Stress is a subjective phenomenon and can be defined as an individual's physical and psychological response to a situation where they feel that the demands placed on them exceed their ability to cope.
Pregnancy is a time of great change and many women do feel stressed at some point. This is completely natural and not at all surprising seeing as you have to cope with the responsibilities that filled your life before you fell pregnant as well as prepare yourself, psychologically and physically for a new arrival. While short term stress is not detrimental to the health of you or your baby and can actually be beneficial in certain circumstances (as it can increase alertness and performance), prolonged periods of stress have been linked to negative health consequences.
The physical symptoms associated with stress (such as increased heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension) are actually part of our fight or flight response - a biological survival mechanism that helped physically prepare our ancestors to escape from danger. However, the stressors that we now have to deal with on a day to day basis are very different to those our ancestors had to face in prehistoric times. This means that in a situation where a simple cognitive or emotional response would suffice, our bodies are still stimulated to produce a physical response. If we remain in a highly stressed state for a long time, the hormonal and chemical responses that help in the short term begin to exert a negative response on the body. Prolonged periods of severe stress have been linked to high blood pressure, heart problems, anxiety and depression as well as an increased susceptibility to cold and flu type infections.
The results of research investigating the effect of stress during pregnancy aren't particularly conclusive. However, the general consensus is that while short term stress doesn't influence baby's development, sustained periods of severe stress may increase the risk of preterm labour, low birthweights and complications such as preeclampsia. While this shouldn't be a problem for the vast majority of women, if you are feeling especially stressed or are finding it difficult to cope then you should visit your midwife.
As stress is a highly subjective experience we all differ in terms of the experiences that we find stressful, our responses to stressors and the way in which we deal with them. It is believed that many of the adverse associations between stress and health are actually a consequence of external reactions to stress rather than a direct result of stress itself. For instance, common reactions to stress include smoking, drinking (alcohol and coffee), skipping meals or eating junk food, not taking enough physical exercise or getting enough sleep. These behaviours actually exacerbate the negative feelings associated with stress and are particularly dangerous in pregnancy when good health practices are of the utmost importance for mother and baby.
If you are finding it particularly difficult to cope with all of the demands placed on you it is important that you address these feelings - pregnancy is a wonderful time and you should have the opportunity to enjoy it. Try to eat regularly and healthily as your body needs the nourishment to feed your growing baby. Take some gentle exercise, this will not only help to alleviate some of the uncomfortable symptoms of pregnancy (such as water retention, constipation, back ache, nausea and insomnia) but will also help to relieve tension and increase the level of 'happy hormones' (endorphins) in your body. Relaxation methods such as yoga, meditation and massage will also help you to be less susceptible to stress.
A large source of stress for many pregnant women involves concerns about labour, the health of their baby and how they will cope once the baby arrives - talking to your partner and friends will help to alleviate these concerns and enable you to feel positive about this experience. Antenatal classes are also a good idea as you get to share your experiences with women going through the same things as you - friends made now can be a great source of support throughout your pregnancy and once your baby is born.
If you are feeling overly stressed then you should visit your health care provider - they will be able to reassure you of both your own and your baby's health and discuss effective methods of stress relief with you.
Life is never stress free (especially when there are children involved!), but by taking things in your stride and dealing with stressful feelings as they arise you should be able to enjoy a healthy pregnancy without any stressful complications