that never really leaves. Maybe it’s our jobs, the economy, or relationship troubles, but we’re stressed all the time. That’s called “chronic” stress. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between the stress involved in running away from a predator and the stress involved in dealing with financial troubles, so it reacts the same way to both. That long-term stress reaction can cause serious health problems.
Chronic Stress, Cortisol and Your Body
Cortisol is a crucial part of the stress reaction, but the same things that are necessary for the fight-or-flight response are problematic in the long term. The stress reaction helps your body prioritize the systems it needs for a fast physical response to a threat and pushes other systems to the back burner.
For example, cortisol boosts your blood sugar by causing insulin resistance in your cells. In the short term, that gives you the energy you need to run or fight. Over the long term, your pancreas will struggle to keep up with the increased insulin demand and your blood sugar levels will remain elevated, since the cells aren’t absorbing it. So, you’ll feel more hungry than you should and be prone to overeating. The extra blood sugar is eventually converted to fat.
To make matters worse, cortisol makes you crave high-calorie foods, some of which can have adverse effects on baby. In other words, chronic stress may increase your risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. And, as we’ve recently learned, obesity may increase your risk of childbirth issues — even birth injuries like cerebral palsy.
Another part of the stress reaction involves an increased heart rate, also mediated by cortisol. The stress hormone constricts your blood vessels to increase your blood pressure temporarily. That’s fine in the short term, but chronically elevated levels of cortisol are linked to high blood pressure and an increased risk for heart disease. Chronic stress is also linked to an increased risk for mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, as well as gastrointestinal issues such as ulcers. Finally, cortisol may suppress your immune system, making you more prone to infections.
Stress and Pregnancy: How bad is it?
Chronic stress, to put it simply, is bad for your health. So what about stress and pregnancy?
A recent UCLA study looked at just that issue and found that in addition to the expected harmful effects of stress on the mothers, babies born to mothers suffering from chronic stress are more likely to have a low birth weight. Curiously, the study found that even the women’s stress levels before pregnancy can affect birth weight. The researchers believe that this increased risk of low birth rate is caused by cortisol, which may restrict blood flow to the developing fetus and deprive the baby of needed nutrients and oxygen.
Low birth weight (less than 5 1/2 pounds) is associated with a number of health problems. Early on, babies with low birth weight may suffer from breathing and gastrointestinal problems. Later in life, these children are at a higher risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity. Evidence suggests that our metabolisms are strongly affected by conditions in the womb, so babies who don’t get enough nutrients during pregnancy may have trouble with blood-sugar regulation and overeating for the rest of their lives.
Pregnancy Stress and Anxiety Attacks
Are you prone to anxiety attacks, either before or now during pregnancy? Anxiety attacks are affecting a growing number of women during pregnancy — about 25% of pregnancies — resulting in even more cases of postpartum depression. Rates of obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are higher in postpartum women than the general population, as well.
But what can pregnant women do about anxiety attacks now?
Symptoms include rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness, chest pains, leg muscle weakness or tingling, trouble thinking, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Unfortunately, mental health medications are generally frowned upon during pregnancy, so managing stress is key.
Managing Stress and Pregnancy: Tips for Taking Care of You and Baby
If you’re already stressed, the effects of stress during pregnancy may seem like just one more thing to be stressed about — a vicious cycle. The good news is that there are a lot of ways to manage stress before, during, and after pregnancy to minimize its effects on you and your baby.
- Take care of yourself. That means eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, and taking time to relax and do things that you enjoy. You may decide to cut back on some of your activities and plans to make sure you have enough downtime. You can also try aromatherapy — smelling lavender and rosemary can help decrease your cortisol levels.
- Exercise. This is one of the best things you can do to combat stress. Not only is it good for you and the baby, but low-intensity exercise can actually decrease the levels of stress hormones in your body.
- Identify your stress. Some of the things that cause stress are beyond your control, but not all of them. Take time to figure out what might be causing you stress and do what you can to alleviate it. That may mean asking for help from the people around you to make your day easier to manage.
- Lean on your network. Talk to your partner, family, and friends about how you’re feeling and don’t be afraid to ask them for help.
- Call in the pros. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your network about the things that are bothering you or if you believe you may be depressed, talk to a professional about it. That may be your doctor or a therapist, for example. It can be very helpful to have a third party listen to what’s going on and they may even be able to offer suggestions for dealing with some of the things that are bothering you.
- Be aware of your pregnancy. Even without external events, pregnancy can be stressful. Your hormones are going haywire, you may have to change your normal diet, your body is changing, and it’s hard to get a good night of sleep. Know that those issues are temporary and you can always talk to your health care provider about ways to manage them.
Keep Calm During Pregnancy … and Carry On
In pregnancy and in life in general, stress is hard to avoid. The trick is to be aware of it and the effects it can have on your body. Don’t let stress trick you into eating unhealthy foods or giving up on your exercise routine. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Pregnancy isn’t always easy and your friends and family will be there for you to help you through it.
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