By Parijat Deshpande
Most of us are familiar with the notion that stress is not good for our health. Some are familiar with the idea that stress is not good for health during pregnancy, specifically. Exactly how and why is often unknown and unfamiliar. The information is not readily accessible to women and, what’s worse, many providers are unfamiliar with the data and are unable to educate women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant about the realities of stress and reproductive health.
The truth is that over the last 70 years, research in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology, psychoneuroimmunology, reproductive psychiatry, and clinical psychology has been dedicated to identify exactly how stress affects pregnancy health and fetal development, and the results are shocking. Specifically, researchers have identified that stress from any source (physical, such as dehydration, pain, poor sleep, emotional, such as unresolved grief, anxiety or guilt) impact pregnancy quite profoundly.
Pregnancy is a time of tremendous change in the body. These changes to the nervous, immune, and endocrine (hormonal) systems have been dictated by nature to be necessary to sustain a healthy pregnancy. When stress is introduced to the body, through physical and/or emotional triggers, the chemical changes affect this balance of the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems that’s necessary for a healthy pregnancy. The result is an increased risk of developing maternal and/or fetal health complications during pregnancy, for example preeclampsia, gestational hypertension, gestational diabetes, preterm contractions, preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM), preterm labor, reduced blood flow to the baby, and intrauterine growth challenges.
When mothers read this, it’s easy to feel even more stressed and anxious, worrying that your existing stress is affecting you or your baby. It’s easy to feel like you’re at fault or to blame for your pregnancy complications or previous history of pregnancy complications, preterm delivery or losses. That is not at all the case. While stress does play a large role in the physical health of a woman and her baby during pregnancy, it is not the only factor that determines the outcome. You are not to blame for your pregnancy complications.
At the same time, having this information can be a source of motivation to focus on stress-relieving activities to not only improve your anxiety and mood, but to improve the health of your pregnancy. Research has shown that it can even help to prolong your pregnancy if you have the right support and tools.
The first step is to recognize that the goal is not to avoid all stress. It’s not possible, nor is it practical. If you have known sources of stress that are avoidable (for example, people in your life who bring you anxiety or a job that is high-stress) see how you can minimize exposure. However, in most cases, stress is not the problem. Human bodies are resilient, even during pregnancy. So moments of high-stress do not usually cause long-term issues to your health.
The bigger problem is not allowing our bodies to heal from stress. Our bodies have a built-in system that triggers the stress-response, and we have a body system that’s designed to trigger the healing response to help you recover from the stress. It is in triggering the latter that healing can occur from the damages of stress and protect you from long term concerns.
How do you know if you’re not giving yourself enough time to heal and recover from stress? Here are some common symptoms, many of which I have witnessed with my clients:
- Constant worrying and wondering about “what if….?”
- Being hypervigilant about every sensation in your body
- Bursting into tears frequently
- Feeling guilty about your pregnancy complications
- Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Snapping at others or feeling irritable frequently
- Symptoms of low mood or depression
- Increased contractions or belly tightness
- Digestive trouble
- Aches in specific places in the body (back, neck, legs, etc.)
- Elevated blood glucose levels
- Elevated blood pressure
If this sounds like you or if you have other signs of high stress, there are several proven ways to trigger that healing response, turn off the stress response, and help your body recover.
- Practice mindfulness. This is not just deep breathing or meditation. Being mindful is a lifestyle of being consciously aware of your emotions, thoughts and your body in the present moment completely without judgment. Accepting what is, instead of fighting for what you wish “could be’ or “should be” has a tremendous, positive impact on lowering stress.
- Relaxing imagery. Close your eyes and immerse yourself in a relaxing image. Using all five of your senses, dive into the details of that place that relaxes you. This is also a great tool to use when you are in labor to help with pain management.
- Progressive relaxation. Start from the top of your head and taking one body part at a time, flex each muscle for three seconds and breathe out as you let go. Feel your body release the tension. This exercise in particular has been shown to prolong pregnancy even for women who are in the hospital in preterm labor.
- Deep breathing. I recommend to my clients to breathe in for a count of 4 or 5 and breathe out for double to experience maximum impact. Notice how your body reacts to this exercise. The effects are almost immediate.
- Review your lifestyle. Are you staying hydrated? Are you getting enough sleep? How is your pain level? Identifying physical sources of stress and making small changes to your day can have a profoundly positive impact on your stress levels and ultimately your pregnancy health.
These are just a few examples of things you can do when you notice you know your body has been under stress. Stress is not the problem. The problem is not having enough time to recover from stress. So the more you focus on activities such as these to help your body heal, the more positive changes you will see in your pregnancy, even if you are experiencing complications.
Lowering stress during your pregnancy not only helps you feel better, it lowers your risk for depression and anxiety during and after pregnancy, lowers your risk for developing additional pregnancy complications, and can help prevent preterm birth. Additionally, less stress means you can feel more hope and have a more positive outlook, which can do wonders for your peace of mind allowing you to enjoy the special milestones that you’re fighting so hard for.
Parijat Deshpande is a leading high-risk pregnancy expert, perinatal mind-body wellness counselor, speaker, and author who guides women to quickly and effectively release their stress during their high-risk pregnancy–so they can give their baby a strong start to life. Her unique approach has served hundreds of women to manage pregnancy complications and reclaim safety and trust in their bodies that they thought was eroded forever.
Parijat is the bestselling author of Pregnancy Brain: A Mind-Body Approach to Stress Management During a High-Risk Pregnancy. She is also the host of the popular podcast Delivering Miracles® that discusses the real, raw side of family building, including infertility, loss, high-risk pregnancy, bed rest, prematurity, and healing once baby comes home.
Learn more about Parijat Deshpande and her work at www.parijatdeshpande.com
Originally published at blog.mothersquad.com on August 23, 2018.