Stress is a contentious topic in the field of reproductive and perinatal health. While many people who have experienced infertility, pregnancy complications, preterm birth, or loss are told stress had nothing to do with their experiences, it’s inevitable to ask the question, “but what if it did?”
The controversy surrounding the notion of stress influencing reproductive or perinatal health is arises from the traditional mind-body separation in Western medicine and the prevalent (though inaccurate) belief that stress is solely a mental health issue. If stress is categorized as a mental health concern, many providers emphatically deny its role in conditions such as recurrent miscarriages, preeclampsia, or preterm birth.
From this perspective, these providers are indeed correct. Your thoughts did not cause the complications or losses you’ve faced. However, what often gets omitted from this discourse is that stress is not just a matter of mental or emotional health. Stress triggers a systemic response throughout the entire body.
Stress is a physiological chain reaction that occurs when you perceive a threat.
That means every single body system undergoes changes to keep you alive and safe from. While Parijat has regularly used the analogy bear attack in her book Pregnancy Brain to illustrate this physiological chain reaction, in reality, the threat can actually be anything.
This threat can be linked to work deadlines, the cries of an infant or child, internal or external sensations (such the scent of hand sanitizer or the sensation of swollen fingers), dehydration, or even receiving a baby shower invitation. These examples illustrate the extensive range of potential sources of threat in day to day life. It’s crucial to recognize that the assessment of this threat takes place entirely outside of our conscious awareness.
By delving deeper into the mechanisms of stress physiology, which we extensively cover in our Ruvelle Experience, it becomes apparent that the reproductive system cannot remain impervious to the physiological changes that occur in response to a threat, every single body system is affected.
For instance, you might notice changes in heart rate (cardiovascular system), alterations in breathing (respiratory system), stomach discomfort (digestive system), or shifts in posture (muscular system). Upon closer examination, you’ll also uncover changes in sensory perception, movement patterns and an increase in inflammation.
Tip from Parijat: It’s ok to have bad days. Not all stress is equal. Having an occasional bad day will not affect your health (during pregnancy or otherwise) in the same way chronic or traumatic stress can.
Let’s take a closer look
Stress and your blood
When your threat response is activated (a physiologically appropriate way to say “when you’re stressed out”), your blood vessels constrict. This can affect fetal development because it impacts blood flow to the uterus, placenta, and your baby.
Stress, your placenta, and prematurity
Numerous studies have established that stress during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester, signals to your placenta to produce a hormone called the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). Typically your placenta increasing amounts of this hormone as pregnancy progresses, leading to labor toward the end of pregnancy. The premature release of this hormone, especially in the first trimester, can accelerate the “placental clock,” setting the stage for preterm labor and delivery. Researchers have discovered that this activated threat response increases your premature delivery even when controlling for other factors that could cause preterm birth.
Stress and immunity
Whether triggered by chronic or traumatic stress, this threat response also affects the immune system, rendering you susceptible to developing intrauterine or intra-amniotic infections. Such infections can post risks to both you and your baby, frequently leading to preterm delivery.
Stress and pregnancy complications
Moreover, a sustained threat response due to chronic or traumatic stress elevates fasting glucose levels, increases risk for gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and low birth weight, among other complications.
As you can hopefully now see, medical providers are not incorrect when they state that stress doesn’t cause health complications if they are referring to your thoughts and your feelings. However, this is just an introduction to how stress physiology can indeed impact perinatal and fetal health.
The Silver Lining
Stress is a predictable physiological chain reaction with a distinct pattern of activation and deactivation or completion, which means when you understand the physiology of what’s happening during a threat cycle, it’s relatively straightforward to support your body to complete that cycle. It’s important to note that relaxation isn’t the means to threat cycle resolution but rather the result of it. The advice to “just relax” is not only unhelpful and dismissive but also physiologically inaccurate.
Completion of the threat cycle
Completion of the threat cycle completion entails supporting body to return to a state of physiological balance or homeostasis. It’s not about forcing the way you want to feel (e.g. taking deep breaths or loosening our muscles), but rather about supporting your body and all of your body systems to shift back so that you’re able to take spontaneous deep breaths again. As stress triggers a physiological chain reaction, resolution of this threat cycle initially occurs at the somatic (body-based) level first and later at the thought-based level.
The exciting news is that when threat cycles are effectively resolved before and during pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes can improved. Parijat has lived personal experience with this (listen to Delivering Miracles® episode 1 for a glimpse of her journey) and has guided her private clients around the globe in doing th esame. Furthermore, the positive impact on completing threat cycles and improved pregnancy outcomes is supported by scientific literature.
Naturally, the next question you may have is “How do I do this?”. We encourage you start by reading Pregnancy Brain to dive deeper into the concept of stress physiology. Afterward, we invite you to join us in the Ruvelle Experience. In our Ruvelle Experience we’ve crafted a powerful guided journey for you to experience these principles in real time. If you’re considering pregnancy in the near future, we highly recommend joining us in the Ruvelle Experience so that you can practice in advance and prepare for a healthy high-risk pregnancy when the time comes.