How to Manage Stress Naturally During Pregnancy
Danielle Symons Downs, PhD; Professor of Kinesiology and Obstetrics & Gynecology, The Pennsylvania State University
Balancing multiple roles and demands while also managing life stressors and taking time for yourself is always difficult, but may be even more challenging during pregnancy. In our fast-paced world, advice to slow down and take time to relax while preparing for your baby’s arrival is often easier said than done. However, finding ways to keep stress at bay has numerous health benefits—including increasing the likelihood of a full-term pregnancy and reducing the risk of health complications for both mom and baby. The good news is that there are science-based strategies for managing stress and anxiety. The strategies for coping with stress during pregnancy can fit into your everyday life, including mindfulness-based practices, getting enough sleep and exercise, and making the most of social support.
Mindfulness is simply defined as being as aware of what you are experiencing as you are experiencing it, without judgement. Mindfulness is a great way to treat stress naturally during pregnancy. Research shows that mindfulness is linked to improvements in mood, depression, anxiety, sleep, interpersonal communication and self-compassion. During stressful times, mindfulness can help you calm your body, and appreciate the fleeting moments of your pregnancy. Three simple tips for starting a mindfulness-based practice include:
- Simply Breathe - by just connecting with your breath and following the inhalation/exhalation cycle without trying to control or change the breath, you are practicing being mindful. The breath is a great resource to ground the body and focus the mind when feeling overwhelmed.
- Label the Feeling - instead of getting caught up in the emotional distress you feel or the mental worry of why you are feeling that way, practice just labeling the feeling. Give it one word, say it to yourself, and notice it.
- Use an App - there are many great apps available for your smart phone that will guide you along in mindfulness-based practices, such as Calm or Buddify. When you’re just starting out, it can be helpful to have the assistance of an audio guide through your practice.
Enhancing Sleep Quality
Changing body shape and size and the need for bathroom breaks during the night can present challenges to restful sleep during pregnancy. Practicing healthy sleep habits can promote better rest during this time, which also can help minimize stress levels during the day. Sleep is especially important for physical and psychological health, and you should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Some strategies for improving sleep hygiene are below.
- Although pregnancy can bring on fatigue, limit daytime naps to 30 minutes
- Avoid caffeine close to bedtime
- Avoid foods close to bedtime that can increase indigestion and disrupt sleep, such as heavy or rich foods, fatty or fried meals, citrus fruits, and carbonated beverages
- Get adequate exposure to light during the day and sleep at night in a room that is cool and dark
Regular exercise can help pregnant women better manage stress, promote good quality sleep, and improve psychological well-being. Pregnant women are encouraged to exercise 20-30 minutes each day, but even as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking, can go a long way to reduce stress and improve nighttime sleep quality. Prenatal yoga classes, some of which incorporate mindfulness, have gained popularity and are available in most communities with yoga studios. Find an activity you enjoy and schedule brief bouts into your day. Notice how good you feel when you’re done!
Social Connections and Support
Having the right kind and amount of support when you need it is an important factor for pregnancy and postpartum health. If there were ever a time to ask for and accept help from friends and family, it is during your pregnancy and in the early days after the baby is born. There are several different types of social support. For example, emotional support comes from having someone in your life from whom you receive empathy, love, understanding and caring, and who takes pride in your accomplishments, whereas instrumental support comes from having someone you can count on to provide help when you need it and assist you with concrete tasks. Below are a few tips for getting the support you need:
- Identify the type of support you need. Not everyone will be able to support us in every way. Identify those in your life who may be best for tangible support (cooking meals, household tasks, etc.) and those who may be best for emotional support (people you turn to when you need to vent or cry). Then…
- Speak up and ask for help. People that care about us often want to help but don’t know how. Be specific with what they can do to help – you will get your needs met and they will feel good about assisting.
- Join a pregnancy or parenting group. Both in-person (often offered through your local clinic or hospital) and online support networks can help you feel more connected during your perinatal journey.
- Accept support when offered. When people offer to help, take them up on it. It can be hard to let others help, but remember that you are doing the best for your baby when you are at your best. Finding ways to lighten your load will be one of your greatest tools for managing stress during your pregnancy.