How much stress is too much stress? This is a question that becomes more relevant with each passing day and one whose answer can have far-reaching repercussions in our lives. In modern times it is all too common to come across individuals who suffer to a great extent from the pressures and accompanying anxieties associated with oppressive lifestyles. Taxing work environments, demanding familial obligations and economic burdens are so commonly experienced that they are taken for granted and assumed as normal.
The truth is that these factors are abnormal and the human body did not evolve to deal with such overbearing circumstances. When a situation arises, that is perceived as threatening or demanding, the body and brain reacts physiologically, biologically and psychologically. This reaction is nothing more than the standard fight or flight reflex that is regulated by the Parasympathetic nervous system. However, when the situation is experienced for a prolonged period, the body is not able to cope, and adverse consequences arise.
Moreover, controlling levels of stress can be especially important in the case of pregnant women. Their physiologic changes make them more susceptible to certain diseases and medical conditions. Her immune system has been modulated to prevent their defenses from attacking her baby after taking it as a foreign body, and her cardiovascular system changes dramatically to provide nutrition to the fetus and in response to a whole new concentration of hormones. Stress can be as harmful to pregnant women as to compromise the life of both mother and child.
Stress may be in part healthy when controlled. Healthy levels of stress can be helpful to complete an assignment, keep motivated and active throughout the day. However, there are a few signs we should keep in mind to warn us when the threshold of healthy stress has been breached. So, in this article, we will review the effects of harmful stress in our bodies and the potential risk a high level of stress has on pregnant women and unborn children.
WHAT STRESS DOES TO A BODY
It has been clear for a long time now that there is a direct link between chronic stress and illness. Stress can also be the cause of impactful and permanent changes in the physiology of an individual as well as his or her emotional and behavioral responses.
Stress is capable of negatively affecting:
- Musculoskeletal System: by inducing extensive muscle tension stress can trigger various chronic pain conditions. For example, tension headaches and migraine crises are commonly associated with lingering muscle tension in shoulders and neck.
- Immunological Response: Stress has been linked to the reduced proliferation of T cells as well as increased cell cytotoxicity. This side effect can lead to a more unfortunate progression of infectious diseases.
- Cardiovascular system: Long-term problems related to cardiovascular and circulatory systems tend to arise after prolonged periods of chronic stress. Even episodes of acute stress can be harmful to your heart as they significantly increase heart rate and blood pressure.
Many Medical Journals agree stress can also be behind the development of early chronic aging as well as various other metabolic disorders. All individuals are susceptible to stress and its harmful effects. However there are stages in life that are even more vulnerable; such as infancy, childhood, and adolescence; pre-natal life lies at the top of this list, and expectant mothers would be remiss to underestimate the potential effects that a stressful pregnancy will have on her life and the life of her future child.
MOTHER BABY PHYSIOLOGY IS LINKED
A baby’s physical appearance and future behavior are defined to a great extent by the genes inherited from his or her parents. However, the age-long nature versus nurture debate also applies to unborn babies. Not many people will argue against the thought that a child’s environment has a significant influence on his behavioral development, yet many often forget that a child’s first influencing environment is the womb.
The majority of pregnant women are well aware of the dangers that drinking and smoking represent to the health of their unborn child. To avoid any potential developmental problems women will abstain from these vices accordingly; nevertheless, many women forget that stress can harm the baby as much if not more than alcohol and tobacco.
POTENTIAL EFFECTS OF STRESS ON THE MOTHER
When a woman falls under the effects of stress, her hypothalamus sets off a set of physiological responses that are aimed at helping her deal with the perceived threat. This response mechanism is actuated by the link that exists between her nervous and endocrine systems; this is mainly achieved by increased secretion of cortisol and epinephrine.
- Epinephrine will increase her cardiac frequency, skyrocket her blood pressure and induce a surge of energy.
- Cortisol will promote glycogenesis; alter immune response, affect digestion, while also influencing reproductive and growth processes.
When the body becomes frequently exposed to these powerful hormones over prolonged periods, it begins to experience important physiological side effects that significantly reduce a woman’s quality of life. Chronically stressed women will routinely suffer from hair loss, depression, loss of sexual appetite, menstrual disorders, ulcers, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, and even cerebrovascular infarction.
THE EFFECT OF STRESS ON THE UNBORN BABY
The evidence suggesting that stress during pregnancy has significant consequences on the health and future development of the baby has been rising over the past few decades. Experiencing highly traumatic events such as the death of a loved one or a violent accident are not the only recognized sources of harmful stress; it is now accepted that other mundane stress factors, such as marital abuse, work pressure, and economic troubles, can also produce severe stress. What is genuinely influential is how stressful the situation is perceived to be, rather than any objective intensity.
Complications with intellectual development have been observed and correlated with high amounts of stress during pregnancy. In a study out of the Department of Social Medicine at the Institute for Research in Extramural Medicine it was concluded that Stress during pregnancy is one of the primary determinants of a marked delay in motor and cognitive development in infants.
The Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College in London determined that if a mother is depressed, anxious, or otherwise stressed while pregnant, the risk of her child developing future emotional problems, hyperactivity disorders, or impaired cognition, is quite substantial.
The Journal of Pediatric Research concluded that chronic stress experienced during pregnancy increases the risk of preeclampsia, premature birth, and low birth weight. An increase in neonatal crying and behavioral and emotional retardation by the age of 4 has also been correlated with pregnancy stress. It has even been suggested that prenatal stress will negatively impact a child’s language skills.
The concept of stress has evolved in recent decades, and although it is currently accepted as a healthy and automatic physiological response to perceived physical and emotional threat, it cannot be denied that, when sustained over time and with a certain degree of intensity, it is the cause of both physical and mental harm.
The link that exists between a mother and her unborn child is the most intimate link that exists in nature, and that which happens to the mother also directly affects the unborn child. So to answer the question that opened this article, any stress that makes women feel anxious, depressed, worried and concerned can be too much stress when pregnant! So, look at the signs of unhealthy stress, such as changes in mood, levels of energy, increases in your heartbeat and bad feelings such as fear and anxiety. That would be the most easy way to detect how much stress is too much when pregnant.
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