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A Case for Toxic Stress in Pregnancy | Dawn Kingston
When was the last time you said, “I just can’t take one more thing?” Or thought, “I’m at the end of my rope.”
You’re not alone!
We used to think that postpartum depression was the main emotional challenge that women faced. Now, we know that pregnancy depression, anxiety, and stress are more common than postpartum depression.
And stress is the most common problem faced by pregnant women today.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Our research shows that over 60% of pregnant women experience moderate to high levels of stress. We’ve also found that when women have moderate or high levels of stress in pregnancy, they tend to continue as is well beyond pregnancy – through the first year after delivery and beyond.
Good Stress-Bad Stress
Stress can be good – but it can also be very bad for your physical and emotional health.
How can you tell difference?
- Good Stress. Good stress is that mild tension or nervousness you feel before an exam or an interview. It’s actually a positive kind of stress because it helps you to think more clearly. It’s the reason why you come out of an interview where you’ve said things that you later thought, “That was brilliant!”
- Higher – but Manageable – Stress. The next level of stress is one that you feel more intensely – but you still feel like you are in control and managing it well. This might be the kind of stress you experience when planning a big thanksgiving dinner with relatives that don’t always get along. You feel a bit stressed, and your stress increases as you get closer to the date. But, you have strategies in place and you feel supported by other friends or family members. This kind of stress is normal and every one of us experiences it.
- Highest – and Unmanageable – Stress. Think about the last time you felt VERY stressed. You felt like you had no control in the situation. The circumstance may have gone on for a prolonged period of time, and you felt drained, exhausted and depleted. An example is a lay-off or job loss. You might have:
- had trouble sleeping
- gone into stress-eating mode (eating every sweet and salty thing you could get your hands on)
- been quite short and irritable with those you love
What makes this last kind of stress dangerous? It’s toxic stress. Your stress has reached a point where you can no longer manage it. Its effects start to spill over to your home and work life. Emotional and physical health are both affected. And, you feel like you don’t have resources that you need to deal with it.
How Do I Know If I’m Experiencing Toxic Stress?
Here is a 5-point checklist that you can use to determine if you are experiencing toxic stress.
In the past month, check-off how often you had these 5 experiences:
|A few days
|I felt physical tension (such as jaw clenched, brow tensed, shoulders tensed, tummy butterflies or upset).
|I thought, “I can’t handle one more thing” or had a similar thought.
|I was irritable with my partner, children, family, friends, or co-workers, etc.
|I felt worried.
|I felt out-of-control and/or stuck (e.g., I felt like I had no options).
If you had these experiences on some or most days, you are likely in toxic stress. What does that mean for you? Read on….
What Can I Do to Lower My Stress?
The key to lowering stress is to make it more manageable. It’s true. The difference between high and low stress is your perception of whether it’s manageable or whether you feel out-of-control.
It’s impossible to talk about stress without talking about the brain.
Our brains are threat detectors, constantly scanning our environment for threats of danger. While our brain does a tremendous job of organizing the information it picks up from our environment, the threat detection monitors can’t tell the difference between physical “I’m going to die right now” danger and social threat, such as “I feel embarrassed,” “I don’t think she likes me,” and “I don’t feel included.”
The Number One Strategy for Managing Stress
The Number One strategy for managing stress is this: Re-Direct Your Brain.
Make your brain believe that the situation is manageable, and not threatening.
When you feel high stress, you brain has interpreted something you saw, heard, or felt as dangerously threatening. It’s an instinctive, automatic reaction.
But, you have a higher thinking part in your brain that can trump your instinctive lower brain reactions. Thinking from that higher, upper brain can dampen the automatic reaction that your lower brain initiates.
In that moment when you face a difficult social experience, you have a mindful choice to make:
- Do you instinctively react (without thought) to your brain’s “threat detection system” and gear up for social combat by fighting (becoming defensive, angry, irritable, speaking hurtful words) or fleeing (withdrawing, ignoring, passively slamming doors instead of talking); or
- Do you thoughtfully respond, by choosing to see this difficult situation as an opportunity for growth, asking yourself the powerful, brain re-directing question, “What is possible because of this situation?”
The more difficult the situation, the harder it is to thoughtfully respond versus instinctively react.
But – the healthy emotional response is the mindful, thoughtful response. It’s the one that keeps stress manageable.
It’s the one that helps you to see the situation as growth-producing, rather than as out-of-control.
What are your thoughts? I’d love to dialogue with you. Find out more about pregnancy stress here.
Dr. Dawn Kingston
Picture credit: Dr. Dawn Kingston
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