Some stress can be normal during pregnancy, but chronic stress may cause maternal and infant health issues.
It is common to experience some worries and anxiety during pregnancy.
However, persistent or high stress levels may lead to health issues for the pregnant person and unborn child.
This article discusses the symptoms and effects of stress in pregnancy, what may cause it, and how to manage it.
Symptoms of stress in pregnancy can differ but may include:
- sleeping difficulties
- increased heart rate
- fast or shallow breathing
- persistent worry or anxiety
- obsessive thoughts
- eating too much or too little, or eating unhealthy foods
- difficulty unwinding or relaxing
Pregnancy is a major life change, and it is normal to feel some stress and emotional changes. If people experience high stress levels or emotions that feel overwhelming or out of their control, they can speak with a doctor.
There are no set guidelines for how much stress is too much during pregnancy. People should talk with a healthcare professional if they:
- feel anxious, low, or depressed most of the time for longer than two weeks
- have anxiety that causes physical symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat, fast breathing, feeling faint or sick, sweating, or diarrhea
- have panic attacks
- repeat certain actions, such as counting or checking, to help them feel better
- have persistent, unpleasant thoughts that feel uncontrollable
- feel so fearful of birth that they do not want to give birth
- feel they are unable to cope
The sooner people seek support, the sooner they can treat or prevent excess stress.
Pregnancy may cause stress for various reasons, including:
- pregnancy discomforts, such as tiredness, backache, morning sickness, or constipation
- hormonal changes, which can alter mood and cause mood swings, making it more challenging to manage stress
- worries about pregnancy, labor, birth, and caring for a baby
- managing everyday tasks, work, or preparing for maternity leave
- feeling a lack of support, or difficulties with a partner or family members
Any major life events or chronic stressors can also cause significant stress, such as:
- major negative life events, such as serious illness or death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss
- catastrophic events, such as hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes
- chronic stress, such as from abuse, racism, living in an unsafe or unstable environment, long-term health problems, or financial difficulties
- mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety
How health disparities contribute to stress
Health disparities can contribute to stress. A racist culture means people from racial or ethnic minority groups are more likely to experience chronic stress and factors that may contribute to stress. These include:
- limited or no access to health insurance and quality healthcare
- less access to well-paying jobs
- living in an unsafe environment
- living in an environment with higher levels of toxins, such as pollution
- less access to healthy foods
- attending a low-performing school
- regardless of income, Black females are more likely to experience more perceived stress and depressive symptoms and have less social support than white females
- non-Hispanic Black females are most likely to have high blood pressure during pregnancy, preterm birth, and small-for-gestational-age (SGA) births
- females from lower-income households have a higher rate of adverse pregnancy outcomes and preterm birth
High stress levels in pregnancy
Stress can also exacerbate issues with the placenta, such as preeclampsia, eclampsia, and fetal growth restriction.
According to a 2019 study, research suggests that increased cortisol levels during pregnancy may increase cortisol levels in a fetus, increasing the risk of developmental issues. However, other studies may contradict this.
Emotional stress during pregnancy may affect cognitive development and may lead to attention difficulties, behavioral problems, or increased negative emotions in a child.
Researchers have also found that prenatal stress or anxiety can affect development from childhood to adolescence. Maternal anxiety disorders may increase a child’s risk of developing an anxiety disorder, although this requires further research.
The following steps can help people manage stress during pregnancy:
- Stay fit and healthy: People can focus on eating healthy foods, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep.
- Take steps to reduce discomfort: A person can talk with a healthcare professional about reducing pregnancy discomforts, such as morning sickness.
- Cut back on tasks where possible: People should ask a partner or family member to help with chores around the house and delegate work tasks where possible.
- Plan ahead: If a pregnant person works, they can prepare themselves and their employer for maternity leave in good time. Writing to-do lists may help.
- Schedule relaxing activities: If possible, a person should use any time off to relax. They can plan activities to reduce stress, such as prenatal yoga or meditation.
- Take prenatal classes: Learning what to expect during pregnancy, labor, and looking after a newborn may help ease anxiety. People can also learn relaxation and breathing techniques.
- Contact a social worker: If people have problems relating to their circumstances, such as financial or housing difficulties, talking with a social worker may help.
- Ask for help: A person can let their partner, family, or friends know how they can best support them during their pregnancy and birth.
- Join a community: People may find connecting with others in similar situations helpful. This can be through support groups or pregnancy networks locally or online.
- Talk with a healthcare professional: If a person is struggling to cope, a healthcare professional can help them get support and treatment.
- Address depression and anxiety: Depression and anxiety can induce stress. A doctor can suggest ways to treat these conditions, including medication.
Some stress can be normal in pregnancy, but high levels may affect birth and development.
Pregnant people can manage stress by learning relaxation techniques, seeking support from friends and family, and getting plenty of sleep.
If a person is experiencing overwhelming stress during pregnancy, they can talk with a healthcare professional.