Stress during pregnancy

Fact checked Medically reviewed

Medically reviewed by Brenda G., MD | Written by SheCares Editorial Team | Updated: Dec 26, 2021

Although feeling stressed has become one of the most common complaints of today's world, pregnant women should think twice before brushing it off as a normal part of life.

While some extent of stress during pregnancy is somewhat expected as new parents await the arrival of their newborn, excessive or prolonged stress can have harmful effects on the mother and her child during pregnancy as well as later on in life. Accordingly, this calls for a deeper understanding of stress in pregnancy and the importance of its prompt decline.

Keep reading to learn more about emotional stress during pregnancy, including what it is and what causes it, how stress affects pregnancy, and what to do to find relief and prevent it from taking a toll on your and your baby's health.

Stress during pregnancy

About Stress in Pregnancy

Causes of stress in pregnancy

Before diving deeper into the effects of stress on pregnancy and the ways to manage it effectively, let's take a quick look at what is stress, why it is important, and what causes it.

What is Stress?

Stress is the body's reaction when faced with difficulty, change, or danger. Also called the “fight-or-flight response,” it triggers the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, which helps the body take appropriate action.1

By design, stress is a natural and positive mechanism that keeps people alert and regulates glucose metabolism, blood pressure, immune functions, and more.

However, continuous or severe stress that is not properly released keeps cortisol levels elevated, which disrupts endocrine, nervous, and immune functions and can have negative effects on the human body.

What Causes Stress in Pregnancy?

Besides occasional life events that can happen to all women, expectant mothers can experience additional stressors, like:2

Pregnancy-Specific Stressors
Psychosocial Stressors   
  • Relationship problems: domestic violence, divorce, partner's illness, etc.
  • Living conditions: housing, financial instability, work load, or safety issues
  • Natural disasters: hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, etc.

Effects of Stress on Pregnancy

Studies have shown direct and indirect negative effects of various stressors on mother and baby's health during pregnancy as well as later in life.1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Effects of Stress on the Mother

Experiencing prolonged or severe stress during pregnancy has been associated with a number of detrimental effects on a pregnant woman's health, including the following: 

Effects of Stress on the Baby

Maternal stress during pregnancy has been found to increase the risk of certain pregnancy complications, many of them with far-reaching and long-lasting effects on a child's future physical and psychological health: 

  • Premature birth 
  • Low birth weight
  • Unplanned C-section
  • Cognitive and memory impairment
  • Behavioral or temperament issues
  • Affective disorders 
  • Asthma and allergies
  • Lowered immunity
  • Certain congenital anomalies
  • Mental health disorders
  • Attachment difficulties
  • Stress hyper-responsiveness
Effects of stress on pregnancy

Managing Stress during Pregnancy

Managing stress during pregnancy

While certain sources of stress during pregnancy cannot be predicted, other stressors can be eliminated with proper management techniques, which might include the following approaches:

Identifying Stressors during Pregnancy

Managing stress during pregnancy often starts with identifying one's sources of stress and finding the right approaches to handle them.

  • Start by becoming aware of your body's reactions to various situations, people, thoughts, or environments.

  • Try to notice a pattern between various triggers to stress in pregnancy. 

  • Put an effort into eliminating major stressors from your life, whether it be through having an honest conversation with a co-worker, finding better or safer housing, asking your employer for some time off, or leaving an abusive relationship.

Reducing Stress during Pregnancy

Although specific techniques of stress management in pregnancy will depend on its cause, there are a number of effective approaches to reduce cortisol levels in the body and find relief.

  • Keep up with regular, moderate-level intensity exercise while pregnant as it can trigger the release of “happy hormones,” bring down cortisol levels, and relieve pregnancy discomforts.

  • Give relaxation techniques a try, including mindfulness meditation, prenatal yoga, prenatal massages, and deep breathing exercises. They can help you relieve stress and prevent the mind from filling with anxious thoughts.

  • If you are stressed about becoming a parent, start a pregnancy diary to let those anxious thoughts, concerns, and doubts flow out of your mind. Then, try to read them as if they were written by someone else, while simultaneously trying to distance yourself from them. 

  • If stress in pregnancy is due to common discomforts, like insomnia or back pain, discuss treatment options with your doctor.

  • If you notice symptoms of depression, such as sadness or apathy, ask your doctor for help right away.

Maintaining a Stress-Free Outlook

To help the body stay strong and immune to the negative effects of excess stress in pregnancy, consider implementing the following recommendations:

  • Keep a healthy pregnancy diet filled with immunity-boosting and brain-protecting foods, such as those rich in vitamin C or omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Create a support network to help you get through your pregnancy; it could be friends and family as well as local support groups.

  • Surround yourself with beauty and positivity by reading uplifting literature, spending time outdoors, and engaging in a hobby.

Key Takeaways

As studies continue to investigate the relationship between stress and pregnancy, one thing is known for certain: experiencing excessive or severe stress while pregnant can have far-reaching, detrimental consequences on both mother and child's health. It has been shown to compromise pregnancy outcomes, increasing the risk of premature birth and low birth weights as well as impairing child's development later on in life, including lowered immunity, compromised cognitive functions, and behavioral problems. While certain stressful situations in life cannot be foreseen, some sources of stress during pregnancy can be effectively eliminated with a number of management techniques, including identifying the stressors, instilling stress-relief techniques, and maintaining a stress-free outlook for an optimally safe pregnancy and healthy children.