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Understanding You And Your Stress Response

Stress Free Pregnancy

A stressful situation can come in many ways and can be activated by numerous factor and maybe you will find something you recognize here:

• persistent worry about something
• sense of panic without any strong reason
• an unplanned pregnancy
• being afraid of losing something or someone
• work deadline and pressure at work
• lack of communication with your partner
• unsupportive family
• being irritable many times
• having a hard time to calm down
• pessimist and negative thoughts that don’t go away


Whether this is something that just started or that has been going on in your life for years, women can often feel very lonely while trying to deal with it, and even more when thinking about becoming pregnant, or being pregnant and dealing with a whole new life and changes.


A stress situation can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce a chain of physiological changes. This well-orchestrated reaction is also known as stress response or "fight-or-flight" and is a natural survival mechanism of our body, that we all have and that comes from the old times, when we were in the wild, enabling us, and other mammals, to react quickly to life-threatening situations. For instance, in an incident, it can make your heart pound and start breathing quicker. Muscles become tenser, beads of sweat appear, and the substances that can repair your tissues also increase in the body. This stress response is a great mechanism of the body because it also triggers the most primitive part of your brain to help you make quick decisions and take fast action to fight the threat off or flee to safety.

Unfortunately, the body can also overreact, making it a habit and start acting as if you were on a life-threating situation all the time. Some people think that this reaction is just part of their own personality and they can’t do anything about it, because you see yourself overreacting most of the time in different situations that probably wouldn’t need such a strong reaction from you, but you just don’t know what to do about it. Most of the times these are not immediate life-threatening situations, and circumstances such as work pressure, financial difficulties, family difficulties, and relationships or even just a traffic jam can make you go overboard.

Over the years, researchers have studied how these reactions work together and why they start in the first place, getting insight into the long-term effects of chronic stress on your physical and psychological health. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, addiction, gastrointestinal problems, problems in sleep and focus, obesity and poor connection between mother and baby.


What is like when stress kicks in?
The stress response begins in your brain. When you are confronted with a stressful situation, being it a legitimate life-threatening situation or not, the eyes or ears (or both) send the information to the amygdala gland, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds and when it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus functions as a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee (see illustration).

stress free pregnancy

This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls many involuntary body functions like breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles.

Your autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous is the activation system of the body, it triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond as it perceives danger. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake, promoting the return to calmness and rest, to digest the response after the danger has passed.

After the amygdala’s distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, which then sends signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands.

The adrenal glands respond by pumping the hormone adrenaline into the bloodstream bringing on a number of physiological changes:
• the heart beats faster than normal
• blood is pushed to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs
• pulse rate and blood pressure go up
• breath starts moving faster and small airways in the lungs open wide
• the lungs take in much more oxygen than normal and extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness
• sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper, and you become extra sensitive
• there is also a release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body, supplying energy to all parts of the body

These reactions are so natural and quick that you aren't even aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain's visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That's why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.

If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the adrenal glands start releasing the cortisol hormone, keeping the body in high alert, and only when the threat passes, cortisol levels fall. The parasympathetic nervous system — the "brake" — then dampens the stress response.

Stress over a long period of time can also affect your baby:
• influencing the metabolism in the placenta
• stress hormones pass through the placenta making the amniotic fluid bitter and baby can drink less because of it
• increase chances of a low-birthweight baby
• increase chances of having a premature baby
• supply of oxygen to the baby can decrease
• increase changes of health problem of your child later in life


What can you do about it?
Many people feel unpowered to control this chain reaction, and it is understandable because it is a very strong biochemical reaction, and because we are living in a society, in an environment that is always asking for a quick reaction from ourselves, and we may find hopeless to change our response. Chronic low-level stress keeps your brain in high alert all the time, you are extra sensitive, extra emotional and after a while, this will also have an effect on your body leading to health problems associated with chronic stress. And women are particularly susceptible to stress when they are pregnant and even more sensitive to their body and mind transformations, and also the environment they are in. Besides that everything that is happening with the mother physically and emotionally is also being recorded by the baby, and the baby is feeling it as it was his own experiences.

The good news is that we can learn natural techniques to counter our stress response, and even prevent it to happen in the first place when it is not needed.

Deep Breathing response – for me the most important of all, and I have seen it how this changes your life just by practicing it a few minutes each day. Our emotions are also physical sensations and they are connected with different rhythms of breath. By using slow and deep abdominal breathing you train yourself to create a sense of calmness and observation that will help you be aware in the moment of your different emotions and reactions and so change your behavior.

Relaxation response - focusing on a soothing word (such as peace or calm), visualizing tranquil scenes, I help mothers create new imprints and sensations in their mind and body to release tension as restore peace.
Non-responsive response - leaning a non-responsive practice such us inner observation, inner feeling of positive emotions, I help stressed mother to improve their overall sense of awareness and concentration in what is really important at the moment for them and their baby inside, allowing them not to feel so emotionally involved in stress situations.

Physical response – I help mothers to set up and start doing a gentle inner practice that combines fluid movements with deep breathing and mental focus to induce body and mind awareness, creating a new sensation of calmness and peace that is used to balance their central nervous system and bring more serenity to their own lives.

Social response - finding a good support group of people that will be there for you, hear you without judgment to receive emotional support when needed is a great way to make life-changing choices and help you at times of stress and crisis.
 

  

Who am I?

Hi! I am Susana, I am a prenatal educator and a yoga teacher. In my daily life, if I am not with my 3 kids, I a serve and give support to the needs of new mothers and their babies. I am the founder of the Stress Free Pregnancy Program to help pregnant women better control the stress of their daily lives and deeply connect with their baby inside.  

For me conscious pregnancy, birth and motherhood involve a much deeper connection to yourself, to your body, to your emotions, to the power of your femininity, and a deeper connection and communication with your baby as you surrender to the process of life. I am also the author of the book Yoga and Motherhood (Yoga e Maternidade – released in Portuguese), a member of the APPPAH (Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health) and President of the Norwegian Association of Prenatal Education.  I have over fifteen years of experience and have taught hundreds of women worldwide. 

 

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