How to Avoid Emotional Stress During Pregnancy

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Pregnancy is a time of many changes and it’s only natural to feel overwhelmed by them from time to time. However, chronic stress can be harmful to your health and the baby’s, so it’s important to take steps to manage your stress levels.

This article explores the potential causes of stress during pregnancy, the effects of prenatal stress, and some coping strategies that may be helpful.

Potential Causes of Prenatal Stress

Pregnancy itself can be a stressful time, as you may find yourself worried about the baby and all the changes in your body and your life. You may also find yourself feeling stressed about other aspects of your life.

Both pregnancy-related stress as well as other psychosocial causes of stress can affect your health and the baby’s development.

Pregnancy-Related Stress

These are some of the aspects of pregnancy that can be particularly stressful:

  • Pregnancy-related symptoms, such as morning sickness, nausea, fatigue, back pain, insomnia, and constipation
  • Hormonal changes, which can cause mood swings and affect your ability to cope with stress
  • Health complications, which may affect your health or the baby’s health
  • Worries about the baby’s health and safety
  • Fears about the birthing process
  • Anxiety about raising a child and how your life will change
  • Concerns over what you’re eating, drinking, or doing, and whether it’s safe for the baby
  • Worries about how pregnancy is affecting your body and changing your appearance

Other Causes of Stress

Apart from pregnancy-related factors, you may also be experiencing stress due to other causes. “Stress can be caused by a wide range of events from everyday annoyances to major traumatic events,” says Jennifer McMahon, MD, a perinatal psychiatrist at Yale Medicine.

These are some of the other potential causes of stress:

  • Negative life events, such as the loss of a job, a serious illness, a major accident, the death of a loved one, or a divorce
  • Chronic stressors that cause long-term stress, such as financial difficulties, housing status, abuse, or serious health issues
  • Catastrophes, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks, or shooting incidents
  • Sociocultural factors, such as racism, or exposure to crime or violence

Effects of Prenatal Stress

The level of stress you’re experiencing can play a role in determining the impact on you and your baby, says Dr. McMahon. For instance, mild and intermittent stress may not adversely affect your health—in fact, it may even have a beneficial effect, according to Dr. McMahon.

However, feeling stressed or anxious frequently or for prolonged periods of time, or feeling like you’re unable to cope with the stress you’re experiencing, can affect your pregnancy and your baby.

How Prenatal Stress Can Affect You

These are some of the ways prenatal stress can affect you:

  • Pregnancy symptoms: Stress can exacerbate pregnancy-related symptoms, which can add to your discomfort.
  • Altered eating habits: Feeling stressed out can cause you to eat more or less than you usually do, or affect the quality of your diet, according to Dr. McMahon. Your eating habits can affect your weight, and being underweight or overweight during pregnancy can raise your risk of complications such as preterm labor or gestational diabetes.
  • Substance use: According to Dr. McMahon, frequent exposure to significant stress can make you more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, or use other substances during pregnancy, which can be harmful to you and the baby.
  • Pregnancy complications: A 2015 study notes that experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression during pregnancy can increase the risk of pregnancy complications such as low infant birth weight and preterm labor.

How Prenatal Stress Can Affect Your Baby

A 2013 study notes that prenatal stress can affect the baby both directly and indirectly:

  • Direct effect: Cortisol, the stress hormone, also happens to play a vital role in fetal development, so excess cortisol levels in your body can affect the baby’s brain.
  • Indirect effect: Stress can affect your health and cause pregnancy-related complications, which, in turn, can affect the baby’s health.

These are some of the ways prenatal stress can potentially affect the baby:

  • Higher rates of infant illness: A 2020-study found that higher levels of stress during pregnancy are linked to an increased risk of the infant developing infections in the first year of life. The authors note that stress in the later stages of pregnancy may be especially likely to affect the child’s immunity.
  • Increased sensitivity to stress: A 2021-study found that prenatal stress can cause the child to experience emotional dysregulation and be hypersensitive to stress well into their adult life.
  • Poorer quality of relationships: A 2019-study found that stress during pregnancy can affect the quality of the child’s interactions and social relationships.
  • Increased risk of health conditions: A 2016-study found that prenatal stress can increase the child’s risk of developing depression as well as other health conditions, such as obesity, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.
  • Delayed development: According to Dr. McMahon, prenatal stress could potentially increase the risk of delayed motor development and poorer cognitive performance in children.

However, it’s important to note that these effects need to be further researched, according to Dr. McMahon, since many of these studies involve small sample sizes. Furthermore, while they often prove association, additional evidence is required to conclusively prove causation.

Care and Support Can Help

"Although the risk of adverse outcomes may be increased for people who experience stress during pregnancy, most babies are unaffected and any adverse effects can be lessened through additional support and engagement in care,” says Dr. McMahon.

Coping With Emotional Stress During Pregnancy

Dr. McMahon suggests some strategies that can help you cope with emotional stress during pregnancy:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider: Discuss your experiences and your symptoms with your healthcare provider. They can refer you to a mental healthcare provider for further assessment and support.
  • Prioritize yourself: Try to prioritize caring for yourself. Make sure you're getting enough sleep and eating a healthy, balanced diet. Rest when you need it and cut back on things you’re no longer able to do.
  • Seek support: Reach out to family or friends for support. Talk to them about what's stressing you out. Spend time with them regularly and ask for their help when you need it.
  • Go to a childbirth education class: Join a class that can help you understand what to expect during the birthing process. Most classes also teach breathing and relaxation exercises that can help you cope. Feeling more prepared for the birthing process can help reduce some of your anxiety around it.
  • Practice relaxation exercises: Yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness practices can help you relax. Find the technique that works for you and practice it regularly.
  • Find healthy outlets for stress: It’s important to find healthy ways to let off steam. Try to continue doing activities that you previously enjoyed. Or, find a new hobby that you enjoy, such as painting, going for walks, or doing the crossword. Treat yourself to something indulgent, like a prenatal massage.
  • Join a support group: A support group may be helpful because it can help you connect with people who have similar experiences. It can be a source of validation, support, and inspiration. Postpartum Support International has online support groups for pregnant people.

A Word From Verywell

Stress can be difficult to manage at the best of times, but may be especially hard to manage if you’re pregnant. Whether your stress is pregnancy-related or caused by other factors, it’s important to take steps to identify the cause and address it. Prioritizing your health and well-being, and getting help if you need it—from loved ones or professional healthcare providers—can also make a big difference.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.