Play and theme-based learning with our children

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fetus to Mom and Dad: Chill Out. I Don't Want Your Drama!

“Take it easy.” I’m hearing it a lot these days.

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that stress and pregnancy don’t mix. But, if you want a reminder about the potentially negative effects of emotional stress during pregnancy, read this.


The thing that gets me about stress is that it seems so unavoidable. Even with as much talent and money as some people have, they’re not immune from tough times, nor the illnesses that can come from stress piling on year after year. Take actress Catherine Zeta Jones, who displayed a lot of courage by making her bipolar II diagnosis public. After many years of supporting her husband in his battle with throat cancer, his legal issues and more, she finally got help for herself. Goes to show, there’s only so much stress a body and brain can take before the emotional regulation systems fatigue and need some serious TLC.  [If you’re interested, this overview of BPII is much better than those ad-riddled ones on other sites]


Fine, life isn’t always going to be a walk in the park (my heart goes out to all our friends in the South experiencing those devastating storms).  Yet, everyone has a different set point for how they respond to hard times, resulting from a dance between our genetic predispositions and life experiences (and the choices we make, but that's for a future post). It’s not only our own experiences we must consider, but also our mothers when we were in the womb. If mom is struggling, the baby can be more prone to anxiety, and to eventually have children that are as well. Maternal guilt starts early! Dads aren’t off the hook for transgenerational effects either.  As unbelievable as it sounds, some fatal forms of childhood diabetes have been linked to whether their father’s father experienced famine. But mostly, the message is that dads need to be very GOOD to the mamas for everyone’s sake, including lil’ peanut.

The science-fiction-like yet very real field of “epigenetics” is the study of how experience changes genes and how those "marks" pass to offspring, and the research says much about why it’s important for parents to take good care. If mom is depressed or freaking out, genes involved in stress responses (like glucocorticoid receptor, serotonin transporter)  are getting altered in the fetus. And even months after exiting their stress bath, the babes can show elevated stress responses themselves. The effects of early experience can be long-lasting, leading to behavioral and physical problems farther down the road.

So, are you stressed out just thinking about it? Welcome to my world. You know I’m surprised that prenatal depression doesn’t get as much attention as postnatal depression, though I’m VERY glad postnatal depression is relatively well monitored and treated nowadays. In my experience, there’s a lot more attention paid to my blood pressure, glucose levels and belly circumference than my psychological health. And I feel I have a very attentive, caring and skilled OB. It’s not so much that he doesn’t ask me how I’m doing, because he does.  But how often does someone who’s depressed spill their guts without some more in-depth questioning?  Not often, I’d say. Nobody likes to talk about how they’re struggling.

I’m hoping doctors start looking more diligently at mom's mental health while she's with bump.

There's more to come on the topic, but I better give myself a break. Please keep reminding me to take it easy, friends!  I need all the help I can get, and it's much appreciated.

P.S. No need to worry Mom. I'm not depressed, but if I were I'd sure want my OB asking me more about it. As KevinMD.com proposes, a major reason why depression goes undiagnosed is because not only are patients uncomfortable talking about depression, but physicians are too! [added April 29th after a worried call from my mom.]

4 comments:

  1. My lovely friend, I thank you for sharing the info on the bipolar II! And the concerns with dealing with those issues in relation to having a lil' peanut. For those reasons I chose to end my fertility abilities just this year. I'm kinda out of words at this point...but thank you, again! Love!

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  2. Thanks Tisha! I love how that overview of BPII catches so many of the nuances, uncertainties, difficulties with treatment and diagnosis... and how it's so very different than BPI. My personal theory is that BPII has a lot more to do with stress effects and the build-up of stressful experiences over a lifetime than a straight genetic explanation.

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  3. By the way Mom, I'm not depressed. But I have my moments here and there, and if I were I'd sure want my doc asking me about it.

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  4. [...] 5, 2011 by Jami “You aren’t taking antidepressants, are you?!” Apparently, Mom read my blog post on effects of stress during pregnancy, and was naturally over-concerned. You see, she heard [...]

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