What does recent research have to say about the health effects of stress in pregnancy on mother and baby? And how can you work to lessen stress for yourself? Writer Anna Frier explores.
How serious is stress in pregnancy?
In severe cases where stress leads to anxiety or depression there can be adverse outcomes such as premature birth or low birth weights.(1)
Longer-term, anxiety or other extreme stress during pregnancy, can have a lasting impact on children’s neural development (2).
Even lower levels of stress exposure during pregnancy can have negative effects. Pregnancy usually suppresses the natural immune response in the body and the brain. But when pregnant rats in a recent study by Ohio State University were put under stress, it triggered an immune response that led to changes in brain function known to be connected to depression.
More research is needed to figure out how these biochemical processes work in humans, but the consensus is that chronic mental stress raises the risk of post natal depression (PND).
Four steps to dealing with stress in pregnancy
Fortunately, there are several methods and tools you can use to reduce your stress levels during pregnancy.
1. Understand what your stress factors are
Take time to map out your stress factors on paper. This means all the things that lately have triggered overwhelming emotions or set off obsessive negative thinking.
- Try to be as specific as possible. Don’t write “my job”, but note the precise things that cause you stress, whether it’s a certain annoying colleague, a tedious job procedure, or concerns about an overdue promotion, etc.
- Depending on how far you are into your pregnancy, think about what things stress you that didn’t before you were pregnant. Women during pregnancy are more emotionally sensitive, which means the threshold for triggering stress will be somewhat lower.
- Don’t forget to honestly examine all major relationships with family and friends.
- Once your list is done, try ranking the stress factors by the intensity of their effect on your emotional wellbeing. It’s not always easy to quantitatively compare causes of stress but follow your intuition here.
- Next, review the ranked list and for each stress item take a note of whether it can be avoided or resolved somehow.
2. Avoid stress where you can.
Getting a bunch of small stress factors out of your life will add up to a positive cumulative effect, giving you more time to enjoy your pregnancy.
While avoidance isn’t always a healthy tactic in life, pregnancy is not the time to try to sort out long-held issues, but to take a needed pause.
Things to consider ‘putting on pause’ can include:
Again, you can change your mind after you’ve had your baby. But for now, say no when you want to say no. Being pregnant, you deserve a little dose of positive selfishness.
3. Try to resolve stress through openness.
Sometimes resolving stress comes down to opening up to others and asking for their help. Have a frank talk with your partner, family, friends, and colleagues.
If you are often uncomfortable with asking for help, remember that others will generally understand that this is a time in your life you need understanding and compassion.
Even if the issue will not be resolved or only partially so, the very fact that you took initiative and got it off your chest — rather than letting your worries consume you internally — will benefit your mental health and reduce stress levels.
4. Guard yourself against stress in pregnancy by building resilience.
Some stress factors cannot be avoided or resolved. Economic worries, a relationship that is broken beyond repair, and death of a close family member are the sort of major stresses that can be beyond your control.
But you can build up your natural resilience. This means devoting yourself to good self-care, such as a healthy diet, proper sleep, and exercise choices that work for your trimester.
Other tools now known to improve stress levels include meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, as well as mindfulness.
5. Try mindfulness to improve mental health.
The NHS carried out a a 4-week pilot program in 2014 for 86 women (and 69 male partners), showing that even such a shorter program of mindfulness can yield beneficial results in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression in pregnant women.
Practising mindfulness during pregnancy may also positively affect the neural development of the child. This is still a relatively young area of research, but there are some promising signs. One joint 2015 study by European and U.S. tested the neuro cognitive abilities of 79 babies aged 9 months.
It looked at their ability to focus on and tell apart different sounds played to them, and compared them to the mindfulness level the mothers reported during the second trimester. The babies from the more mindful mothers were better able to focus.
[Don’t know how to do mindfulness? Learn today with our free Guide to Mindfulness.]
The power of support on stress levels
Feeling unable to cope with your stress in pregnancy? Family and friends can mean well but be overly invested in the situation. Meaning when you turn to them for support it backfires, and you end up with higher stress levels.
So don’t overlook the power of talking to an unbiased, supportive other. This could be a support group in your local area, an online forum, or sessions with a counsellor or psychotherapist.
Harley Therapy connects you with top London-based talk therapists who can help you with pregnancy stress. Not in London? Use our booking site to source UK-wide registered therapists and online counsellors you can talk to from the comfort of your home.
Still have questions about stress in pregnancy? Post below.
Anne Freier is a medical and science writer. She has an MRes in Biomedical Research and a MSc in Neuroscience & Neuropsychology.
- Grigoriadis S, Graves L, Peer M, Mamisashvili L, et al. Maternal Anxiety During Pregnancy and the Association With Adverse Perinatal Outcomes: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Clin Psychiatry. 2018 Sep 4;79(5). Free Article
Grigoriadis S, Graves L, Peer M, et al. Maternal anxiety during pregnancy and the association with adverse perinatal outcomes: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Clin Psychiatry. 2018;79(5):17r12011. https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.17r12011