DALLAS — Research that spanned more than a decade found a link between a woman’s stress level at the time she conceives a child to how that child deals with stress in their adolescent years.
The research was conducted by Pablo Nepomnaschy, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
Nepomnaschy followed more than 100 women, collecting urine samples from them every other day for a year to monitor hormones and cortisol levels.
The hormones in the urine sample helped Nepomnaschy and his team pin down the day a woman conceived. Cortisol – a bio-marker of stress – pinpointed how stressed the woman was feeling at conception.
About 11 years later, the team of researchers asked the women who had given birth if their children’s stress levels could be monitored. According to the published study, researchers tracked the children’s cortisol levels at two different times: first at the beginning of a school year – an event they considered a natural stressor for most children. Then, they tracked cortisol levels when the children took part in a public speaking challenge.
The children’s cortisol levels during both events correlated to their mother's stress. Their responses to both events were “linked to their mothers’ stress axis activity on the first eight weeks after they were conceived," Nepomnaschy said.
At Parkland Hospital in Dallas, mental health counselor America Cardona says the research makes sense. “We all know whenever you’re stressed out, you’re probably not your best,” Cardona said.
She specializes in treating women before, during and after pregnancy. She constantly reminds them that their baby is experiencing everything they are experiencing.
Larissa Clark, one of Cardona’s clients, is open about the immense stress she felt from the time she discovered she was pregnant until she delivered her daughter.
“When I got pregnant, oh my goodness, it was like a tornado of feelings and I didn’t understand why I was feeling that way, why I was having those thoughts,” Clark said.
Therapy helped her work through her anxiety. It also helped her pinpoint why pregnancy triggered it: she was abused as a child.
While Nepomnaschy’s research shows a link between a mother-to-be’s stress levels and those of her adolescent child, whether it is due to genetics or environmental factors remains a question.
“At this point, we cannot tell if that link is due to shared genes between moms and children, shared environments or both,” Nepomnaschy said. “We will need larger sample sizes to investigate that.”
Clark remains a client of Cardona’s at Parkland and she said she’s paying closer attention to her mental health, because she knows she’s setting an example for one-year-old Alayna to follow. “I need to be healthy mentally for my child,” she said.
"But I'm still in that process," she added with a laugh. “That way I can be that happy parent that I want to be to help her grow up. I’m her teacher.”