Don't let everyday stress build up; if a negative life event occurs, you could be too overwhelmed to be able to cope.
Pregnant? Have a seat. Put your feet up. Take a few deep breaths and get your mind off your troubles. If you’re feeling relaxed, you’ve just done something great for your baby. According to recent scientific studies, pregnant women should avoid or at least learn how to manage stress.
How stress causes harm> A growing body of research has linked significant stress—both chronic (such as poverty or lack of social support) and the sudden, acute variety (a car accident, separation from spouse, loss of a job)—to premature birth, low birth weight and problems with fetal development, according to Pathik D. Wadhwa, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Irvine, College of Medicine. Even extreme anxiety related to pregnancy itself can contribute to premature labor.
A case in point is Rosie Lora, a social worker in Arizona. When she became pregnant at 22, Lora was caring for her dying mother and struggling in an abusive marriage without much money. “I was beyond stressed out,” she says. In her seventh month, her blood pressure was dangerously high and she went into premature labor. Her son was born weighing only 3 pounds, 5 ounces. To survive, he needed oxygen, intravenous feedings and a two-month hospital stay.
“The doctor said it was because of all the pressures at home,” says Lora—who, since her mother’s death, has divorced, remarried and worked her way to financial stability. Today her son is a thriving elementary-school student, though Lora still wishes her pregnancy had been healthier.
Lora’s story shows just how dangerous stress can be. “Stress plays a key role in early labor and low birth weight, which are leading causes of infant death,” says perinatologist Charles Lockwood, M.D., of the Yale University School of Medicine.
Stress triggers several reactions in a woman’s body. This includes the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can cause premature labor, explains Calvin Hobel, M.D., chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
One culprit may be corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This hormone is produced normally by the
placenta in increasing amounts as a pregnancy progresses, typically prompting labor at the end of the last trimester. When the mother is under stress, however, cortisol from her adrenal glands and another stress hormone, norepinephrine, turn on CRH production, which can start the clock ticking toward premature labor.
Stress hormones can also compromise the mother’s immune system, creating greater risk for uterine infection, which often goes undetected, adds Hobel.
Fetal development can be affected by a mother’s stress as well. Stress raises blood pressure, causing the release of norepinephrine, as mentioned. This combination can restrict the amount of blood that flows to her uterus, inhibiting fetal growth. Thus, even full-term babies can be underweight at birth.
Recognizing stress> How do you know if your stress level is too high? Signs include constant fatigue and worry, mental confusion, feeling out of control and the need to stay active without rest, says Christine Dunkel Schetter, Ph.D., a psychology professor at UCLA. Experts advise women not to let everyday stress build up. If a
sudden negative life event should occur, you could be too overwhelmed to be able to cope.
Because it is subjective, there are no hard-and-fast rules about what amount of stress is harmful; in fact, what’s stressful to one person may not be stressful to another. Lockwood recalls one patient who worked long hours in her law firm throughout her pregnancy. Although he urged her to cut back on her work, she resisted. “Ultimately, for her, not working would have been more stressful than doing what she was doing,” Lockwood says. Her baby was born without complications.
Relax now> Every woman handles stress differently, and this can be key to the health of a pregnancy.
Experts agree that taking steps to get out of stressful situations (ideally, before you even get pregnant) can only help. “There is no question that relaxation techniques and other methods
of remaining calm and optimistic are good for mother and baby,” says Dunkel Schetter.
Social support in particular also seems to have a positive effect on
pregnancy, according to Wadhwa: It has been associated with higher birth weight in babies.
If you are anxious by nature, seek professional help. “Talk to your doctor or midwife,” says Lockwood. “He or she may recommend that you see a psychiatrist for medication.” Most anti-anxiety medications are safe to take while pregnant and nursing, so if you need them, you’re better off by continuing to take them.
Finally, try not to worry about things like that argument you had with your boss last week. Make an effort
to talk it out, relax and get some perspective. You’ll be doing yourself and your baby a big favor.