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Stress and Pregnancy

Rarely a day passes without hearing something about stress in the news. But, still you might wonder what actually is stress? How do you know if you have stress and how does stress affect your pregnancy?

What is Stress?
The term stress is used to describe circumstances in our environment that challenge our bodies both physically and psychologically. Stress is not always bad. In fact, some stress is a necessary part of life that helps compel us into action, increasing our alertness and awareness.

When we encounter a stress-creating stimulus, our body responds by secreting hormones that stimulate our nervous system and prepare us to move, or react. If the stimulus is mild or perceived as non-threatening, then there is little hormone release and we react in a healthy fashion. An example is, when we move to avoid an obstacle while walking.

At times however, excess stress-creating stimuli may overwhelm our abilities to respond and cause a negative effect, often called "distress". In this case, the stimuli may present either a "real" or "perceived" threat to us. The body responds immediately, pouring out hormones, which result in increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, as well as sweaty palms and cool, clammy skin. Stressful events can also trigger emotional feelings of anxiety, fear, insecurity and anger.

For most, brief stressful encounters are well tolerated. Prolonged stress, however, has been linked to many health problems including sleep disturbances, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and depressed immune function. While the results are inconclusive, recent research suggests that excess stress may contribute to infertility and pregnancy risks.

What is the Right Amount of Stress?
Because each of us finds different situations stressful, the optimal level of stress varies from person to person. A task that one person finds enjoyable can be highly stressful to another. For example, your sister may love the thrill of speeding downhill on skis, but may panic while taking a driving exam. You, on the other hand, may feel terrified at the thought of even getting on skis, but feel very comfortable taking exams.

A person (pregnant or not) who is coping well with stress, feels relaxed and energized, and probably does not face health risks from stress. While another, who is coping poorly, may feel tired, drained, anxious and is more likely to suffer the health risks of excess stress.

Does Stress Affect Fertility and Pregnancy?
Stress and Infertility Studies on the effects of stress on fertility are limited. It appears that some women with high stress levels may have hormonal changes, irregular ovulation or on occasion, fallopian tube spasm. In men, stress may be one of many factors responsible for decreased sperm production.
Infertility and Stress It is clear that infertility is a highly stressful experience, for both men and women. Infertile couples experience chronic stress each month, first hoping that they will conceive and then dealing with the disappointment if they do not. Infertility treatments can place additional stress on couples. The medical evaluations to determine the source of infertility and the treatment interventions can create tremendous financial and emotional strain for couples. Some stress research has shown that women undergoing infertility treatment, experience an equal or higher level of "stress" of those faced with the life-threatening illnesses of cancer or heart disease.
Stress and Pregnancy

Studies also suggest that high levels of stress may pose special risks during pregnancy. Pregnancy presents a unique set of circumstances that can mean joy and bliss in some, but overwhelming anxiety and stress in others.

The physical effects of pregnancy (such as hormone-related mood swings, nausea, fatigue, frequent urination, swelling and backache) can be stressful. In addition, many have emotional stress due to concerns about the baby's health and parenting responsibilities.

Getting adequate rest and limiting activities that cause discomfort can minimize some of the physical discomforts. Support persons and health care providers can also provide help in dealing with the concerns and stresses of pregnancy.

Research also indicates that high stress levels may pose special risks during pregnancy. Several recent studies found that women who had preterm delivery or low birth-weight infants, had high levels of stress (such as a family death, divorce, job loss) during their pregnancy. Researchers are trying to clarify exactly how stress contributes to these outcomes. It may be that women who are experiencing high stress levels, have poor health habits and may even be prone to using alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. Another recent observation is that the stress hormone 'cortisol' can cross the placental barrier when a pregnant women is under a high degree of stress and dietary protein is low. High cortisol levels can effect fetal brain development, specifically memory.

More information is needed before proving that stress resulted in these pregnancy risks. No doubt, persistent, unrelieved stress causes damaging "wear and tear" on the body.


A key ingredient to a happy, healthy pregnancy is keeping your stress level under control. You can begin by identifying the personal and work-related sources of stress in your life. Determine if you are having any physical symptoms of excess stress, such as nervousness, upset stomach, headaches, fatigue or sleep disturbances. If you feel you are experiencing symptoms of excess or unrelieved stress, there are several things you can do reduce the amount of stress in your life, or improve your ability to manage it.

Managing Stress
  1. Identify and take control of your stressors. If you feel overwhelmed with responsibility, look for ways to eliminate some commitments. It may mean postponing school, reducing your work hours or getting help with child care and housework.
  2. Seek help from your support network (partner, family, friends and others).
  3. Avoid excessive intake of caffeine and other stimulants.
  4. Exercise regularly to release physical and emotional tension.
  5. Learn to reduce stress by using relaxation techniques or meditation.

Pregnancy is a special life event that presents unique physical and psychological challenges. Many realize this is time to take special care of their bodies and enjoy the precious moments of pregnancy. However, if you feel overwhelmed by the stress of pregnancy or infertility, get help from a mental health professional, for your health and your baby's health.

Not all exercises or diets are suitable for everyone. Before you begin this program, you should have permission from your doctor to participate in vigorous exercise and change of diet. If you feel discomfort or pain when you exercise, do not continue. The instructions and advice presented are in no way intended as a substitute for medical counseling. The creators, producers, participants and distributors of this site disclaim any liability or loss in connection with the exercise and advice provided here.

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