There are different kinds of stress -- and it helps to know the difference.
It’s a familiar phrase to anyone who’s ever been pregnant. You bring up whatever pregnancy concerns you’re worrying about at the moment and when the person is done reassuring you that it’s not so bad, they wrap up with a robust, “Don’t stress! Stress is bad for the baby.”
Which, to be honest, never makes me feel better. Really, it just leaves me feeling stressed out about being stressed out. I know I’m not alone. Every week on the pregnancy forums, some new mother is feeling guilty for her stress levels, even if it’s just that she’s a bit on edge because the dishes aren’t done, or they haven’t picked a name yet. Because after all, stress is bad for the baby.
But is it really?
Well, it depends. The American Psychological Association helpfully divides stress into three separate categories, and the distinctions are important …
Your day-to-day challenges are called Acute Stress. That would be anything that makes your body pump out hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Sometimes that’s because you’re having fun, actually. You’re watching a scary movie, or riding a roller coaster. Even if it’s no fun, as long as it’s temporary, you don’t need to worry about the baby. You are fighting with your spouse, but eventually, you make up. The ultrasound tech couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat for two terrifying minutes, but then you heard it. The stress isn’t comfortable, but it doesn’t last long.
Acute stress is a problem when it becomes Episodic Acute Stress. That’s when you just can’t seem to catch a break. The stresses may be temporary, but you never seem to get a break from the physical effects that each new wave of stress brings with it.
Similarly, there’s Chronic Stress. That’s not a stressful day, or even a bad month, it’s stress you’ve been under for years. It’s the stress of people living in poverty, or war-torn areas, people trapped in abusive relationships, or in the grip of addiction. It’s the stress of trauma. When the trauma isn’t addressed and healed, it can affect your entire perspective on life, making you feel perpetually hopeless and unsafe.
Researchers have found that it’s the last two that you have to worry about. “When the mother is stressed over a longer period of time during pregnancy, the concentration of stress hormones in amniotic fluid rises.” These stress hormones can influence the baby’s growth, and predispose him to mood disorders. But “short term stress situations,” the study clarifies,”do not seem to have an unfavorable effect on the development of the fetus.”
So more precisely — it’s not that any stress is bad for your baby, it’s that prolonged stress is bad for the baby. And no wonder. Prolonged stress isn’t good for your own body either, and anything that affects your body has a chance at affecting your baby, too.
A lot of our stressors are out of our control and we rely on factors like our own health, and our social support systems to help us. But if you’re still worried, it’s worth learning how to complete your stress cycle. That can help keep isolated events from becoming “episodic stress.”
It works like this: Say you get into an argument, and it gets heated. Your blood pressure rises, your body fills with adrenaline, your cortisol spikes. These changes aren’t random; they’re your body’s way of trying to prepare and protect you. But if the argument and the corresponding stress never resolves, your body never gets a chance to turn off those responses. In time, they can become chronically activated. Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski, twin sisters who wrote the book on breaking this cycle, lay out some activities to help your body calm down, including physical activity, deep breathing, laughter, crying, and creative expression, all of which help signal to the body that it’s safe, and it no longer needs those hormones.
Whether we’re pregnant or not, knowing how to complete our stress cycle can help us to avoid chronic stress. Having some tools to do that can go a long way in giving us confidence that our everyday stressful moments won’t harm our babies.