Stress in Pregnancy
Stress is a word that can be used to describe the way we feel, or it can be used to describe something that happens to someone. Many different things are included in the term stress:
- Feelings of stress, anxiety or depression are very common during pregnancy. They may come and go, or they may persist. In around 15% of pregnant women, these symptoms are quite serious and could affect the development of the fetus. Although it is important to remember that it only increases the risk of problems and most children of even very stressed mothers are fine.
- Most pregnant women who are experiencing emotional problems during pregnancy do not get any help from their doctor, nurse or midwife. It is very important that the pregnant woman is aware of how she feels, and asks for help when needed.
What is stress?
Different people find different things stressful, and triggers may be quite normal everyday things, or they might be extraordinary events. All of the following have been found to affect fetal development in research studies:
|Feelings of anxiety and depression||Bereavement|
|Quarrels with a partner or family member||Natural disasters like floods or hurricanes|
|Feeling that your partner is emotionally cruel||Terrorist attacks|
|Anxiety about the pregnancy itself||War|
Although stress is known to affect fetal development, it certainly doesn’t affect every fetus. Some mothers can feel quite stressed, without this having any effect at all.
How can stress be measured?
- Researchers use different types of questionnaire to assess emotions and emotional problems.
- These questionnaires ask about particular emotions or feelings and how often they are experienced.
- They allow us to ‘measure’ your emotions and assess how problematic they are for you, both psychologically and physically.
To assess this during pregnancy, researchers use a questionnaire called the Spielberger Anxiety Inventory. This is made up of lots of statements which you rate as ‘almost always true’, ‘often true’, ‘sometimes true’, or ‘almost never true’.
The statements include things like:
- I feel nervous and restless
- I feel that difficulties are piling up so that I cannot overcome them
- I worry too much about things that don’t really matter
- I get in a state of emotional turmoil as I think over my recent concerns and interests
To assess this during pregnancy, researchers use a questionnaire called the Edinburgh Depression Scale. This is made up of lots of statements that you rate according to how often you feel like that. The statements include things like:
- I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong
- I have been so unhappy that I have had difficulty sleeping
- I have been so unhappy that I have been crying
- The thought of harming myself has occurred to me
What does stress do to the body?
There are two main types of effect that stress has on the body.
The first is the immediate response to stress. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response and can occur within seconds. Adrenaline and noradrenaline (also known as epinephrine and norepinephrine) are released, and they prepare our body for immediate action in an emergency situation.
The second response is a more gradual one. Over 20 minutes or so, our bodies release more of a hormone called cortisol. This helps our bodies to withstand ongoing physical and mental stress.
However the relationship between how someone feels, and the responses of these two systems is quite complex, and we can feel stressed without a release of adrenaline or cortisol.