Ready, set, relax
Pregnancy is a time of joy, wonder … and stress. […]
Pregnancy is a time of joy, wonder … and stress. There’s a lot to do and worry about, and it would be almost impossible to skate through your baby-growing days without feeling a little anxiety somewhere along the line. “In our everyday lives we encounter stressful circumstances, which are especially important to handle well during pregnancy,” shares Michael Finkelstein, MD, author of Slow Medicine: Hope and Healing for Chronic Illness. Built-up and prolonged stress levels can have a negative impact on you and your baby—increasing your chances of developing high blood pressure, delivering prematurely and more. Plus, there’s another important factor to keep in mind: “Stress can also prevent the mother from basking in the miracle of creation and fully enjoying the experience,” Finkelstein says. Because pregnancy is truly a time to be cherished, it’s imperative that you dedicate some time during each of your nine months to putting your mind, body and spirit at ease.
Month 1: Sleep
Exhaustion is the first symptom of pregnancy for many women, and it’s important to listen to your body and give it what it is craving. “No matter what else you do, make it top priority to get adequate rest and sleep,” says Finkelstein, who suggests shooting for a 10:30 p.m. bedtime at least six days a week. Even if you’ve previously operated as a night owl, it’s critical to get on a good sleep schedule, so your body gets the downtime it desperately needs. (Growing a baby is tiring!)
Sleep can sometimes be elusive during pregnancy, thanks to everything from fiery heartburn in the first trimester to your growing girth in the third, so compensate by resting as much as you can. There’s no shame in spending an hour on the couch in the evenings. After all, it may be a while before you have the excuse (or opportunity!) to indulge in such idleness again. Sleeping and resting will make a huge difference in lowering stress levels, boosting energy and making you an all-around happier mama-to-be.
Month 2: Get moving
First we say to be still, then we say to get moving—can’t we pick just one? The truth is, you need a bit of both in your day-to-day. And because exercising—even just light walking—helps you sleep better at night, the two really go hand in hand. It doesn’t matter much what kind of exercise you get so long as you’re doing something. If you’re a runner, there’s likely no reason you can’t continue your daily jogs. (Although you should check with your practitioner before continuing or beginning any fitness routine while expecting.) If you’re so inclined, pop in a prenatal exercise video. If you hate getting physical, consider something easy, like walking or swimming. Just make sure you’re moving your body at some point every day, ideally for 30 minutes or more.
Exercise fosters relaxation by reducing stress hormones and stimulating production of endorphins, which trigger positive feelings in the body. Most people find that it’s best to exercise earlier in the day, as hitting the gym an hour before bed might leave you too wired to sleep, but fit it in when you can, where you can. The benefits will be well worth the small fraction of your day they demand.
Month 3: Meditate
Resting your body is great, but remember that your brain needs a break, too. Thoughts both exciting and terrifying (and downright menial) are probably racing through your mind at all hours of the day and night. To find some inner peace, look to meditation. And before you write it off, hear us out: “Meditation is a practice of quieting the mind, and in doing so, restoring inner tranquility. In as little as 20 minutes, people can experience tremendous relief and deep relaxation,” shares Finkelstein. It’s easy, free and extremely effective; you might as well give it a shot.
To get started, try your hand at this simple method of meditation: Sit in a quiet place, and concentrate on your breathing. As thoughts flicker through your mind, simply acknowledge them—don’t dwell on them or judge them—and then let them go and bring your focus back to your breathing. Many people think that meditation is all about clearing your head of thoughts altogether (which is hard!), but it isn’t. It’s about giving your mind time to do whatever it wants, go wherever it wants, without you directing or interfering. It can be tough in the beginning to not get involved with your thoughts, but if you continue to meditate daily, you’ll find that it gets easier every time. Initially, you might be able to meditate for only a few minutes, but with time, you’ll work up to 20 to 30 minutes of relaxation each day.
Month 4: Stretch
It should come as no surprise that yoga makes the relaxation list; it’s one of the best stress-busters around. You’ll find classes on every corner and an abundance of videos both online and in-store that cater to the expectant mama. When practicing yoga, particularly if you’re at home on your own, be sure to pay attention to your body. If something hurts or is uncomfortable, don’t do it. Stick to stretches that are specifically approved for your phase of pregnancy, as some are recommended only in certain trimesters.
Finkelstein notes, “The body and mind are intricately connected. When the body is put into a relaxed state through gentle stretching … the mind follows.” In addition to helping you stay calm, yoga also helps prepare your body for labor and decrease baby-related aches and pains.
