The first three months of pregnancy were horrible for me. I was lonely, scared and very sick. I miscarried my first pregnancy, and I was terrified I might lose the new baby too, and so told no one except my husband until I was sure.
Then at 8 months, my beloved dog was run over in front of me and I became hysterical. The baby turned breach during my hysteria and was unable to turn back. This resulted in a long difficult labour, an epidural, forceps and a double episiotomy as my daughter was born breach. She scored two on the Apgar scale and both of us were exhausted.
Like many parents, we had decided to sell our flat and move to a larger home during the pregnancy. I was also due to start a new job, ten weeks after my child was due.
Knowing what I know now, I don’t doubt that these experiences had my stress levels soaring and that poisonous cortisol levels affected my unborn daughter and subsequently her future mental health. She suffered from panic attacks as a teenager and bouts of depression and anxiety as an adult.
The good news is that being able to talk about, and understand her early experiences and their effects, has helped her to self-regulate and manage these feelings effectively.
Pregnancy is one of the most important and transformative times in a woman’s life.
Whilst for most mothers-to-be, there is likely to be a lot of excitement about the next chapter of your life, there is, of course, also going to be some anxiety, and potentially stress, at a time of huge change.
Not only are you adjusting to the idea of looking after another human being, and all of the considerations that go with that, but your body is experiencing the extra pressures of pregnancy such a fatigue, maybe sickness, body aches and pains, and not to mention, a hormonal rollarcoaster!
In short, it’s understandable and expected to feel stressed and overwhelmed at times.
It doesn’t help that, along with coping with these huge physical and emotional changes, our fast-paced modern world expects women to continue at the same pace and level of ‘productivity’ as if they wern’t growing a human!
But we do know that too much stress and anxiety in pregnancy can not only affect the mother in the short and long-term, but it can impact on the baby too. Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure which puts you at a higher risk of conditions such as preeclampsia, pre-term birth and giving birth to a baby with a low birthweight.
A study which analysed data from 55 studies with over 45,000 participants, revealed that children of mothers experiencing high stress, anxiety, or depression during pregnancy, may have a greater risk of mental health and behavior issues throughout childhood and adolescence.
Additionally, there is growing evidence from human and animal studies that exposure to prenatal stress can affect the health and development of babies. Directly, prenatal stress can potentially alter the course of fetal neurobiological development. Studies suggest, for example, that exposure to glucocorticoids in utero (a hormone which is released in response to stress), can affect the development of the stress response in the fetus, which can have long lasting effects on their behaviour and physiology.
During pregnancy, your endocrine, nervous and immune systems change to support your pregnancy, and stress can potentially disrupt these processes. This can increase the risk of adverse birth outcomes and predispose you to perinatal and postnatal depression, both of which can impact on both you and your child in the short and long term.
So if you’re pregnant and feeling extra stressed, what can you do? Very few of us have the luxury of stopping our jobs and spending the months until birth with our feet up. However, there are definitely steps you can take to reduce and manage your stress levels so they don’t lead to long-term impacts.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious often and it’s impacting on your day-to-day life, you may need professional help. Talk to your GP or midwife about it and they will be able to refer you for appropriate support. You might also think about opening up to friends and loved ones about how you’re feeling. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you’re finding things difficult and you may find that talking to someone you trust about it eases the burden. You could even ask for help in more practical ways to lighten your load if you’re feeling overburdened, such as asking a friend or relative to occasionally pick up your child from school.
If work is an ongoing source of stress, it’s important that you talk to your employer. Although you may feel like you don’t want to admit ‘weakness’ or ‘cause a fuss’, your employer has a legal obligation to protect your physical and mental health when you’re pregnant. If your doctor or midwife communicates that you are suffering with depression, stress or anxiety and you need to make adjustments to your working conditions or hours, your employer must take this into account and take reasonable measures to accommodate this.
As challenging as it can be when you’re leaving a busy life (and especially if you already have children!), it’s vitally important that you spend time in pregnancy carving out time for yourself. Whether this is just a bath time to relax and unwind, a pregnancy yoga class, a morning dog walk or an hour’s reading time before you go to bed. Conscious relaxing helps to release feel good hormones like oxytocin and dopamine and allows you to release tension in your body. Most importantly, it gives you some much needed time to take some deep breaths and get some perspective, away from the demands of the many different roles you have to fulfill in your daily life.
You’ve probably already heard that regular exercise during pregnancy is linked to a shorter labour, better post-natal recovery and reduction in pain and dsyfunction, and it is, of course, an excellent stress buster. Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators.
Whilst it’s probably not the time to start training for a marathon, you can definitely continue exercising within your own capabilities. Walking, pregnancy yoga, swimming, running or going to the gym are all perfectly safe as long as you don’t over-exert yourself. You may need to research pregnancy-safe exercises for certain sports and activities and make some adjustments.
There’s no better support network than one where you’re all in the same boat. Whether it’s making friends through a local antenatal course or joining an online Facebook group for expectant mums, you’re likely to feel more supported and less lonely by being able to talk to others who are going through similar experiences as you. Websites such as Mumsmeetup and the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) should be able to point you in the right direction to local groups.
It’s important to remember that whilst being aware of the impact of stressful situations on our unborn children, we can’t always control these. Sometimes, like the loss of my dog, life throws stressful situations at us. Knowing and understanding that stress impacts future mental health allows us to take action later to reduce the effects.
Did you experience stress in pregnancy? How did you tackle it?