Passing Stress on to the Next Generation

“Pass the salt. Pass the rolls. But, please don’t pass the stress.”

As a clinician, you will surely have the opportunity from time to time to counsel young women who are pregnant or who are hoping to get pregnant. Or, you may be a young psychologist looking to start or increase your own family. In the first case, you can offer information to your client about how chronic stress can harm their developing baby. Or, you can profit from knowing the value of managing stress – especially during pregnancy.

Last month we reviewed new research on how chronic stress can cause premature aging and illness because the constant overproduction of cortisol reduces the supply of the body’s telomerase and that prevents the cell from reversing the effects of stress on telomere length. This is the mechanism by which chronic stress can harm your DNA. However, there is more; another pathway by which stress impacts the body at the cellular level happens in the developing baby of a chronically stressed mom. Thus, the “transgenerational transmission of risks” has to be taken into account in planning ways to improve public health.

Dr. Sonja Entringer and colleagues published a study showing the higher the mom’s anxiety during the prenatal period, the shorter the baby’s telomere length. Now a great deal of research has been published on prenatal stress and anxiety and how it affects the child for the rest of his or her life. Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (Andrews, 2012) reviews the most important studies. The effects are not simply on health (such as premature birth and low birth weight, asthma and digestive problems). Serious consequences include the child’s reduced ability to cope with stress. The developing child of a chronically stressed mother is also more likely to have problems with attention and behavior (ADD/ADHD). Other related problems include learning problems, lower IQ, higher incidence of anxiety and depression, and even an increased risk of autism.

Not only are the newborn’s telomeres affected by the mom’s stress, but also the mom’s chronically high levels of cortisol may trigger changes in the developing fetal brain. The cortisol levels in the mother’s blood are noted by the fetus’s brain. The brain of the fetus begins to consider the higher cortisol levels as “normal.” According to this theory, the brain then decides that it does not need as many stress-hormone receptors in the developing hippocampus. The end result is that more cortisol will remain in the child’s blood whenever stressed and the child’s H-P-A axis has been changed or dysregulated.

The bottom line is that we are living in a world of ever increasing stress because of the constant change in which we live. Our world is changing daily and we are so aware of it because of the nearly instant TV, cell phone and internet coverage for major events. Everyone or nearly everyone has access to multiple sources of information. People now accept this level of stress as “normal.” Certainly, we all have the right to decide for ourselves how much stress for which we are willing take the consequences. But, now that we see the consequences are being passed to future generations, I believe it is critical to start implementing known strategies and solutions to manage stress better. And, in our role as clinicians, we need to get the word out.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, January 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

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