You can live a normal life despite the psychology of pregnancy.
Mary Ann Romans

When Sandra Gensel of Bristol, CT announced she was pregnant she was stunned by the way everyone treated her. "All of a sudden, I felt like I had three heads," she says. "Suddenly everyone was treating me like an invalid. I would carry a small load of laundry up the stairs and my mother-in-law would make these 'tsk-tsk'-ing noises." Gensel also says that co-workers criticized her for jogging during her lunch time, although she was barely showing. "I've always jogged, and I felt great doing it. I took it down a notch, and my doctor assured me it wouldn't hurt me or the baby, but I started to wonder if maybe it was too much in my condition."

The delicate condition
The myth of pregnancy as an illness has been perpetuated throughout time. In Medieval Europe, for example, women were sequestered away for months, away from all contact with others until long after they delivered and were cleansed in churching rituals. Even in our modern society, pregnancy is often referred to as being in a "delicate condition." While this may seem cute and quaint, this idea may also lead to unnecessary restrictions on women, adding to their worry.

But how do we separate the myth from the reality of carrying a baby? The best way is to ask your doctor. Whether this is your first or your fourth pregnancy, bring a list of questions to your OB appointment. Your doctor will be able to help you wade through all of the changes your body is going through. You might be surprised at the things you thought you couldn't do.

Richard Meltz, DO, FACOG, an OB/GYN with the Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Pennsylvania, who has delivered more than 6,000 babies in his 35 years of practice, says that it is time to stop treating pregnancy as a disease. "You shouldn't be afraid. Pregnancy is not a disease. It is a normal healthy process, not a disease process," he says.

"My wife played competitive tennis up until the 30th week," Dr Meltz says. While some of us may not feel like running around hitting aces while carrying 25 pounds of baby bump, Dr Meltz says that in a normal pregnancy, there is no reason to drastically alter our lifestyles. "I tell women 'You're not sick, you're pregnant.'"

All about attitude
According to Dr Meltz, your attitude and the attitude of others around you can influence how you feel while pregnant. If you approach pregnancy as an illness, then that is just how you may feel -- ill.

"I think there are changes going on with the body that people aren't used to," Dr Meltz says. "People equate this to being ill." The problem with seeing pregnancy as an illness, he continues, is that you can make yourself feel miserable. "I think it has a lot to do with attitude," he says. "Some people love being pregnant and have a positive attitude. In my practice, they report less symptoms of feeling ill."

But is it the chicken or the egg concept? Are women who have an easier pregnancy more positive as a result? "I really believe that you can encourage yourself not to feel well," Dr Meltz says. "People can consciously or unconsciously exaggerate symptoms. A little discomfort can go a long way."

Dr Meltz advises women to take their symptoms head on. Exercises and extra calcium can often help leg cramps, for example. "Take charge of your pregnancy. Try to be as normal as possible. Your body will usually tell you what to do."

As for Sandra Gensel's jogging? "Exercise is very important," Dr Meltz says. "You'll have a better attitude if you are stronger. The initial instructions I give patients is nothing too strenuous, and avoid heavy lifting.

"Try to live as normal a life as you can. Enjoy your pregnancy, because it is a wonderful thing"

Evolutionary instinct?
Although pregnancy is not a disease, it seems that pregnant women and possibly those around them may have an innate instinct to treat it as such. New research suggests that women, especially those in their first trimester, tend to have a strong desire to sequester themselves and stay close to home, not because they are feeling poorly but because evolution may be telling them that this is the best way to avoid disease. They may be treating themselves as if they were ill to prevent actually getting ill.

According to C. David Navarrete, PhD of Harvard University and Daniel M.T. Fessler, PhD of the University of California, built-in psychological mechanisms can go so far as to determine how outgoing a pregnant woman is and even the type of people she prefers. The unconscious instinct to protect herself and her baby at a vulnerable time can influence a pregnant woman's behavior by making her less social, especially with people outside of her ethnic group or class. Just like someone who is ill, having close friends and family around you can be comforting.

"This may stem from the time when new people brought in new diseases," says Dr Navarrete. "You were more likely to catch a virulent -- very harmful -- pathogen with a population you didn't know."

Since the research shows that this social avoidance of anyone foreign to a pregnant woman peaks during the first trimester, again there is the question, "Could morning sickness really be the cause of this behavior? "We found no link between women feeling nauseous and derogation of the outgroup," Dr Navarrete says. In other words, not feeling well didn't seem to affect how a woman felt about people outside of her known ethnic-social group one way or another. There was still the same strong attraction to her own group, the same strong need to take it easy and stay close to home.

So, does sticking close to home actually make for a healthier pregnancy? It is doubtful. "That would be a really interesting question," Dr Navarrete says. "Of course, today you are probably more likely to catch something from someone you know only because you are around them more often," he adds.

Dr Navarrete warns that the research was conducted on a very small scale and should be used only as a suggestion for further study. "An alternative explanation could be that women feel more vulnerable when they find out they are pregnant," he says. "They may want to stay close to home...the old 'Mommy's got Campbell's Soup for you' feeling."

Tags: disease

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