Stress and Pregnancy
By Laura E. Stachel
Are you feeling stressed? It’s hard not to. Stress is an inevitable part of life in the 21st century. We routinely juggle the demands of running a household, working outside of the home, and attending to the needs of family members and friends. On top of that we’re expected to take care of our own mental and physical health. Pregnancy adds more to the list: physical challenges, fluctuations of moods and hormones, and the financial and logistical stresses of adding a new member to your family.

We know that short-term bursts of stress can affect our health when we’re not pregnant. We may notice a faster heart rate, feel distracted and troubled, and become anxious. Stress can interfere with our ability to sleep at night, cause either appetite suppression or overeating, and lead to fatigue, headaches and backaches.

Long-term stress has been linked to numerous health concerns including hypertension, heart disease, an impaired immune response (making us more susceptible to infection), depression, anxiety and increased body fat. With chronic stress it becomes all to easy to let healthy eating habits slide, avoid exercise and reach to cigarettes or alcohol for short-term fixes, setting the stage for further problems.

Many women wonder if stress will have an impact on their pregnancy. Severe stress has been associated with increased rates of preterm labor and low birth weight babies. One study of women who reported high stress during their pregnancies documented higher levels of one hormone that’s a major regulator of the body’s stress response. It is possible that this hormone can trigger uterine contractions, resulting in higher rates of premature labor. Another concern is that the stress-related hormone norepinephrine may constrict the blood vessels that supply the uterus, resulting in reduced blood flow to the placenta and less nutrition for the baby. This can result in lower weight babies at term. Stress may also be linked to increases in rates of pre-eclampsia and miscarriage.

While stress in our lives may be here to stay, the way we cope with stress can have a profound impact on the quality of our health. A study by the March of Dimes in 1999 showed a correlation between optimism and the length of pregnancy. Women who were optimists were less likely to deliver early and have low birth weight babies. So learning ways to decrease and manage stress in our lives may ultimately result in healthier pregnancy outcomes.

Pregnancy is a perfect time to focus on achieving balance in your life. Give yourself permission to start anew and imagine ways to create a healthier lifestyle.

1. Reduce stress when you can. This might mean changing your schedule to avoid rush-hour traffic, or bringing soothing music or books-on-tape in the car to make sitting in traffic a bit easier. You may wish to limit the amount of news you read, watch or listen to each week. It may help to avoid certain people or situations that have a way of increasing your stress or responsibilities. Sometimes it’s okay to say “no.”

2. Choose your diet wisely. Eating healthy foods and drinking plenty of water are vital to your well-being; this is especially true during pregnancy. Eat whole grain foods, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats or vegetarian sources of protein and dairy products. Avoid junk- and fast-foods whenever you can and pack some portable healthy snacks for times when you’re on-the-go. (Try vegetables and cheese, nuts and fruit, or an energy bar, as examples.) Eat at least five small meals throughout the day, and be sure to include breakfast.

3. Abstain from cigarettes, alcohol and illicit drugs. All of these items should not be used during pregnancy and pose risks to you and your baby’s health. If you feel you are addicted to any of these drugs, it’s time to get help. Speak to your doctor or a therapist for help.

4. Exercise can be a life-saver. Exercise raises the mood boosting chemicals serotonin and endorphin and lowers stress hormones; working out will actually help you to feel good each day. If your doctor permits exercise during your pregnancy, try to incorporate some form of it into each day. On busier days, make sure to walk at least 20–30 minutes, preferably in fresh air. Use a bicycle to run local errands when you can.

5. Get enough sleep. Too little sleep causes cortisol (a major stress hormone) levels to rise and increases your body’s stress response. Allow for at least eight hours of rest a night, and make room to rest during the day if you need it. Engage in a calming activity in the hour before sleep such as reading, writing in a journal, taking a warm bath or listening to music. If insomnia is a problem, see my article on this web site titled “Fighting Pregnancy Fatigue” for more suggestions.

6. Learn about pregnancy. If one of your predominant worries is the pregnancy or childbirth itself, there are abundant resources available for you. The fact that you are on this web site is a good start. Ask questions at your prenatal appointments (write them down ahead of time), read books, and join a childbirth education class. Having your questions answered and your fears addressed can go a long way toward reducing your stress.

7. Learn to relax. There are a variety of ways to counteract the effects of stress each day. Yoga, meditation, massage, hypnotherapy and biofeedback are some possibilities. Taking the time to relax and focus on your breathing for 10 minutes a day is a beginning. The great advantage of any of these approaches is that you can apply the techniques you learn to childbirth itself. Decreasing your stress response during labor can help diminish your sense of pain with contractions. Look for local classes, books or videotapes. Your health care provider may have some recommendations as well.

8. Get support. Nobody expects you to go through all of this alone. Seek out the support of your spouse, friends and family members. If your support networks are lacking or your problems are severe, find a therapist. Having someone else’s perspective on your situation can help you find solutions that you couldn’t see on your own.

Of course, the goal in all of this is to create a life in which you feel fulfilled at home and at work, you enjoy your relationships with friends and family, and actively pursue a healthy lifestyle. Not only will making the effort to manage stress and achieve balance in your busy life help your pregnancy, it will also make parenting a much more enjoyable experience.