Pregnancy can be one of life’s most exciting times, but let’s be real, there are some stressful moments too.
OK, stressful weeks when everything just feels like a lot.
A little stress about money, work, or changing gears into parenthood is normal, but chronic stress while pregnant can become a problem.
Here’s what you need to know about stress in pregnancy.
And how you can restore some ease.
In this article 📝
- What is stress?
- Is stress while pregnant always a bad thing?
- What does stress during pregnancy do to a baby?
- How does chronic maternal stress affect baby in the womb?
- Can a baby in the womb feel your stress?
- How much stress is too much when pregnant?
- How to relieve stress while pregnant
What is stress?
“Stress” is a combination of physical and chemical changes that take place in your body when your brain responds to a threat.
The threat could be real, or it could be something you’re worried about that might never happen—your body responds the same way.
Once stressed, your nervous system releases a hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) which then triggers a cocktail of other hormones, specifically adrenaline and cortisol.
These hormones tell your muscles to contract, your heart and respiration rate to speed up, and your senses to sharpen.
Think of it as your whole body snapping to attention.
Is stress while pregnant always a bad thing?
Not at all.
For short-term emergencies, stress is actually helpful—a secret weapon that powers quick decisions.
But the problem with stress is that our bodies pay a high price if the “fight or flight” state continues for too long.
Stress drains our energy, diverts resources away from our immune systems, raises our blood sugar, and throws almost all our other physical processes (even our menstrual cycles) completely out of rhythm.
So it’s no surprise that living with chronic levels of stress is proven to have a serious impact on our health.
It can increase the long-term risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, cancer, and diabetes, as well as mental health problems.
What does stress during pregnancy do to a baby?
Recently, there’s been some new research into the effects of stress on mamas-to-be and their little ones.
And the results are in: extreme stress over long periods isn’t good for either of you.
But it’s important to note that there’s a difference between short- and long-term stress.
Short-term feelings of stress and anxiety have not been shown to impact fetal development.
Even when a mama experienced an episode of panic, the baby was just fine.
So can crying and stress affect an unborn baby?
Or can arguing during pregnancy harm the baby?
In fact, some studies even report that a small amount of stress during pregnancy has benefits.
As long as it’s not constant.
It’s crucial that if the body has short periods when stress hormones are at a higher level, it also has longer periods where the levels have a chance to normalize.
It’s when you’re living in a chronic state of extremely high stress while pregnant that can affect you and your baby.
We dive even deeper below.
How does chronic maternal stress affect baby in the womb?
Scientists have repeatedly shown a link between higher levels of hormones like cortisol and an increased risk of:
This can be especially true of high stress in the first trimester when your little one is laying the foundations for all the systems in their body.
But it’s not just the stress in pregnancy that has an impact.
A 2013 study found that prenatal stress can disrupt the natural adjustments of the maternal endocrine, nervous, and immune system during pregnancy.
And one of the most significant physiological changes is the shift in the immune system towards an anti-inflammatory state.
This means an increase in inflammatory cytokines (the little signaling proteins that help control inflammation)—too many of which can cause excess inflammation.
And this is a huge finding because it confirms that maternal stress and inflammatory responses are not only fueled by stress, they can also affect other parts of fetal development and maternal health.
That could mean a more compromised immune system for mama, plus behavioral changes like poor sleep and poorer nutrition.
While for baby, prenatal stress (even of the less severe kind) can often result in preterm birth or low birth weight—both of which are linked to lasting issues in an infant’s physical and behavioral development.
Can a baby in the womb feel your stress?
Despite the risks above, scientists are still not sure exactly how the stress levels of mamas-to-be get passed on to their babies and why the effects seem to differ throughout pregnancy.
Some research suggests that the infants of those pregnant in the top 15% with prenatal anxiety and depression have a great risk for anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
But the general view is that many fetuses appear quite resilient to stress.
And there also isn’t clear-cut proof that your little peanut can “feel” when you go through an isolated stressful incident.
So while you should do what you can to manage your stress levels, you don’t need to let the idea that your little one can feel the impact of a stressful day become another thing on your list of pregnancy worries.
And look, we know this is a lot of information to digest—especially if your mind is already concerned about stress during pregnancy.
But far from fear-mongering, we serve these findings as a tool for change and self-awareness.
It’s easy for stress to take the front seat, and sometimes the best way to take back the wheel is to see the full picture of where it could be steering you (and your little one).
How much stress is too much when pregnant?
Stress exists on a sort of spectrum—The Stress Spectrum.
We can think of it in terms of positive, tolerable, and toxic stress.
Much like stressors, everyone’s response to stress is different.
