Stress, Sleep Problems, and Anxiety

The hustle and bustle of daily life in modern times can negatively affect our health. Chronic stressors can cause headaches, backaches, stomach aches, anxiety - and even colds or flu - or make them worse. Experts believe that the risks are greater for a pregnant woman.

Try to remember that even the most stressful events don't have to get us aggravated. We can change our response to it and minimize many of the negative effects.

What You Need to Know

When any of us experiences a stressful event, an area of the brain known as the hypothalamus produces a chemical known as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), beginning our own series of biochemical responses. From an increase in your heart rate to a tensing of your muscles, to changes you don't even see or feel.

Short-term stress usually won't cause you any serious harm, the situation can change when even low-level tension and anxiety become chronic - particularly during pregnancy. A Finnish study published in the April 2000 issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology reports that women under extreme stress during pregnancy are three times more likely to develop preeclampsia, which is the leading cause of maternal mortality.

According to Dr. Calvin Hobel, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, continuously high levels of stress hormones can even affect your immune system, increasing your risk of uterine infections linked to premature labor.

Effects of Stress on Your Baby

As you might imagine, significant stress during pregnancy will affect your baby as well. High CRH levels prompt the release of yet another chemical called prostaglandin, a hormone that can trigger uterine contractions, increasing your risk of miscarriage. The longer your stress response continues, the more CRH your body produces, and the greater that risk becomes. In studies conducted as early as 1995, researchers from the California Department of Health revealed that the risk of miscarriage is up to three times higher for women who experience severe stress early in their pregnancy.

And when it comes to stress, timing is everything: For example, during the massive 1994 earthquake in northern California, women who were in their first trimester when the quake hit were far more likely to deliver prematurely than those who were further along. Following the events of September 11, 2001, many doctors in New York City say they saw similar reactions among their own patients.

It's not just the major events and global stresses that can hurt you. When small but chronic stresses keep your CRH elevated during the first trimester, your body may attempt to adjust the labor timeline. You can miscarry, or deliver a premature baby with low birthweight.

Coping With Stress

You may be surprised to know that aromatherapy can help you beat even the most stressful times. This gentle art - thought a science by many - blends essential aromatic oils in a way that can significantly impact the body, mind and spirit. Research has shown that when humans detect the aroma of an essential oil, nerve impulses send a message to an area of the brain known as the limbic system. Here we find cells that not only control memory and emotion, but also the pituitary gland...the "master controller" of all hormone production. Ultimately, aromatherapy can be a powerful agent, helping you not only to relax, but also to control certain stress-related pregnancy complaints such as insomnia or fatigue.

Important Note: Not every scent used in aromatherapy is safe to use during pregnancy. This is because some can have a stimulating effect on the uterus that may induce contractions.

The following oils are considered to be generally safe for use during pregnancy:

  • Chamomile
  • Citrus (lemon, orange, bergamot, mandarin, and neroli)
  • Frankincense
  • Geranium
  • Lavender
  • Sandalwood
  • Cypress
  • Patchouli
  • Tea tree oil
  • Ylang-ylang
  • Clary sage and rosemary (during the third trimester only)
  • Jasmine, peppermint, and rose (after the sixteenth week of pregnancy)

Important Note: Never use an essential oil directly on your skin. Always dilute essential oils in a carrier oil such as sweet almond, jojoba, or olive oil. Check with your doctor or nurse-midwife before using any essential oil.

Here are a few recipes we recommend during pregnancy:

Aromatherapy Bath

Add one of the following aromatherapy formulas into a tub of warm water:

  • For relaxation: 2 drops each of neroli, lavender, and lemon oil with 6 teaspoons of sweet almond oil, olive oil, or jojoba oil.
  • For nervous tension: 2 drops each of lavender, geranium, and rose oil with 6 teaspoons of apricot kernel or sweet almond oil.
  • For nervous anxiety: Place 3 drops of lavender and 1 drop of neroli oil into a 10 milliliter bottle. Add vegetable oil to fill and mix well. Put several drops in hands and inhale; massage temples, neck, and forehead.

Coping with Major Stress

Talk about your feelings. Whether you are stressed, fearful, physically ill, worried about your health or that of your baby, or even have doubts about motherhood itself, talk to your doctor, your partner, your family or friends, and, if necessary, a counselor who can give you objective advice.

Exercise moderately and regularly. Not only can exercise make you feel stronger and more in control of your body and your pregnancy, brain chemicals produced during exercise can make you feel calmer.

Keep a pregnancy diary - and make it a point to enter at least one thing you do for yourself every day. This will remind you of the importance of taking care of and, yes, even pampering yourself during your pregnancy.

Avoid over-the-counter or herbal stress medicines in an attempt to calm down or get to sleep. Some can be dangerous during pregnancy or may make you feel worse. Instead, talk to your doctor about what prescription medications may be okay for short-term stress control.

Turn off the TV news. Instead watch a comedy or educational show or hunt for bargains on a television shopping network. According to experts, watching frightening or upsetting news stories, particularly seeing them repeated over and over, can increase stress levels significantly. Taking your mind off stressful events by, say, shopping on TV can go a long way in relieving your stress.

Learn labor relaxation exercises, and do them every day - they're great stress-busters! Many of these routines, particularly the breathing exercises, focus on relaxation. Not only will doing them daily help you be ultra-prepared for labor; the exercises themselves can help calm you down and alleviate stress during pregnancy.

If feelings of stress, fear, or anxiety seem overwhelming, consider talking to a pregnancy counselor - a mental health professional trained to deal with the emotional side of pregnancy. Most often, your doctor can recommend someone - or call the obstetrics department of your local hospital and ask for a reference.