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How to Cope with Stress During Pregnancy

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There's no doubt that pregnancy can be a stressful time in a woman's life.

But for some women, the stress is exacerbated because some of the activities they would normally do to de-stress aren't options — a favorite food may be off the list, a glass of wine is out of the question, and even getting a good night's sleep can be difficult when you can't get comfortable and have to wake up to pee.

There are many factors that can contribute to stress during pregnancy, said Dr. Mary Kimmel, the medical director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Inpatient Unit at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Some of these stressors are external. For example, a woman may have conversations that lead her to worry or have anxiety about how her pregnancy is progressing, or she may feel the pregnancy is affecting her relationships, Kimmel told Live Science. [How to Gain Weight During Pregnancy, the Healthy Way]

In addition, the biological changes occurring within a woman's own body can also contribute to the stress.

Hormone levels change throughout pregnancy, Kimmel said. For example, levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) increase throughout pregnancy, she said. Other hormones, some of which play a role in appetite, can also change during gestation, she said.

Other biological factors — such as the fatigue that may set in, or back pain as the baby grows — can also add to stress, Kimmel said.

So, what's a pregnant woman to do?

Stay aware

One of the most important things a woman can do to cope with stress during pregnancy is simply to recognize the factors at play, Kimmel said. The first step is to be aware of the changes happening that may increase stress, she said.

The biggest takeaway is to "be kind to yourself," Kimmel said. Pregnant women should be able to treat themselves from time to time and not feel guilty afterward, she said.

When food cravings strike, for example, Kimmel said she recommends that women recognize that they may be experiencing a craving. It's OK to indulge a craving, as long as you eat "mindfully" and really enjoy the food, she said. Don't eat something and then beat yourself up about it later, she added.

It's also important to work with your doctor and get the support you need, including for potential mental health issues, Kimmel said. "Unfortunately, there is still a stigma around" conditions such as perinatal depression, but these conditions are treatable, she said.

Alternative indulgences

While indulgences here and there are OK, pregnant women should find some other activities that they find relaxing.

For example, instead of having a glass of wine at night, some women find deep breathing exercises relaxing, and reading a book may also help, she said.

Women should prioritize doing things they find relaxing: If going for a walk helps, for example, make time to do that, Kimmel said. (Staying active can help keep stress levels in check, she added.)

It's especially important for pregnant women to set aside time for activities they feel good about doing, she said.

Follow Sara G. Miller on Twitter @SaraGMiller. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.