Don't let worrying about stress add more stress to your day. Stress is a part of life—it has weaseled its way into your schedule before your pregnancy, and it will continue to accompany you throughout your pregnancy. Even when you're pregnant there will still be traffic jams that make you late, inconsiderate and pushy people who drive you nuts, deadlines to meet, and arguments with friends and co-workers. In these kinds of situations, stress will not harm your baby.
On the other hand, stress that is intense or chronic can be a problem for you and your baby. If this is an unplanned pregnancy, for example, or if you have separated from your partner, or if you are grieving over the death of a close friend or family member, or if you have a job that's making you want to jump off a cliff, your body's physical reaction to this kind of stress can be harmful to both you and your baby in many ways:
The World Federation of Sleep Society tells us that three or more hours of lost sleep per night can decrease the efficiency of the body's immune system by as much as 50 percent.
During stress, the body releases a hormone called cortisol. Initially, cortisol helps us deal with stress by raising blood sugar for quick energy and heightening our sense of awareness. But if the stress is chronic, the neurons that release cortisol in the brain become stressed and agitated, causing depression.
- Extreme stress changes your breathing pattern. When you're upset, you take shorter, shallower breaths that bring in less oxygen. (That's why people who are distraught are always told to take a deep breath.) Your body needs a plentiful supply of oxygen right now, so make a conscious effort to maintain a normal, deep breathing pattern.
- Stress can affect your diet. If you lose your appetite, your baby won't get the daily nutrients necessary for healthy growth. If you find yourself bingeing on sweets when you're upset, you'll add fat to your weight gain, raise your blood sugar levels, and give your baby empty calories that can't be used for healthy development.
- Stress can affect how well you sleep. Sleep is a restorative time that allows your body to rid itself of toxins, such as free radicals and excess brain chemicals that are released during the day and can zap good health if allowed to build up in your system. Sleep also allows the body to discharge the effects of everyday stress that can build up and cause anxiety. Your body craves sleep (especially in the first trimester) for a good reason.
- Stress can weaken the immune system. When your body diverts much of its energy and internal resources to battling the fatiguing effects of intense or chronic stress, your immune system has little left to fight off invading germs. You are much more likely to catch a cold, the flu, or anything else in the air when you're stressed.
- Stress can cause physical pain. Tension headaches and backaches, unexplained muscle aches, and even chest pain are all signs of extreme stress.
If you read through these stress-related symptoms and say, "Hey, that's me!" it's time to talk to your health-care provider about finding ways to ease stress. Maybe it's time for an early maternity leave from your job, for example. In the meantime, make relaxation exercises a part of your daily routine.