The year 2020 has been a time of unprecedented social, emotional, physical, and economic stress for most of us. We have all had to face a pandemic, which brings with it so many complicated implications and changes to our individual normal lives. Our country is in a state of civil and political unrest. If that wasn’t enough, Mother Nature has decided to add a few wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and murder hornets… and now birds have literally started falling out of the sky.
As many of you know in a first-hand way, this has not stopped women from becoming pregnant and having babies. Although women’s bodies are wise and innately know how to be pregnant, women’s minds can’t help but be concerned about all that is happening around them. The pressing question for many is if the environment around a pregnant person impacts the environment the baby is growing in. The short answer is… yes… AND… Read on to understand more about how stress affects moms and babies, and what you can do to make a positive change with it.
So, here’s the tough stuff: increased levels of the hormone cortisol are released as part of the body’s natural stress response. Cortisol can cross the placenta and reach the baby. When a mother frequently activates the sympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for our fight-flight-freeze response), the baby does not know that this response has been triggered by a stressor that is not life-threatening. In fact, the baby only knows the threat has passed once the parasympathetic system kicks in with the “rest and digest” response. This article suggests that, while a small amount of stress can actually have a positive effect, too much stress and cortisol can be harmful. “Intense stress” can have a lasting effect. Although most children are not affected, according to Monk, Foss, Desai, and Glover (2020), stress, anxiety, and depression can (but don’t always): have an impact on a baby’s future emotional, behavioral, and physical development; contribute to a baby’s own ability to regulate stress; cause problems with cognition, attention span, impulsivity, and hyperactivity; and can also have a physical effect on immune and autoimmune functions. In terms of the health and well being of pregnancy, stress has been linked to preterm labor, low birth weight and increased blood pressure.
Does this mean you should stress about stress? No, that’s not a good idea. Instead, make some adjustments, and do the best you can — that’s all any of us can ever do!
The good news is stress is not entirely bad. The amount of stress someone endures is not as important as the way they react to it (Divecha, 2018). A fetus in utero is constantly getting small clues about the outside world and they begin to learn skills for adaptation based on their environment. Imagine the type of environment a person can create with purposeful exercises in resiliency, stress reduction, and stimulation of the hormones associated with happiness and attachment!
So… how do you get there? Here are some great tools to try:
One great way is mindfulness! Mindfulness can allow you to reduce your stress response. Connect with your baby, perhaps by touching your belly and taking a few deep cleansing breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. One part of mindfulness involves identifying triggering thoughts or feelings and acknowledging their effect on your immediate safety. Tell yourself and your baby, “I am safe, you are safe, we are safe! I was stressed but it’s not about you… I will find a way to work through it.” With this action and affirmation you can begin to relax and trigger your parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.
There are many things you can do to infuse joy into your pregnancy — being in stressful circumstances doesn’t change the fact that your pregnancy and your baby deserve to be celebrated! Stress hormones can cross the placenta, but so can other chemicals which can have a positive affect. There are four main chemicals that occur naturally in the body that are associated with happiness: (1) Dopamine is associated with the reward response. (2) Ocytocin is associated with love, labor and attachment. (3) Seratonin has a direct effect on mood regulation. (4) Endorphins are natural pain killers. There are some great simple things you can do to help your body reduce stress, anxiety and depression and increase the amount of the chemicals that can create positivity and happiness in your body (see graphic below).
If you find you are not able to do this on your own, you may need to enlist the help of a professional counselor or therapist — and that’s just fine! If you don’t have a counselor or therapist, your midwife can help give you resources to find one. Dar a Luz also offers access to our staff counselor Kimberlee, and several support groups in normal times… most are on hiatus at this time, except for our new Anxiety Support Group (it meets every month: find the next one HERE).
Some people may also need medication to help with serious anxiety or depression. In these instances, some people are worried about the risk to the baby. This is also something you can bring to your midwife or mental health specialist, who can discuss your concerns and help to answer any questions you may have.
Lastly, because a baby’s ability to adapt to stressful situations will continue to grow and develop throughout childhood, you can continue to help your child learn how to acclimate. Parenting is one of the most difficult and demanding jobs one will ever do. It is also one of the most important. In most instances, you will be learning lessons with your child(ren). Patience, education and mindfulness will be imperative.
Do not hesitate to ask for help when you need it and take some time to relax. Be mindful of your thoughts and emotions and your response to them.
Take time to celebrate and create joy and boost your happiness! You and your baby are worth it!
We are so glad to be on this journey with you. We invite you to share your concerns with us during this challenging time. We are honored to offer you support throughout your pregnancy, share in your joys, and to support you through your parenting and future family planning, too!
Corrianne is a Certified Nurse Midwife at Dar a Luz Birth Center. She lives with her husband, four sons and two dogs in sunny Albuquerque. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, boxing, Pilates, dancing, singing, playing games with friends and family, and binging on Netflix. In addition to her passion of serving women and growing families, she is also a certified Laughter Yoga instructor. She believes that infusing joy and positivity into your daily routine a person can create genuine happiness!
Monk, Foss, Desai, & Glover. Excerpt from the Handbook of Perinatal Clinical Psychology: From Theory to Practice. Edited by Rosa Maria Quatraro, Pietro Grussu. 2020. Fetal exposure to mother’s distress: New frontiers in research and useful knowledge for daily clinical practice.