Being pregnant is a very exciting and happy time for any couple and especially the first time you go through it together. While the prospect of having a child together is a wonderful one though, it can also place a fair amount of strain on you both and cause quite a lot of stress.
And what makes matters more difficult, is the fact that stress can actually have a number of negative effects on pregnancy and potentially be harmful for the child. In this article we will look at the causes of stress during pregnancy, how this can affect the birth and what you can do to combat it.
What Causes Stress During Pregnancy?
Psychological and Practical Causes
Stress during pregnancy is common for a wide variety of reasons. For starters, it is a stressful prospect knowing that you’re going to become a parent. As mentioned, it is also a very exciting thought – but that doesn’t mean you aren’t likely to both be a little scared. Having a child will completely change both your lives, your routines and more, it will place you under a great financial strain and it is an incredibly important responsibility for you both to take on. Likewise, both of you are going to have your doubts and your concerns and that alone can cause significant stress during pregnancy. This can be even harder in some situations, for example where you may be a single parent, or where you hadn’t planned for the baby.
What’s also hard to predict is the way that being pregnant can cause any number of other stressful situations. You might for example have your parents trying to influence decisions about where you live, or how you raise the baby. You might have disagreements with one another about how to name them. You might be worried about how it will impact on your career…
All these things can create more stress and can even lead to you arguing more as a couple. This is especially upsetting as we often imagine a pregnancy to be an unequivocally ‘happy’ event and thus can feel like we’re failing if that’s not the case. In reality, being pregnant is much like a wedding or even Christmas: far more complicated and stressful than most people realize.
Smoking is seriously unhealthy for a fetus and thus it is crucial that any smokers take this opportunity to stop. Unfortunately though, quitting smoking in itself is likely to cause a lot of stress as the mother has to combat withdrawal symptoms and cravings and so this can commonly contribute to stress during pregnancy.
If you have time prior to becoming pregnant, bear this in mind and try to quit before you start trying for a baby. This will also prevent you from slipping and finding yourself outside sneaking in a quick cigarette.
Otherwise, just be aware that this is likely to be yet another factor you have to contend with.
Physical and Biological Causes
Pregnancy is well known for causing mood swings and depression and part of the reason for this is that it can increase levels of something known as ‘corticotrophin-releasing hormone’ or ‘CRH’. This is often referred to as the ‘master stress hormone’ because it regulates the release of all other stress hormones. The more CRH you produce, the more you will experience heightened levels of other glucocorticoid hormones like cortisol.
During pregnancy, levels of this hormone can increase hugely. Fortunately, throughout the majority of the pregnancy women will also produce more CRH-binding protein which negates the most severe effects of these hormones. In the last weeks of pregnancy however this can change as the binding proteins diminish. Likewise, cortisol levels also appear to climb during the second trimester and by the last weeks prior to birth will have risen to two or three times the normal level. These hormonal changes appear to be regulated by the placenta which ‘takes over’ control of CRH production. The precise reason for this isn’t known but it is believed to help the fetus in various ways. For instance, during the first days, CRH can help to suppress the mother’s immune system which prevents it from attacking the fetus. Later on, cortisol appears to aid with the development of the child’s brain. It has even been suggested that cortisol may ‘prep’ the woman’s brain for motherhood by increasing her alertness and attentiveness.
Stress during pregnancy then is actually an important part of the process and not entirely a ‘negative’ thing. The problem occurs when these naturally circulating levels of stress are impacted by other causes of stress ultimately resulting in potential damage to the fetus and other issues.
Risks of Stress During Pregnancy
While elevated levels of stress during pregnancy are normal and even positive then, this can also be dangerous for the fetus in some cases.
High levels of cortisol increase the likelihood of miscarriage as well as preeclampsia (hypertension induced by pregnancy), mental disability, premature birth and development delays post birth. The risk of intrauterine infection and of low birth rate.
Stress hormones like epinephrine etc. can cause the blood vessels to contract which may include blood flow to the baby if it affects the umbilical cord. This in turn prevents the baby from getting the nutrition it needs. Meanwhile, the hormonal and neurochemical changes in the woman’s body change the environment that the baby is raised in and the environment that they adapt to.
