Stress seems to be a normal and somewhat expected part of our life in modern America. Pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period are typically times where the stress only tends to increase. We all know the effects of stress and anxiety in the body of a non-pregnant body. During pregnancy, many of those effects are amplified and pregnancy poses a whole unique set of risk associated with chronic stress and anxiety. Because of this, deliberate and intentional stress reduction in pregnancy is very important for the well being of the mother and the baby.
It’s important to note that the stress itself is not the problem – the amount of stress we experience is the problem. In truth, a little bit of stress is healthy. It creates a fight or flight response in our bodies that is essential to our survival. However, when that fight or flight state is the only state of being we live in, our health is at risk – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Pregnancy, labor, and the postpartum period all are affected by stress in different ways.
The effects of stress in pregnancy are being researched all the time, so we know more now than ever about its effects. It seems the more we know, the more apparent it becomes that reducing stress and anxiety is vital to a healthy pregnancy. For instance, we now know that at its worst, stress has the ability to affect the baby’s growing brain and sometimes inhibit the development of certain parts of it, though that is known to be in only extreme cases.
Cortisol, when produced by the mother, creates inflammation in both the bodies of mom and baby. Chronic inflammation is now known to be a cornerstone for a variety of serious health conditions. In small amounts, stress in pregnancy is not harmful, but there is no known “threshold” of safety for stress levels, nor is there a way to objectively measure that. Knowing this, doing your best to have a balanced and calm pregnancy can only be beneficial.
During labor, stress inhibits oxytocin, which is the most essential hormone needed for labor to progress. When a mother is tense or stressed during labor, her contractions are not as effective because the stress inhibits the effectiveness of those contractions. Doulas work hard with mothers to reduce anything that contributes to stress during labor because relaxation is required for labor to progress.
After birth, mothers desperately need rest and rejuvenation. In reality, this is a time where most mother’s anxiety begins to skyrocket. Between healing from birth, learning how to breastfeed, caring for a new baby, sleep deprivation, and her continued demands within the functioning of a home, life gets overwhelming – and stressful – quickly. In many cases, the pressures of this new life means that postpartum depression isn’t far behind. Stress also has the ability to slow a woman’s postpartum healing process. A postpartum doula can relieve a significant amount of that stress by helping mom navigate life with a newborn as well as help with the chores.
So with all these well known effects that stress has the ability to cause, what are some effective ways to reduce your stress in pregnancy?
This is a whole topic unto itself that deserves its own blog post. But a simple, effective way to reduce cortisol levels and scale back the fight or flight effect on the body is to do deep breathing. This exercise is not only beneficial in pregnancy, it is great practice for labor and birth. Physiologically, the lower part of the lungs activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the state of relaxation and grounding we should live in for almost the entirety of our lives. It is the opposite of high stress and fight or flight. Deep breathing is an important and useful practice that anyone can do. Even just a few deep breaths will help to bring you back to a state of balance.
In the fast paced world we live in, you’ll never fully escape stress during your pregnancy. You should never feel guilty for feeling some stress or anxiety during your pregnancy, labor, or postpartum period. Life happens. Doing your best to give yourself a little extra TLC and trying to be deliberate about reducing your stress and anxiety during this time will go a long way for you and your baby. And hang in there – this is but a short season of life.