Saturday, August 18, 2012

#35 What We Can Do . . .

 Dear Birth Peeps,

Last week, I shared how chronic stress in the first trimester of pregnancy is associated with preterm labor and low birth weight babies. This week I continued to think about the problem of stress during pregnancy— and about practical solutions for decreasing stress for pregnant women living, working, driving in and being driven by— our culture. 

If we are going to motivate parents, employers, family members, and business owners for change and present a strong argument, we need to understand the autonomic nervous system and its role in health and in stress. If you are interested in reading an excellent paper presented by Roz Carroll in 2001, a registered body psychotherapist and trainer in London, explaining the autonomic nervous system, its function, how its imbalance affects health, and how body work can help, go to:

Briefly, I’ll explain the autonomic nervous system (ANS). There are two parts: the sympathetic (drive) and parasympathetic ("brake"/rest).
   The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks in when you need to be focused, analytical, goal-oriented, fight/flight. When SNS is in play, the heart and respiratory rate and blood pressure increase, increased muscle tension, constriction of circulation, thoughts, feelings, breath, you are extroverted; body organs lack tone.
  When the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is in play, you are receptive, introspective, speak slower, “process-oriented and solution-focused. Everything flows better in the body: breath, thoughts, blood, and digestive juices. You can rest, recover, rejuvenate.

Here are some practical things to do, and to encourage parents in their childbearing year to do, to re-balance their ANS:

1.   Everyday, “stop and smell the flowers.” Brief rest periods or mini-meditations throughout the day help to re-balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Meditate on a favorite phrase, quote, or poem. Listen to an uplifting song. Discover a new relaxing hobby, such as handwork (knit a baby hat), paint or draw, learn to play a musical instrument, plant a tree or start a small herb garden and tend it daily.

2.  Yoga, walking, swimming, dancing, Qi Gong, massage and other body-work are all physical ways to get out of our "head" and into our bodies-- this can re-set our nervous system.

3.  Think positively. Be solution-focused, not problem-focused. Practice and express gratitude.

4.  Starting your day in peace and calm is a little seed for the day. Soon the seeds will accumulate and you may be waking and living in a garden of a calmer mindset. 

5.  Practice forgiveness, compassion, and patience with yourself and other humans. 

6.  Don’t compare yourself (or your pregnancy or birth) with others. Your experience is uniquely yours. Don't strive to "get it right", instead, do the best you can and embrace your imperfections.

7.  Eat well. Take your vitamins. Eat whole foods. Decrease processed junk food. Sit down at a table to eat; light a candle. Eat slowly, mindfully; taste your food. Perhaps eat breakfast in silence with your baby (no TV, radio, conversation, or reading).

7.  Organize your day to drive less, and leave five minutes earlier to decrease stress from fear of being late.

8.   Make a ritual out of bedtime so you can wind down before going to sleep. Have a warm cup of tea or milk and honey. Listen to music or white noise (rain/river sounds).  Light a candle, meditate, consciously release tension from head to toe. Sleep is essential for rejuvenating the body and rebalancing the nervous system.

9.  Decrease electromagnetic stress. Turn off computers, television; schedule quiet time each day where you turn off digital stress. Make sure you don’t have electric clocks, radios, computers near your head when you sleep.*

*Many of these ideas came from another excellent article on stress, health, and hair analysis: 

Here are some cultural hurdles to consider, because these "realities" will interfere with making this radical change a reality:

   Women in their first trimester are often "couch potatoes"--our bodies are telling us  we need naps and more sleep to nourish the parasympathetic nervous system and prenatal/fetal health... And yet there are no social mores to allow the exhausted new mother to do this without penalty in pay, hours being saved up for the baby postpartum, or losing a "grade" in school. 

   Our culture at large has not been informed or entrained to treat women in the first trimester (or at any time in pregnancy) more kindly. Because pregnancy is a healthy physiological even, she is expected to keep up with work, school, errands, social events... even when her body is telling her to rest.  