Here are a few warning signs that you may be veering into toxic territory to look out for:
- Feeling like gnawing sense of dread or constantly fearing the worst
- Faster heart rate
- Loss of interest in social activities
- Lack of energy
- Back and neck pain
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- A sense that one source of stress is always replaced by the next ‘urgent’ thing
- Habits like teeth grinding, nail biting, fidgeting, hair pulling, or skin picking
- Constant negative emotions such as anger, sadness, or fear
With so many changes happening in your life, as you move through pregnancy week by week, it’s normal to experience some stress.
You’re human, mama (and we have a whole community of women who can relate and validate).
But it’s when extreme stress is left unchecked and begins to impact your day-to-day that the pregnancy complications can start to stack up.
The good news is, you’re here.
Which means you already know it needs attention.
Half the battle is awareness, let’s help you with the other half—finding relief.
How to relieve stress while pregnant
Now to the most coveted information: stress relief for pregnancy.
The truth is the secret of how to deal with stress during pregnancy is no different from managing stress at any other time.
Here are natural ways to relax during pregnancy:
We can feel the eye roll from here, mama, but hear us out.
Exercise uses up your excess adrenaline and gives you an endorphin rush which can improve your mood, change your perspective, and make you feel less overwhelmed.
It also promotes good sleep.
And we’re not talking intense 90-minute gym sessions either. 🏋🏼♀️
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, pregnant women are recommended to get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week.
20 minutes a day is all you need to get started, and that can look like a brisk walk, swimming, or even riding a stationary bike.
Just enough to start sweating—but steer clear of intensive activities like hot yoga, horse-riding, or, you know, jumping jacks. 🤸♀️
That’s more like it right?
If you need an afternoon nap or an extra hour in bed, let yourself have it.
Your body is doing a huge amount of work. 👩💻
Not to mention, pressing pause allows space for your parasympathetic nervous system to do what it does best: balancing out the sympathetic nervous system (the home of your fight or flight response).
It also gets to work conserving your energy, activating your immune system, increasing your gut motility, and decreasing your heart rate (among other things).
No wonder it’s called the “rest and digest” system.
Your parasympathetic nervous system also encourages the swelling of the clitoris—making way for another stress-relieving activity… 🌶
Talk about natural ways to relax during pregnancy!
3. Eat well
While treats are fine, sugar highs and crashes can affect your mood and your energy levels.
Eating as healthily as you can allows your body to get through the day more smoothly.
But more than this, a balanced diet can help support a healthy immune system and repair damaged cells—big power moves when we think of the impact of stress during pregnancy.
Plus, it can also supply your energy stores with enough juice to cope with the stressors not always in your control.
We see them too, mama.
4. Step back and get mindful
Sometimes we get stressed for good reason.
And sometimes, our minds can work against us.
Whether that means fixating on a specific worry (hello, pregnancy fears), invalidating our own feelings, or worse, not allowing ourselves space to process. 🙅♀️
Mindfulness is simply the act of being aware of what you’re experiencing in the moment without judgment.
This can look like labeling the emotion out loud: “I’m feeling stressed right now”.
Or else you could try breathwork, guided meditations, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or gentle yoga. 🧘🏾♀️
All relatively simple ideas, but the research shows they are powerful tools for reducing anxiety, depression, and stress.
No harm in trying, right?
5. Talk to a therapist or doctor
If you try to ease up and take steps to reduce your stress levels but still feel the same, you might need some extra help.
When it comes to managing extreme stress during pregnancy, talking to a professional is peak self-care.
A few sessions of speaking to a professional can help you understand the root cause of your stress, give you some extra tools to manage it, or put your worries into perspective. 📝
We’ve already mentioned CBT above, and there’s a good reason.
Not to be confused with CBD, CBT is designed to stop negative thought cycles by taking overwhelming problems and breaking them down into smaller parts.
This means drawing awareness to our unhelpful thoughts and providing the tools to find new, more effective responses.
And research shows that even online or self-help CBT via an app can reduce stress and improve mental health
6. Get support
And last but not least: seek support. 👭👭👭
This can be from your partner, a friend, your family, a neighbor, or a trusted colleague.
It’s okay to ask for what you need—in fact, it’s encouraged.
There are support groups for women of every description, created and intended to offer safety and connection. 👩❤️👩
And it’s not just about having shoulders, ears, and helping hands.
A 2022 study showed that social support can actually help strengthen resilience.
See? Doing it all solo is not the flex it once seemed to be.
And if you don’t have a network, best believe the Peanut Community is full of other mamas-to-be who are going through the same thing.
It’s what we’re here for.
We’ve got you. ❤️