Pregnancy is often depicted as the most joyful experience in a human’s life but the reality is that there can be a lot of stress during pregnancy for many mums. Let’s be honest, being pregnant in itself is stressful at times! Sometimes the stress during pregnancy is directly tied to the pregnancy itself. Changing hormones and preparing for a major life change are bound to bring up some pretty big feelings. Experiencing pregnancy complications like hyperemesis gravidarum, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia can layer on the anxiety. Reaching out to your care provider for resources is essential when coping with these types of conditions.
Life circumstances beyond our control can also create stress during pregnancy. Major stress, like losing a loved one and going through the grieving process while pregnant sometimes, unfortunately, happen. When these types of major stressors happen, it’s best to be equipped with tools to make it through the difficult times. There are lots of ways to manage your stress levels whether you’re coping with day-to-day stress related to the pregnancy itself or a deeper loss.
Normal Stress vs. Chronic Stress
Stress starts in the mind but lives in the body. Increased stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine can lead to physiological symptoms. Our bodies release these hormones to protect us and they’ve helped us survive for thousands of years. We are designed to cope with discrete stressors (like being chased by a lion – yikes!) but our bodies then close the stress cycle and return to baseline (the lion didn’t catch us – phew, glad that’s over!). In our modern world, stressors are often ongoing which leads to a sustained amount of stress hormones circulating in our blood stream. This is where stress becomes more concerning.
How much stress during pregnancy is too much stress? It’s important to recognise that stress isn’t always a problem in pregnancy. Issues arise when major life changes push our bodies into chronic stress. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and a higher risk of perinatal mood disorders like postpartum anxiety and depression. Generally, major traumatic life events like losing a loved one will lead to chronic stress. It’s important to be proactive about managing your stress levels when experiencing loss during pregnancy.
Look for these signs to determine whether you’re coping with too much stress during pregnancy:
- Difficulty sleeping or relaxing
- Feeling sad more than 50% of the time
- Persistent feelings of worry, nervousness or anxiousness
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling hopeless a lot of the time
- New physical symptoms like headaches, body aches, or feeling lightheaded
- Panic attacks
- Grief and trauma
- New unhealthy behaviors
Loss During Pregnancy
Losing a loved one during pregnancy will understandably lead to increased stress for expecting mums. Loss leads to new, intense emotions that can feel overwhelming to deal with under normal circumstances – let alone when pregnant. Research shows that, “Part of what makes something stressful is an individual’s belief that they lack the resources to cope with it.” (https://whatsyourgrief.com/stress-in-grief/) We don’t have control over whether we experience loss during pregnancy, but we can equip ourselves with the tools to cope with the extreme emotions and changes that occur as a result of loss and the grieving process.
Pregnancy Stress Effects on Mum and Baby
The good news is that normal amounts of stress don’t have negative effects on you or your baby. Stress is a part of life and our bodies are equipped to cope with stress when it occurs in manageable increments. The risks arise when stress occurs at higher levels and for prolonged periods. Extreme stress and depression has been linked to early labour and low birth weight in babies so it’s important to implement tools addressing your mental wellbeing during pregnancy.
Tools for Coping with Stress and Loss During Pregnancy
- Sleep: Getting adequate sleep and rest during pregnancy should be a top priority. Pregnant women should aim for eight to ten hours of sleep if possible. We know that’s easier said than done when sleep is increasingly more challenging as your body expands (not to mention peeing all.night.long.). The thing is, lack of adequate sleep can increase cortisol levels making an already stressed body and mind harder to conquer. In fact, a recent study confirmed that getting inadequate sleep is directly correlated to frequent distress. (https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2021/20_0573.htm).
- Nourish: Focus on eating nutritious foods and staying on top of eating at regular intervals. Our busy lives can make it difficult to easily access healthy food and snacks. Make a plan at the beginning of the week to ensure you have healthy options that are easily available. Foods high in vitamin B, omega-3s, magnesium, and protein are known to reduce cortisol levels. A healthy gut is also important for reducing stress and anxiety. Ask your doctor about taking a probiotic and grab some yogurt!
- Movement: Moving your body reduces stress hormones (goodbye adrenaline and cortisol!) and increases endorphins. Endorphins are those yummy feel-good hormones that stress depletes. Getting your body to make more endorphins is key to reducing stress on a neurochemical level. Exercise doesn’t have to mean going to the gym or intense aerobics. Repetitive movements have been shown to have an effect on the brain that’s similar to what happens during meditation. A 20-minute walk or jog can go a long way! https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax
- Therapy: Seeking professional help can be a gamechanger if you’re dealing with chronic stress due to loss or a major life event. Processing your emotions with an expert can provide tools and relief beyond what we are capable of doing on our own. EMDR is also a helpful tool if you are processing trauma during your pregnancy.
- Mindfulness: We’ve all heard that meditation and breathwork are major stress relievers. Starting a new habit or practice when you’re already coping with a lot of shifts and changes can be intimidating. There are many apps available to make these practices easily accessible. Meditation and breathwork can greatly reduce negative thoughts by regulating your nervous system. Our bodies naturally resort to more shallow, rapid breathing during stressful times. Taking slow, deep breaths mimicking the type of breathing we do when calm and regulated can bring our bodies out of a stress cycle.
- Medication: It’s important to weigh the effects of stress vs. medications during pregnancy. Certain medications are safe to use to manage stress and depression during pregnancy. A psychiatrist can help you decide whether this is the right choice.
- Reach out: Oftentimes, we fear burdening others with our stress. It’s important to continue to connect with loved ones and reach out for support when you need it. Connection with others has been proven to reduce stress and can even prevent physical responses to stress like high blood pressure! https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.3399889
Stressing about stress will only make things more challenging. While stress may be inevitable during pregnancy, you don’t have to suffer your way through it. Using tools to cope can help immensely with the physiological and psychological effects of stress.
For more information on mental health conditions in pregnancy visit COPE or contact lifeline 24/7 on 131114.