"I have anxiety problems normally, but when I was pregnant, I ended up feeling anxious and worried over everything," said Carmen Mareno, of Sacramento, California. "I felt jumpy over every little twinge-like I didn't even know my own body anymore."
Decreasing your physical response to stress will help reduce the physical discomforts of pregnancy, help you explore any anxiety about pregnancy and give you the inner strength needed to prepare for labor.
How it works
When you relax, your body creates a relaxation response that is the opposite of the body's reaction to stress. Your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all decrease. Learning to relax is like building muscles: the more you do it, the stronger your body will become.
The effects of practicing relaxation are cumulative; so are the effects of stress and anxiety. The trick is to provide enough relaxation to balance out the daily hassles and other stress in your life. Regular relaxation practice will change your body's response to stress.
When Carolle Martin of Solone, Iowa was expecting her third child, she had a difficult time relaxing.
"It was more difficult for me to enjoy this pregnancy, because I didn't have any time to myself. I decided to try something different this pregnancy. I used my [relaxation] recordings four to five times a week."
Martin had to spend several months on bed rest with her previous pregnancies because of high blood pressure. This pregnancy was different.
"When I would get stressed out, I would immediately use a relaxation technique. I could just feel my blood pressure returning to normal. I loved using the recordings because it gave me time to do something for myself and for my baby."
We know that every day a baby can remain in utero means better health. Researchers from the University of Alaska Anchorage examined the effects of using relaxation therapy on the outcome of women who routinely experienced pre-term labor.
They found that the women who carried out a daily relaxation program using tapes of a relaxation exercise had significantly longer pregnancies and larger babies when compared to those women who were not practicing the relaxation therapy. They recommended that, due to the low cost of this treatment, it should be a standard for all women at risk from pre-term labor.
Julie Clay of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania found herself worrying about her and her baby's health, " I would begin to worry and then every symptom I had would send me spinning. I found that practicing relaxation would help me regain a sense of control and peace of mind that would last all day." Jennifer Bloome, an occupational therapist, says introducing techniques that elicit the relaxation response allows you to break the cycle of anxiety and tension, releasing the physical effect of stress and anxiety, and optimizing your body's overall health.
"Once you are in a relaxed state, your mind is much more receptive to messages that you wish to give, such as a peaceful labor or connecting with your new baby," says Bloome, who also is a childbirth educator and creator of Your-Birth.com, which creates prenatal guided imagery tapes
An easier delivery
Besides helping prevent early babies, learning relaxation skills can help you prepare for labor and birth. Even if you plan to use pain medications during labor, often the first stage of labor (before you can receive an epidural) can last for many hours. And to make things worse, explains Bloome, stress can elongate labor.
Relaxation techniques can help you work with your contractions, enabling you to manage your pain. Imagery techniques can help you practice techniques designed to enhance dilatation. Research has shown that anxiety during labor can lead to the release of hormones that inhibit labor.
If you are able to manage your pain and not build anxiety, your labor can progress. Using imagery, you can "practice" labor, building your confidence for the actual event, or release fears that you have about labor and birth. In addition, it encourages self-nurturing and self-reliance while enhancing trust in, and cooperation with, the intelligence of the body.
"I used relaxation techniques during labor and they helped me shut out all the noise around me and focus on the contractions," says Martin.
Tips to get started
Relaxation skills are often taught as part of childbirth education. However, these classes are only one time per week for six or eight weeks. To learn a technique well enough to be able to use it during a stressful situation you must do daily practice.
In addition, having a recording of these techniques facilitates practice by walking you step by step through the exercise. A number of guided imagery tapes have been developed specifically for pregnant moms. You may also want to consider prenatal yoga classes if they are offered in your community.
There are many different ways to elicit the relaxation response. Relaxation can be as simple as taking 10 minutes after dinner to close your eyes and just focus on your breathing, gently letting any thoughts that intrude slip away, Bloom says.
For people who have difficulty sitting still, there are relaxation techniques that are more physical. Try this:
Close your eyes, begin to tense the muscles of your feet, hard enough to feel the muscles working, but not so hard as to cause a cramp. Hold the tension for about five to 10 seconds, then relax. Move up to the muscles of your calves, then thighs, buttocks, belly, chest and back, shoulders, arms, neck and head. Keep the muscles you have already worked loose and relaxed as you progress up your body. When you are finished, give yourself five to 10 minutes to just "be."
"Notice how you feel when you are finished," says Bloom. Beginning a daily relaxation practice can help you carve out time just for yourself. This is an important ritual to remember after the baby is born! You can use this time to make sure you are the healthiest you can be.