It was sometime during my first trimester that a longstanding dream came true: Following years of false promises, my husband finally took my recommendation to watch "Game of Thrones" on demand. He quickly made it all the way to Season 4 -- and then he wanted me to watch it with him.
I became aware of my new violence aversion during the last scene of the Season 4 premiere, when the character Arya is reunited with her beloved sword -- affectionately nicknamed "Needle" -- which she slowly, purposefully sinks into the throat of her enemy. It's not that I would typically enjoy watching such an act, but I was now deeply repulsed in a way that seemed almost reflexive and out of my control, something akin to how a smoker is automatically repulsed by cigarettes when taking Chantix. I still craved me some "Game of Thrones," but when my husband wanted to watch the next episode the following night, I told him I had to work. He ended up watching the entire season by himself.
And it wasn't just "Game of Thrones." Many of my favorite TV shows fell off the watch list. "The Walking Dead" was completely out of the question. So was "Orange Is the New Black." Even mean-spirited humor became indigestible; I had no desire to watch Selina Meyer abuse her employees on "Veep," and everything about "Girls" now seemed gratuitously nasty. I turned to romantic comedies, but even that proved ill-advised: Russell Brand's run-in with a shard of sea coral during Forgetting Sarah Marshall was simply too much to handle. In defeat, I embraced a downgraded palate and found myself enjoying Tangled on a Sunday afternoon. By the second trimester, I discovered "Gilmore Girls" on Netflix, and my appetite for G-rated quality was fully satiated.
I don't know if this aversion to violence on TV is a common experience during pregnancy, and I certainly don't think women should consciously avoid violent movies and television while pregnant. For me, the aversion was as real as morning sickness; attempting to watch "The Walking Dead" without wanting to flee the room became as unrealistic as brushing my teeth without puking.
Naturally, with time I started to wonder where the sensitivity came from. Was I alone, or was I at the extreme end of something that many pregnant women experience? For the umpteenth time during my pregnancy, I thought about Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape The Rest of Our Lives, a book by science writer Annie Murphy Paul about how the environment a fetus is exposed to in utero can affect a baby's future physical and psychological health. Studies have shown that when pregnant women are exposed to stress, their fetuses may be affected. For example, maternal levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been linked to preterm birth, lower birth weight, increased amygdyla volume in girls, and behavioral effects like an increased risk of ADHD and PTSD.
This all got me thinking that perhaps pregnant women have an evolutionarily ingrained hypersensitivity to violence, murder and mayhem -- the stuff that produces extremely high cortisol levels. Avoiding these sources of stress could be a way of protecting one's baby. Evolutionary scientists have explored how women's emotions and reactions to potentially dangerous situations alter during pregnancy and after childbirth. For example, researchers at the University of Bristol found that pregnant women experience "hypervigilant emotion processing." In their study, pregnant women were more sensitive to facial expressions that signal a potential threat -- especially expressions of fear, disgust, and anger. The authors conclude that "enhanced ability to encode emotional faces during late pregnancy may be an evolutionary adaption to prepare women for the protective and nurturing demands of motherhood by increasing their general emotional sensitivity and their vigilance towards emotional signals of threat, aggression and contagion."
If our minds don't fully "know" that watching violence on television is fundamentally different from watching it unfold in real life, perhaps a vigilance toward dangerous situations could translate to not wanting to watch them onscreen. Indeed, studies have linked watching violent movies and television to increased cortisol levels. It's as though our bodies are tricked into believing that we experience what we watch. A 2010 German study found increased cortisol and heart rate variability in preteen boys watching violent television, while a 1996 study of women found an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol and other hormones while they watched a violent movie. The authors of the study concluded that their data evidenced "the existence of neuroendocrine changes associated with the defense mechanism and aroused by movie violence and conflictual situations."
I'm not aware of any surveys asking pregnant moms about onscreen violence aversion, but there's a degree of folk wisdom on the topic. My husband was given a copy of The Pregnancy Book For Men, which offers expectant fathers the following advice: "If you like watching the news at night, make sure that it doesn't bother her. She may not want to see misery or political backstabbing, but might enjoy Downton Abbey or a nice movie on DVD." Condescending, yes, but one expects nothing less from a book subtitled "From Dude to Dad in 40 Short Weeks."
All told, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that watching violent TV would have any sort of measurable impact on a developing fetus, even if watching violence does increase cortisol levels. Studies that link maternal stress to fetal outcomes show that the impact is relatively small. A meta-study of 35 studies linking maternal stress to slower fetal growth concluded that though there's a connection, maternal stress accounts for only 1 percent of variance in fetal weight. Since the placenta filters out a good deal of the mother's cortisol and other stress-related hormones, particularly during early pregnancy, the amount of cortisol might need to be very high to have an impact. Some studies indicate that moderate levels of stress, particularly in late pregnancy, might actually be good for a developing fetus by boosting cognitive development.
As it happens, I gave birth to my daughter on April 12, the day of the "Game of Thrones" Season 5 premiere (alert: spoiler coming up). I tested the waters soon after returning from the hospital, and was delighted to discover that I didn't so much as flinch when Mance Rayder was burned at the stake. Normalcy was restored.