After a week without electricity during the 1998 ice storm, Montreal psychiatrist Dr. Suzanne King found out just how much the ordeal was affecting her.
“I went to give blood,” she recalled, “and found that my blood pressure was super high when it’s usually super low. “I realized that I was stressed.”
So she wanted to find out if stress in pregnant women brought on by external factors affects the unborn child.
“Because the ice storm was a sudden onset stressor for women who might be pregnant,” she told Global News from her home.
King began working with a team of researchers to try to understand prenatal stress and the ice storm’s impact on children, and monitored a group of ice storm babies from ages six months to 19 years, noting their cognitive, behavioural, physical and motor development.
The research found that the mother’s hardships and emotions affected all the areas, especially their physical development.
“Such as their body mass index and their risk for obesity, on their immune functions, on their insulin secretion, so their risk for diabetes,” she said.
The risk for obesity increased the older they got.
“So we saw a bigger effect at age 15 than at age 13, or 11, or eight, or five,” she said.
King was careful to point out though that genes also have a role to play and that environment helps determine which ones are activated.
She’s no longer studying children of the ice storm, who are now turning 25, but she is looking at the effect on pregnant moms in other crises, such as large floods, fires and, yes, pandemics.
“Yes, there is an effect,” she said. “There are effects from objectively what happens to the pregnant woman, there are effects from her level of distress.”
Other experts agree that, though everyone reacts differently, some people do undergo some kind of stress during disasters.
“Whenever something exceptional occurs, it’s the body that is the first responder,” psychotherapist Shirlette Wint said. “It’s not your intellect, it’s not your rational mind.”
People, she pointed out, should try to find ways to ease that stress.
King feels that authorities like public health have a role to play.
“To specifically target vulnerable populations that include pregnant women and their unborn children,” she said.
Wint noted that neighbours can also help.
“Reach out to each other and keep tabs on each other just regular check-ins,” she said.
Disasters might be unavoidable, but we can find ways to cope.
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