Stress In Pregnancy
It is pretty clear what pregnant women should and shouldn’t do to look after themselves and their unborn baby on a physical level – eat well, get enough good quality sleep, avoid toxins including germs, pollutants, and harsh chemicals, and don’t take drugs including alcohol or nicotine. But what is less well understood is the importance of looking after mental and emotional health during pregnancy. Just as the risks and benefits of physical inputs can have an impact on the unborn child, although less well-researched, it stands to reason that good mental and emotional health will also be of benefit to the baby and poor mental and emotional health could have the opposite effect.
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Fight or Flight Response
Most people now understand that our bodies react to stress in the same way they did when mankind first roamed the earth as hunter-gatherers trying to avoid lethal predators. The fight or flight response was designed as an appropriate reaction to these situations – adrenaline pumped through the system and cortisol levels were elevated to allow our bodies to act in a way that was most likely to keep us alive. But as soon as the danger was averted the parasympathetic nervous system was activated and the stress hormones stopped flowing and balance was restored.
Unfortunately, in the modern world, a constant elevated level of stress is all too common. Our bodies still react as if the stress we are feeling is related to fighting off a saber-toothed tiger. But when that tiger is actually a grumpy boss who growls at you all the time and shows her claws all too frequently, the stress hormones remain constantly activated.
What does Stress Do to My Baby?
The limited research that has been done so far shows that when pregnant women are under constant stress, they are at risk of all the usual things like elevated blood pressure and reduced sleep quality. But even more worrying, they are also less likely to carry their baby to full term and more likely to have babies with lower birth weight, both of which increase the risk of health problems for the bub. Perhaps even more worrying is the association between a stressed pregnant woman and the brain development of the child, who may then have resulting behavioral problems down the track.
This is something I have some personal experience with, having been under a lot of stress during my second pregnancy. I was very blessed with a healthy little boy who has never had any really extreme behavioral problems but he was always very different from his calm, easy going older brother. He was always very clingy, didn’t sleep through the night until he was almost 3, was very behaviorally unpredictable until he got to middle primary school and was simply the child that I would always describe as ‘hard work’ – love him to bits of course! Clearly, it is important for anyone who is experiencing chronic stress to do something about it, but especially when an unborn child is also likely being affected it is imperative that pregnant women change the situation causing the stress, or at the very least increase their resilience to dealing with the stress and their opportunities to achieve deep relaxation.
How to Reduce Stress and Increase Resilience
The simplest answer is to make time to do things that you love! Some suggestions of other activities that are relaxing and activate the parasympathetic nervous system are: laughing, singing, yoga, meditation, walking in nature, having baths, using essential oils (you need to be careful of what oils you use when pregnant, but lovely lavender is safe to use during pregnancy and is renowned for its soothing properties) and having energetic bodywork such as massage, kinesiology or reiki.
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