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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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