   When a partner/family can’t even tell she is pregnant yet, it’s easy for a partner, friend, boss, there may not be motivation to pick up the slack to ensure the groceries or household tasks got done, or the older kid(s) get picked up from school. So, the partner, family, and again everyone, needs to be educated to change our collective attitudes.

Let's be careful not to lay the burden on the mother, or to blame her if she can't make changes to reduce her stress. When new mothers learn about the importance of first trimester rest, meditation, and stress reduction they tell me they cannot really do what it would take to reduce their stress because they need to keep their job (or two jobs!), and they know or doubt their employer would give them a day off in the middle of the week and let them work on Saturday, or take a longer lunch break to rest. In addition, the U.S. does not give generous maternity/paternity leave; therefore, pregnant mothers hoard every hour of their sick time and vacation time to use after their baby is born. Even if they are stressed or sick, they often can’t afford to take a break during pregnancy.

Prenatal clinics are often over-booked; by the time a woman can get her first appointment, she may be at the end of, or even past, her first trimester. So even if a birth peep has this new information and could teach a mom a meditation technique, scheduling might not allow it.

When talking this over with Virginia Bobro, she pointed out that many women do not share with others or their employers that they are pregnant—in the first trimester. This means that even if we wanted to share the importance of this new research with our sisters, or an employer might have been open to supporting her, the opportunity might be lost.

As part of my recovery, and understanding the role stress played in my illness, I have taken up a daily practice of meditation and visualization to re-balance my ANS. It has made a tremendous difference in my well-being and my ability to concentrate and be creative. I highly recommend taking up even one small change every day. 

To a more balanced life and more compassion for pregnant women and babies,




  1. I feel that this issue of running Mother's in the very dawn of their Birthing-Time into the ground is the root of the reason many women get to the end of their pregnancies feeling unprepared and frightened to Birth. When we are allowed, the beginning of our pregnancies should be for rest, and while resting we prepare ourselves for our journey. We learn to surrender then. When someone comes to to feed us, or sit beside us and talk, or clean our nests for us, we are slowly learning to allow people in, and the whole process of pregnancy and birth relies on this fundamental human behavior. If we burden the mother early with too many superficial tasks she misses the first doorway into herself.

    Nothing should be more important from the moment you find out you are with-child, then turning inward, healing, listening, and loving.
    We are wise and we all know when waking for work in our 4th month of pregnancy, usually, our first thought it that we don't want to go. And we shouldn't have to.

    I hold hope for the future and the advancement of Womens Rights and the realization that Birth is our right, the whole process.

    Until then, visit with our friends who are pregnant and post-partum, feed them with food and good and strong soulful presence, show them respect for their divinity,and be an anchor in their world, and we can do our best to support a bit of the weight our culture, unfortunately, places on the shoulders of those who should be focussing on their blessed journey ahead.

  2. I love this Pam! And so happy you are inspired to write this through your own healing process!

    I have found that culturally we as women are not practicing this essential rest period of the PNS even before pregnancy... our own menstrual cycles potentially teach us to honor this needed 'down time.' The New Moon teaches us... To bleed, slow down, listen within in this quiet time. Fertility depends upon this quiet time. Part of my work is to teach women about the balance of the ANS when not pregnant so it is natural for them to honor that in their bodies during pregnancy and for the rest of their lives really. Scheduling in the PNS rest time into the day/week/month can help to integrate this into our culture.

    Thank you always for your constant support and discoveries!

    With Love, a deep breath and a cup of tea,
    DeAnna Alvarez

  3. In a recent upper-division college class, "Pathophysiology of Stress and Sleep," we discussed many of the aspects of our lives changed by stress. A good read (fun and scholarly!) is "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" by Robert Sapolsky. I have found that as a birth worker, doing all of the above is just as important for me: to keep my kidney qi adequate and to keep my adrenals from pumping out too much flight cocktail. I also benefit from the help of herbal adaptogens.