Pregnancy can simultaneously be a deliriously happy time and the cause for a lot of stress. There are doctor’s appointments to make, registries to create, a nursery to plan, and sometimes, family members to manage. Not to mention this is a huge life event and everything is going to change once the baby is here. While you’re taking a deep breath for what seems like the millionth time today, you may be wondering, can stress cause a high-risk pregnancy? And if so, what can you do about it rather than move to a remote island for the rest of your pregnancy, away from everything and everyone?
Dr. Sherry Ross, OB-GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, says that stress and stressors directly affect a person's health, whether anyone wants to admit it or not. “Stress quietly and silently affects us, and if you are carrying a passenger in the womb, there are negative consequences affecting both of you,” she tells Romper in an email interview.
Dr. Angela Jones, an OB-GYN and Astroglide’s resident sexual health advisor agrees, and says stress can “absofreakinglutely” cause a high-risk pregnancy. “Elevated levels of stress can be associated with elevations in blood pressure. In pregnancy, that can manifest into hypertensive disorders, which can in turn lead to things such as growth restriction during pregnancy and small birthweight babies. Preterm labor or contractions can also be associated with increased levels of stress,” she says in an email interview with Romper.
Jones says because stress also leads to a lack of sleep and eating abnormally, this can cause weight gain, which gives you an increased risk of developing gestational diabetes, another issue that causes a high-risk pregnancy. Ross says, “When stress starts to affect you physically and mentally, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, weight loss or weight gain, poor concentration, accidents, high blood pressure, and heartbeat irregularities, it is cause for concern. If significant stress lasts the entire nine months, the baby will definitely be affected in damaging ways.”
Apparently, some of those "damaging ways" include low birthweight. According to Ross, “Detrimental financial stressors causing concerns that the baby’s needs won’t be met, pregnancy-specific distress, perceived stress, depression, and anxiety are all associated with a higher chance of having a low-birth-weight infant."
Yikes. So now that you’re stressed about being stressed, how can you try to be as stress-free as possible during your pregnancy? Jones says recognizing your worries and stress is half the battle. “Speaking with your OB-GYN is certainly a start, and occasionally more in-depth counseling might be in order,” she says. Ross agrees, and believes talking about stress should be an ongoing conversation as part of your prenatal care, throughout your pregnancy, and during the postpartum period.
“Try to identify those things in your life causing your stress. If it’s work, try working less. If you’re doing too much around the house, get your partner more involved," Jones adds.
Both doctors also highly recommend exercising regularly while you’re pregnant, trying yoga, or meditation, and generally doing anything that allows your mind to refocus and for you to find your center. Plus, “exercise allows you to release any pinned up stress you may have, and it allows a ‘whooosah’ moment,” Jones says. Ross also recommends eating a healthy diet, drinking eight to 10 12-ounce glasses of water per day, and trying to get at least seven hours of sleep every night to help keep stress at bay.
If you already have generalized anxiety, sometimes simply exercising and meditating aren’t going to cut it, though they can help a little bit. This is most definitely something you should discuss with your OB-GYN and your doctor so you can talk about the possibility of taking safe medications to treat your anxiety. "In general, anti-anxiety medications are not recommended to take during pregnancy since they are associated with a slight increased risk of birth defects, preterm labor, and pulmonary hypertension in newborns. Even though these complications are extremely rare, it's always best to discuss the benefit of treatment versus the risks of complications to the pregnancy," Ross says.
If reading this article about being stressed during pregnancy is stressing you out (sorry), try going for a brisk walk, doing some prenatal yoga, or take some deep breaths. If you know you have anxiety, it may be a good time to talk to your OB-GYN about your triggers and if you should either continue to take your current medication, or ask about taking a different, pregnancy-safe medication to manage your anxiety.