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Stress management and relaxation techniques in pregnancy

By Katherine Macfarlane

(BSc (hon) Physiotherapy)

Stress management and relaxation techniques in pregnancy


Definition: “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”


Why is stress negative?

When you perceive a crisis or think a stressful thought, your body releases stress hormones. A well-known stress hormone is cortisol. Stimulated by stress hormones, the brain and body shift into ‘crisis’ mode. Your breathing and pulse quicken, making more oxygen available to your muscles, blood sugar levels rise, bodily processes that are non-essential in the short term (such as digestion, growth, and repair) are temporarily shut down. (Sapolsky 2004).

When the crisis is over, your stress hormones are supposed to slip back to their baseline levels. But, if baseline levels are high this is usually bad news. It’s a sign that your body is on perpetual red alert. The body suffers more wear and tear (Sapolsky 2004).


What are the effects of stress in pregnancy?

For a pregnant woman and her fetus, high cortisol levels pose special risks. Elevated cortisol is associated with an increased risk of early miscarriage (Nepomaschy et al 2006). It can also cause pre-eclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension), reduced fetal growth, premature birth, and postnatal developmental delays (Reis et al 1999; Poggi-Davis and Sandman 2006).

Given these risks, we might expect healthy pregnancies to be characterized by low baseline cortisol levels. Surprisingly, this isn’t the case. Stress hormone levels rise.


How can stress be reduced and managed in pregnancy?

Exercise: Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that give a natural high — improving your mood, diminishing feelings of worry and anxiety. The even better news is that virtually any form of exercise can act as a stress reliever.


Relaxation techniques: Being able to relax and reduce the effects of stress can be of huge benefit to all aspects of your life. Relaxation can also be extremely useful in labour as being relaxed causes your uterus to contract more efficiently, your pain levels are reduced, you will have more energy for labour and you are more likely to be able to enjoy your labour experience.


For more information on managing stress, or for practical help with relaxation techniques, contact Katherine via email on katherine@radiancephysiofit.com.sg or phone 83285803.



Sapolsky RM. 2004. Why zebras don’t get ulcers. Third edition. New York: Henry Holt and company.