For the mother, increased levels of stress during pregnancy can also have negative effects on her health. Stress makes us more prone to illness, it places strain on the heart, it reduces the quality and quantity of sleep and it increases the chances of developing depression or other mental health disorders. Subsequently, this also increases the likelihood of postnatal depression.
How to Combat Stress During Pregnancy
Stress during pregnancy is very difficult to avoid. Hormonal and physical changes leave the mother more susceptible to stress, while practical and emotional challenges increase the likelihood of stress further. The combination runs the very real risk of causing damage to the fetus or compromising the baby’s health.
For all these reasons, it’s important to acknowledge the potential risk of stress and to ensure you have a strategy for minimizing its effect and for handling the symptoms.
Here are some ways you can do that:
Take a Babymoon
You’ve heard of a honeymoon but how about a babymoon? Essentially the idea of this is to give you the opportunity to have some time alone as a couple prior to the birth of the new baby. This is your last chance to enjoy being alone together, so a babymoon lets you celebrate that with one last ‘hurrah’.
At the same time, a babymoon also gives you a break from all the other sources of stress that might be exacerbating existing pregnancy stress.
Take Time Off of Work
Many women will work through their stress and pregnancy in order to ensure they are able to get maternity leave. While this makes a lot of sense, if you’re already very stressed then it can make matters worse and become very difficult.
A solution is to take time off because of your stress. Mental health issues are a perfectly valid reason to get sick leave and it’s crucial that you put your health and the baby’s health first. While you might think you can ‘power through’ you’ll actually find that this ends up being a decision you later regret.
While you might already have money stress, this isn’t the time to cut back on nice food and to make life harder for yourself. Likewise, spending a little extra cash on a weekly massage, yoga lessons or trip to the spa can help a great deal both mentally and physically. Find a class or treatment that appeals to you and consider it a savvy investment.
Maintain Your Health
Maintaining optimum health is incredibly important for the health of your baby but it can also help to combat the symptoms of depression and stress. Make sure that you eat a healthy and nutritious diet, that you get plenty of fresh air and exercise and that you do everything you can to make your sleep comfortable and restorative.
Plan and Budget
You can overcome many of the stresses associated with becoming a parent with planning and preparation. Making sure you know your budget can handle the arrival of a new child, educating yourself on how to raise a baby and having contingency plans should anything go wrong can all help you to feel less at the mercy of fate.
Meanwhile, you should also plan for the pregnancy itself and make sure you’re ready to handle the challenges. Think ahead about things that might cause you stress and how you can avoid them. Did you know that Christmas is one of the most stressful times of year? To make sure you avoid that being the case then, why not minimize it by going on holiday for Christmas? Likewise, if you know life is going to get particularly stressful at work for a certain time, make sure that you avoid adding to that stress in any way in your home life. Try to anticipate any stress as best you can and then counter it before it becomes a big problem.
Don’t Stress About Stress
Ironically, one of the biggest reasons that couples get stressed during pregnancy is often that they are so concerned at the thought of becoming stressed.
In other words, because they know that stress can be bad for the fetus, they will then view stress as something that absolutely has to be avoided at all costs. Thus any argument, any money problems or any setback can seem much more serious and much more stressful.
It should be easy to see that this is counterproductive. Instead then, recognize that some stress is inevitable and that it can’t all be avoided. Don’t beat yourself up for becoming stressed or you’ll just exacerbate those feelings. The likelihood of a few arguments leading to problems with the baby are very slim so you don’t need to be constantly ‘walking on egg shells’. We would have survived much worse in the wild!
See Your Doctor
That said, give your stress the respect it deserves. Recognize that severe, chronic stress during pregnancy can be a big problem and if you find that you are really struggling – see your doctor.
This was an in-depth look at the role of stress during pregnancy and how you can manage it. Essentially, the take-home message is that stress during pregnancy is somewhat inevitable and even healthy. You shouldn’t get too upset at every little incident or worry that any argument is going to lead to severe developmental problems for your unborn child.
That said, stress can be a real and severe problem if it is preventing you from being happy, if it seems to be causing depression or if it is impacting on your health. In this case it’s crucial to put your health and happiness first which may mean taking time off of work or seeing a doctor.