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Chronic Stress

Scientists don't know for sure whether high levels of chronic stress harm your baby or put your pregnancy at risk. However, there is some reason to believe that stress might impact your baby. According to the March of Dimes, very high levels of stress can contribute to preterm birth or low birthweight in full-term babies. What qualifies as "very high levels of stress"? Like beauty, stress is in the eye of the beholder. What puts stress on one person can often invigorate another.

Your body's reaction. When something that you perceive as distressing happens, your body undergoes a very real and very dramatic physical response. It's called the "fight or flight" response, because it physically prepares you to either confront a danger or escape from it.

Here's an example: You're lounging by a pool, when suddenly a toddler falls in. Nearly every system of your body becomes immediately prepared to deal with the stressful situation. Your heart begins to pump like crazy, rushing blood to your muscles. Your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Stress hormones pour into your bloodstream. Your immune system and digestive system temporarily shut down, and your brain switches into a state of hyperalertness. You now have the power you need to jump up, run to the pool, plunge into the water, and save the child from drowning.

After you place the child into the arms of his frightened mother, you return to your lounge chair, and over time your body's systems return to their normal, non-stressed state.

If you are chronically stressed, however, your body remains in a constant state of alert. Your "fight or flight" reaction occurs over and over, and your systems never have a chance to return to normal. Your heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tension stay elevated. Your body overflows with stress hormones. Your immune system remains suppressed, compromising your ability to fight disease. Constant surges in blood pressure and cholesterol production damage your blood vessels.

Protecting your baby. While scientists search for answers, pregnant women can try to avoid stressful situations and stressful people whenever possible. Getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising regularly, spending time with supportive friends and family, doing yoga, and practicing meditation or other relaxation exercises can also help you reduce feelings of stress and bring your body from a state of emergency to a state of calmness.

Originally published in You & Your Baby: Pregnancy.

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