It’s no secret that the modern Western lifestyle is filled with physical and mental stressors, which arise from not only the way we live, but also the environment we live in and the work we do. Such a burden over time begins to manifest in symptoms ranging from irritating headaches, upset stomachs, and nausea to serious chest pains, rapid heartbeats, and infections. In fact one in five Americans experience what is called "extreme stress," accompanied by shaking, heart palpitations, and depression.

Living with stress for an extended period is never healthy. But one time in particular when stress is even more dangerous, and when the person may be even more susceptible, is during a mom-to-be’s pregnancy. This is because she has to constantly juggle both her own concerns as well as those of her unborn child. How should I be eating? What exercises should I be engaging in? Have I had adequate rest? These are but a few of the constant checks that might flow through a mother’s mind on a daily basis.

Fortunately there are a variety of methods that exist to combat pregnancy stress; they are gentle, non-invasive, and offer many positive side effects. But first, let’s explore the physiological processes involved in pregnancy stress and the potential outcomes of constant stress during this critical phase.

How Stress Affects The Baby

Some stress during pregnancy is both normal and bearable, just like the minor bursts of stress many of us encounter each day. However if stress becomes a constant issue, the consequences for mother and child can end up damaging and long-lasting. Persistent stress can compromise the balance of chemicals in the brain that manage stress, giving rise to inflammation and leading to poor pregnancy health in the mother and developmental issues with her child. In part, this occurs because the fetus is responding to the external stimuli affecting the mother just as much.

“When a mother is stressed, several biological changes occur, including elevation of stress hormones and increased likelihood of intrauterine infection,” Dr. Pathik Wadhwa, an assistant professor of behavioral science, obstetrics, and gynecology at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, told WebMD. “The fetus builds itself permanently to deal with this kind of high-stress environment, and once it's born may be at greater risk for a whole bunch of stress-related pathologies.”

A paper from adds that stress during pregnancy may even increase risk of miscarriage among women who are expecting. The authors wrote that the culprit behind these effects are stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Though they normally help us prepare for danger, people who are chronically stressed retain the hormones, which eventually begin to “wreak havoc on our bodies.” In turn, these hormones can affect the baby’s brain development, they wrote.

“Chronic or extreme maternal stress may also cause changes in the blood flow to the baby, making it difficult to carry oxygen and other important nutrients to the baby's developing organs. In addition, chronically or severely stressed mothers may feel overwhelmed and fatigued, which may impact their diet and sleep habits and consistency of prenatal care. All of these factors may help explain how maternal stress during pregnancy can have long-term effects on the unborn child."

Some of the most gentle, yet effective ways for pregnant moms to remedy potentially damaging levels of stress is through the ancient schools of meditation and yoga.

How Meditation Helps

Meditation is a heavily studied discipline with more than promising effects when it comes to easing stress and anxiety. In one paper titled “Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Wellbeing,” for example, authors reviewed 47 trials involving 3,595 participants, and found that mindfulness meditation programs improved anxiety, depression, pain, stress/distress, and mental health-related quality of life.

A paper from The Buddhist Institute of Enlightenment, meanwhile, states that beyond facilitating the mother’s health, meditation can also promote pregnancy health and ultimately affect infant behavior. The study, carried out at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong, involved 64 pregnant Chinese women who were recruited for intervention and 59 who were used as a control group. Several measurements including cord blood cortisol and infant salivary cortisol indicated the positive health status of newborns from the intervention group, displaying that prenatal meditation can influence fetal health. Infants from the intervention group also showed a better temperament at 5 months old.

The authors concluded "positive effects of prenatal meditation on infant behaviors” and recommended that “pregnancy care providers… provide prenatal meditation to pregnant women."

Yoga Helps, Too

Yoga has also demonstrated the ability to quench stress and induce beneficial relaxation, providing release to both body and mind. Its health benefits include stress reduction, improved fitness, and the management of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease. The practice may also help to alleviate depression, pain, anxiety and insomnia.

One 2014 paper detailed a study on the effects of practicing yoga before giving birth. Conducted at the University of Manchester, it showed that women who attended a yoga class consistently for a period of 8 weeks experienced decreased anxiety. Senior investigator and yoga teacher Professor John Alpin said in a press release that yoga “incorporates relaxation and breathing techniques with postures that can be adapted for pregnant women. Many women opt to practice yoga during their pregnancy but this is the first worldwide report on the effects of both single and multiple sessions of antenatal yoga"

"The results confirm what many who take part in yoga have suspected for a long time,” Alpin continued. “There is also evidence yoga can reduce the need for pain relief during birth and the likelihood for delivery by emergency Cesarean section."

Luke Sumpter is a health and wellness journalist from the United Kingdom. He is a natural medicine activist and author seeking to shed light on the empowerment people gain when they take health into their own hands. Luke founded the natural health outlet Nourysh to dispense life changing information to his followers.