Month 5: Take a whiff
Aromatherapy can work wonders for soothing the soul. In fact, research shows that our olfactory response is directly linked to the emotional center of our brain, which explains why we get all warm and fuzzy-feeling at certain scents (particularly ones that bring about a bit of nostalgia). Some folks savor the smell of rain; others might find the aroma of cookies baking comforting. (Don’t we all? It’s a good excuse to bake cookies!) A scented candle is a simple way to add in some olfactory-encouraged relaxation.
Certain scents tend to prompt relaxation in everyone, such as lavender (great for nighttime), chamomile, bergamot, jasmine and ylang-ylang. Diffusing essential oils in your home—or even just taking a big whiff out of the bottle—quickly surrounds you with the scent that you find calming. However, not all oils are safe for use during pregnancy, so be sure to check with your doctor or midwife before employing them.
Month 6: Get it out
Keeping everything inside doesn’t do anyone any favors, so let it out! We often let our fears and anxieties build up, and they’re so much worse in our mind than they are in reality. In fact, sometimes just saying them out loud can make you feel much better. Talk therapy is a great form of relaxation, and you don’t have to chat with a professional for the benefits—talk to your partner, your best friend, your mom … any nonjudgmental, supportive person will do. (Note: If you are experiencing severe anxiety or depression, a professional might be the best option. Ask your OB for a recommendation if that’s the case.)
Another good place to get your thoughts and feelings out is on paper. Journaling can be extremely therapeutic. Whether you fill a notepad with your daydreams or simply jot down your worries to stick in a box (where hopefully they’ll stay), the act of removing the thought from your brain and making it “real” can help you see it in a different light, ideally leading to greater levels of relaxation for the mom-to-be.
Month 7: Slow down
Life is busy, but you can certainly make things easier on yourself by cutting some of the “extras” from your schedule. You don’t have to do it all, and it’s OK to say “no” sometimes. If you don’t have the energy for something, take it off your list! Caring for your baby and yourself is more important than making everyone else happy.
It’s also a good time to find ways to open up your day to some free time. Give your partner the grocery list, and let him do the shopping. (Or do what you can online; it might be worth the delivery fee to have an errand-free Saturday afternoon.) Consider hiring a service to cover the heavy cleaning every couple of weeks. It’ll be something different for everyone, but take stock of your life and schedule, and figure out what you can change to allow you to slow down a bit. And use some of your newfound free time to do something very important (and relaxing)—connect with your partner, especially if it’s still just the two of you.
Month 8: Get a massage
Good news: You now have a perfectly valid excuse to book a massage. As you’re rounding the home stretch, your aches and pains have probably increased, and a good old-fashioned massage is a great way to ease them and relax your mind and soul at the same time. The age-old practice helps reduce stress, anxiety and muscle tension, and studies have shown that it can also significantly alter (in a good way) hormone levels associated with relaxation and mood regulation.
On the physical side, it can help with everything from swelling, sciatic nerve pain, back pain, headaches … the list goes on, but you get the idea, right? There’s basically no good reason not to climb up on the table, so go ahead and treat yourself to a spa day. You deserve it.
Month 9: Create a mantra
In the final month of pregnancy, you’re probably thinking a lot about labor (How badly is it going to hurt?) and your newborn (What if she cries all the time, and I can’t soothe her?). Add the 20-plus extra pounds you’re toting around, and these probably won’t be the most relaxing days of your life. Continue practicing the relaxation techniques you’ve mastered in the previous months, and throw in a healthy dose of positivity. In fact, now is the prime time to create a soothing mantra to get you through these final weeks. To address whatever is bothering you most, create an affirmative statement to counter it. These examples can get you started:
I am strong, and I can do this.
I love my baby, and I’m going to be a great mom.
All my work will pay off—the best part is about to begin.
Only you know what you need to hear. Search your soul, figure it out, and make it your mantra. Repeat it to yourself throughout the day while breathing calmly, and it will work to soothe your troubled spirit. In fact, it might even be something you can carry over into the delivery room and the postpartum period. As Finkelstein points out, “Pregnancy is a moment of truth. In order to be the best mom possible, the mother has to take care of herself.” Embracing relaxation techniques during pregnancy allows you to easily carry them with you into the coming days, resulting in a more laid-back, relaxed parent. And when mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.
By Sarah Granger
Image: iStock.com / People Images