Pregnancy is a beautiful thing—when you’re not stressed out of your mind. What shouldn’t I eat? When should I share the news? Do I really need maternity underwear? Is it normal to have such wonky dreams every night? The concerns seem endless.
Maybe it’s all the unsolicited pregnancy advice or the vast parenting info now available at our fingertips, but in 2014, Health Psychology Review researchers reported that “a large proportion of children born today are exposed to high levels of maternal stress during gestation.” Myriad factors can contribute to this stress—death of a family member, loss of a job, natural disasters—but reports show that a good deal of the stress is related to the pregnancy itself.
Growing a human within your body is, by its nature, physically draining. An expectant mother typically worries about the health of her child, labor and delivery, and how she will care for the baby after birth. But there’s more than biology to consider: Pregnant mothers are subject to stress and anxiety related to present and pending changes to family, occupation, finances, emotions, hormones, and more.
Evidence shows that the stress “predicts a variety of adverse physical and psychological health outcomes for the mother and baby.” According to the study:
Women with high stress are less likely to maintain optimal health behaviors during pregnancy, and they are more likely to smoke and be sedentary. . . . Moreover, expecting mothers who experience high stress or anxiety during pregnancy are at risk of preterm birth and giving birth to low birth-weight infants. . . .These adverse birth outcomes are a pressing public health issue in some countries, such as the United States where the national rates of preterm birth and low birth weight average 13 percent and 8 percent respectively.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Coping Well Has Tangible Effects for Mother and Child
A study out of Johns Hopkins University examined the relationship between preparation during pregnancy and the ability to cope with labor and delivery, and found that “the more preparation a woman had, the more aware she was at delivery, and that awareness was strongly associated with positive reactions to the birth and the baby.” Another clinical study by Nancy K. Lowe, RN, Ph.D., on labor pain “suggests that a woman’s confidence in her ability to cope with labor contributes significantly to her perception of pain during labor.”
Learning to Cope
So, how does a woman “cope”? Experts define coping as “constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts aimed at dealing with the demands of specific situations that are appraised as stressful.” In practical terms, this means having a figurative toolbox with which to confront potential stressors, as well as the ability to implement the right resource at the right time. Once you nip a stressor in the bud, so to speak, you minimize or avoid experiencing the otherwise negative response.
Cope with the Controllable
If the situation is controllable, you can try problem-focused coping, in which one attempts to “address or resolve the situation.” To get started now, seek out health care providers with whom you can communicate clearly and comfortably, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Find motivation to get into healthy lifestyle habits such as sleeping enough and exercising regularly, as research proves these significantly reduce stress levels.
Accept What You Can’t Change
When the situation is beyond your control, emotion-focused coping—accepting that the stressor exists—is more suitable than trying to manage or reduce the feelings of distress. One set of studies suggests that “coping efforts involving positive appraisal [efforts to create positive meaning by focusing on personal growth] or religious faith are associated with better psychological adjustment during pregnancy.” Celebrating milestones during pregnancy—such as recording the first heartbeat or planning a fun gender reveal—are practical examples of positive appraisal.
Combat Avoidant Coping Behaviors
Scientists note that avoidant coping behaviors—”behavioral efforts oriented toward denying, minimizing, or otherwise avoiding dealing directly with stressful demands”—on the other hand, “are associated with postpartum depression, preterm birth, and infant development.” Even outside of research concerning pregnancy, “avoidant coping styles and behaviors appear to be associated with psychological distress, whereas active problem- and emotion-focused styles and behaviors are generally, although not entirely consistently, associated with indicators of well-being.”
According to a Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology study, avoidant coping can be effective in the short term but was linked with depressive symptoms over a ten-year period. In the long term, a Health Psychology study notes, attention coping “was associated with more positive outcomes.”
Nurture Coping Behaviors That Work for You
According to the Health Psychology Review authors, "Because the ways that women cope with pregnancy stress are shaped by a broad range of influences including personality traits and resources, interpersonal relationships, culture, and the nature of stressful conditions, trying to change the ways that women respond to stress may be challenging, not always beneficial, and arguably even be harmful in some cases."
Bottom line: We all cope in different ways. If you know which behaviors work for you (a nice massage, anyone?), make an intentional habit of practicing them when you’re stressed out and don’t feel guilty about taking time for self-care. If you tend toward avoidant coping behaviors, we recommend seeking out a mental health professional to help you find healthy and effective ways to deal with life’s stressors, pregnancy-related or not.
Developing effective coping styles before conceiving can help women manage the unique stresses of pregnancy and motherhood when the time comes. After all, stress doesn’t evaporate once there’s a baby in need of your care. Making an effort to nurture a healthy mind–body connection now will do you—and your future baby—a lot of good.
Photo Credit: Horace and Mae Photography