Stress is not always a bad thing. In fact there are some wonderful things that come out of stress. You probably think I am nuts but it is the truth. We hear every day how stress is harmful to our health and we have to work at reducing stress from our lives. However, research has shown there are actually benefits to our developing baby’s health all because of stress.
It is actually much better to have moderate levels of stress than no stress at all during pregnancy. Stress may come from both good (exercise, expecting a baby, and other positive changes) and bad (illness, limited finances, death of a loved one) circumstances. Regardless of where it comes from stress is a natural part of life. How we handle stress, the duration of the stress, and our support systems make the biggest difference.
We all know how stress can alter our brain activity and function when we are under a lot of stress consistently over a long duration. We also know how relaxation can help our brain activity and function as well because. These are two very distant aspects of the stress spectrum. What happens in the middle of these extremes of high stress to very low stress? We have stress hormones for a reason and not just to make us go crazy in our minds or feel the negative physiological effects either. Our biological stress responses have always been meant to help us survive.
Whenever you experience a stressor your brain will begin to secrete a chemical called Corticotrophin-Releasing Hormone (CRH). This hormone triggers the release of glucocorticoid stress hormones; the one you may be more familiar with is cortisol. When the brain is stimulated by glucocorticoids along with other stress hormones such as adrenaline it begins to respond in a way to make itself and the body ready to respond to the stressor. It does this by increasing your blood pressure and breathing in order to get more oxygen to the muscles, the mind becomes more active and alert, and for a short time your bodies digestion, growth, and repair temporarily shut down. When the stressor as subsided the stress hormone stimulation is meant to decrease and go to baseline levels. When the stressors are consistent over a long period of time this is when our bodies and minds experience negative effects.
Starting from our very development in the womb, stress-related biological processes have an effect on the availability of:
- Protective neurotrophic growth factors. Their job is to maintain survival of our neurons and grow new ones.
- Development of the synapse a.k.a. neuron junction. This is where two nerve cells electrical signals communicate to take action.
- Levels of neurotransmitters. These are brain chemicals that actually move the electrical communication from one nerve cell to another.
- Myelination. This is the sheathing of a nerve fiber essential for proper functioning of the nervous system.
In essence stress during pregnancy influences which nerve cells grow, their protection for survival, and how efficiently they communicate.
During the early stages of pregnancy Corticotrophin-Releasing Hormone (CRH) is released to suppress the mother’s immune system so her body does not treat the fetus as a dangerous foreign object that needs to be diminished.
As time moves on CRH helps to regulate blood flow to the placenta and therefore the developing baby.
During the end stages of pregnancy cortisol has been shown to play a role in the development of the brain and lungs.
A study performed by Dr. Janet A. Dipietro was performed to see if fetuses respond to stressors that the mother experiences. Pregnant women were exposed to a noninvasive stressor to measure the developing baby’s response. The stressor used was the Stroop Color-Word Test. With this test these pregnant women were asked to read the color name printed in various colors that did not match the actual word and therefore had to dissociate the color of the words from their meaning. The degree in which the mothers and the fetuses responded to the Stroop test was similar amongst the participants in the middle to end of pregnancy. There is still much to learn about prenatal maternal stress and the influence on fetuses but there were two interesting findings.
- Babies born to mothers who experienced an increase in levels of anxiety during mid gestation showed higher motor and mental development scores based on the Bayley Scales of Infant Development. This made sense based on the knowledge that glucocorticoids (neurohormones that produce during responses to stress) actually play a role in organ maturation.
- Keep in mind the specific increase in anxiety is not stated nor a baseline of anxiety given. Example, from a scale of 0-10 (no anxiety-extreme anxiety) the anxiety went from 3-5 or a 2-7.
- Babies born to mothers who exercised regularly during gestation were able to remain alert and track stimuli better than babies born to mothers who did not exercise. Another fascinating discovery showed that by age 5 these same babies had higher cognitive abilities.
As you can see stress is not always bad for us. In fact it has always been meant to increase our chances of survival from development into old age. The problem is we are so accustomed to feeling stressed about too many things all too often that we do not recognize how stressed we really are until we have a negative mental or physical reaction. Trust me I have been there with stress hives, back pain, and headaches. When I started to control my reactions to stress these issues went away. It is something I have been working on for a while now!
It is crucial for us to remember that moderate stress is normal and that it is not always a bad thing. We each have a role to play in every situation we are in no matter if it is good or bad. So if we play a role in the situation then that also means we have control of it as well.
Keep in mind life was not ever meant to move at 200 miles per hour. Enjoy the ride, besides we only get this one shot at it so make the most of your time.
Take time to rest, play, and connect with what is most important to you.