"I'm so sure stress was the reason I miscarried."
"I delivered at 22 weeks and my doctor said stress had nothing to do it with it. I didn't believe him."
"I wish someone told me how much stress hurt my fertility and pregnancy."
"Next time, I'm making stress [management] a priority."
These are real words from real moms who have reached out to me via social media and email since learning about the work I do to help women have healthy pregnancies and babies. However it's not just me talking about this.
For decades, researchers have been finding the connection between emotional stress and anxiety and how long you stay pregnant and what complications you develop during pregnancy. Unfortunately, this information, though there is plenty, is not mainstream yet.
The biggest reason for this is that we conceptualize our health in a dichotomous manner, separating emotional health from physical health, believing one cannot significantly impact the other.
Doctors are trained to assess, diagnose and treat physical health conditions by managing physical symptoms. Mental health professionals are trained to assess, diagnose and treat mental health conditions by managing emotional symptoms.
There are not enough professionals who are able to merge the two to recognize that pregnancy health includes physical health, emotional health and overall wellness. Managing only one is not enough for optimal pregnancy health!
Your baby is not immune to the stressors and anxiety that you feel. (Tweet that!)
Having a handful of high anxiety or high stress day, won't impact your pregnancy or your baby's health long term. But day after day feeling anxious or worried (like so many high-risk moms do), does impact your health, how long you stay pregnant and your baby's health once s/he is born.
The science behind how stress affects your pregnancy and baby.
Stress and your blood When you're stressed, your blood vessels constrict. During pregnancy, this impacts your baby because there is less oxygenated blood that gets to your uterus, through the placenta and to your baby. This can impact your baby's development if there is severe decrease in blood flow.
In particular, pregnancy-specific stress or anxiety specifically about your baby has been shown to decrease blood flow to the placenta and the baby. (Helbig, et al., 2013) Stress about your pregnancy and the health of your baby is also connected to spontaneous preterm birth in the third trimester even in an otherwise healthy pregnancy. (Qu, et al., 2016)
Stress and your placenta
Numerous studies have shown that stress during pregnancy (especially during the first trimester) signals to your placenta to produce a hormone called the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). Typically your placenta produces more and more of this hormone as your pregnancy progresses leading to labor toward the end of pregnancy. Premature release of this hormone, especially in the first trimester, can advance the "placental clock" setting the stage for preterm labor and delivery . (Pike, 2005 and Sandman, et al., 2006)
Stress and immunity
Stress also impacts your immune system, lowering it further during pregnancy, putting you at risk for developing an intrauterine or intra-amniotic infection. (Preterm Birth: Causes, Consequences and Prevention, 2007). Infections such as these can be dangerous to you and your baby, and are frequently the cause of preterm delivery.
Stress and prematurity
Anxiety and stress play a significant role in putting you at risk for delivering early. In fact, researchers found that anxiety increases your risk of delivering prematurely even when controlling for other factors that could cause preterm birth. (Orr, 2007).
This is such a profound effect that scientists have identified that more than half of women who deliver prematurely had stress as one of the factors that contributed to their premature delivery. (Lilliecreutz, et al., 2016) (Tweet that!)
Stress and pregnancy complications
stress increases your fasting glucose levels, which is a risk factor for developing gestational diabetes (Horsch, et al., 2016)
emotional stress increases the risk of developing preeclampsia (Vianna, 2011)
emotional stress is two times as likely to cause preterm birth than PPROM and four times as likely to be the cause of preterm birth than cervical insufficiency (Manuck, et al., 2015)
mothers who experience high or chronic levels of high emotional stress or anxiety tend to deliver babies with low birthweight (Dunkel Schetter, C., 2011)
This is not your fault.
Reading this, you might find yourself feeling guilty, that you're doing something to cause your complications. Or you might be thinking back to pregnancy complications you had in the past - or the preterm delivery you experienced before - and you might be feeling like it was your fault.
You might even be angry that I'm sharing this with you.
I want you to know 100% that this data is not saying that any of this is your fault.
You're a mother, worried about her baby. How can you not be stressed? Anyone and everyone in your situation would be stressed and anxious about what's going to happen.
My intention for sharing this with you is to show you that you that even though it is not your fault, effective physical and emotional stress management is critical to help you stay pregnant as long as possible.
It has to be #1 on your daily to-do list.
The research also provides hope.
Practicing mindfulness-related meditation has shown to be a powerful strategy to relax the body and calm the stress response during pregnancy. (Muthukrishnan, et al., 2016). (Tweet that!)
Guided imagery has also been shown to be a powerful stress-reducing activity that can help you feel more relaxed, have a clearer mind and feel less anxious. (Jallo, et al., 2008).
Lastly, researchers have found that certain relaxation exercises can help women stay pregnant longer even when they are on hospital bed rest experiencing preterm labor!
Your next steps!
If you know you're experiencing physical or emotional stress during your high-risk pregnancy and you're ready to find out what can do to help yourself stay pregnant as long as possible, then get your copy of bestseller Pregnancy Brain: A Mind-Body Approach to Stress-Management During a High-Risk Pregnancy on Amazon. Complete with client stories of hope, my personal journey of discovering the impact of stress on my pregnancy health and over 70 years of research, this is your go-to guide to help yourself effectively manage your stress and help yourself give your baby a strong start to life, even if you have complications.