You’re having a baby! Oh, the joy … or not? You may be wondering why, when other expecting women seem to be glowing with happiness, you’re feeling nothing but incredibly anxious. Dread, worry and all sorts of fears are overshadowing your pregnancy, and it feels awful. Is it normal? What should you do?
Well, the good news is that some anxiety – especially if this is your first baby – is not abnormal at all. However, if that anxiety is consuming significant amounts of time, interfering with your ability to function normally, or seriously disrupting your sleep night after night, then you may have a full-blown anxiety disorder.
While the latter may require professional help (discussed further below), there are many things you can do on your own to both manage and reduce your anxiety. They do take some effort, but taking good care of your emotional and mental health will benefit both you and your baby (not to mention the others in your family circle).
Challenge the ‘Scary Story’
Anxiety is almost always fueled by a “scary story,” and in most cases, this scary story is exaggerated and irrational. For example, someone with social anxiety tells herself that she’s going to be embarrassed or make a complete fool of herself in social situations. Her “scary story” is that something is going to go wrong and it’s going to be horrible. Similarly, you may be telling yourself a scary story (or several scary stories) related to your pregnancy. Perhaps it’s that you’re going to be a terrible mother, that your baby will be born with a serious health issue, or that you’re going to lose the baby.
You can challenge your scary story in several ways. For example, when an anxiety-provoking “what if” (what if I’m a terrible mother, what if my baby has problems, etc.) keeps coming to mind, challenge it by remembering that the “what ifs” we fear very rarely actually happen. And IF they do occur, challenge that scary thought by remembering that you can and will handle it – when the time comes. Not to mention, you can’t control the future, and worrying won’t change that fact.
Another way to challenge the scary stories is to ask yourself, “What evidence is there to support my fear?” For example, what proof do you have that you’ll be a terrible mother? Has your doctor said there’s a high risk of losing the baby? Much of the time, there’s nothing to back up the scary story – except other scary stories.
Stay in the Present
The scary stories you tell yourself are always in the future tense; your anxiety is about what might or could happen. In other words, you’re borrowing trouble because you don’t know what the future holds – none of us do. But the more you play those stories over and over in your mind, the more you feed the anxiety. And the stress you’re creating for yourself is not healthy for you or your baby.
Always remember: You can’t be anxious when you’re truly living in the present moment.
Right now there’s a tiny human growing inside you; at this moment, its heart is beating, yours is beating, and all is well. Could something go wrong tomorrow, or next week, or 3 months from now? Certainly. That’s life. Even if all isn’t well at the moment (for example, the doctor has said there’s a fair risk of XYZ happening), that doesn’t mean XYZ will happen. Life is full of risks, but risks are “maybes” not “definitely wills.”
The present is all any of us has for certain. Focusing on that (easier said than done, of course) is one of the keys to quelling your anxiety.
Practice Positive Self-Talk
People who struggle with anxiety (and depression) often have very negative self-talk. Self-talk is that inner dialogue that goes on in your mind throughout the day. For example, anxiety-provoking self-talk typically includes statements such as:
- I can’t do this.
- I can’t handle this.
- What if I fail?
- What if something terrible happens?
- What if it doesn’t work?
It takes a conscious effort to change your self-talk, but it can be done. Following are positive versions of the above statements:
- I can do this!
- I can handle whatever comes my way.
- I will succeed (or “I am a success”).
- If something bad happens, I’ll be able to handle it.
- Everything will work out as it should.
The second set of statements is empowering and instills a sense of confidence and hope, whereas the first set fosters anxiety and dread. It’s a powerful difference that comes from simple changes in your self-talk.
Slow, deep breathing is an excellent way to calm your nerves and quiet your mind. So simple – yet it’s often the first thing people forget to do when they’re really anxious. Instead, their breathing becomes increasingly rapid and shallow, which doesn’t help at all.
Whenever you’re feeling anxious about your pregnancy, take a few moments and simply focus on your breathing. Consciously slow down the pace of your breathing. Inhale with a deep, slow breath through your nose (counting “1001, 1002, 1003, 1004”). Pause for a moment as you hold the air in your lungs, and then exhale slowly (using the same four counts) through your mouth. Do that for three to five minutes. By focusing on your breathing, you’re taking your mind off your worries. The slow, deep breaths will help both your body and mind relax. Do this frequently throughout the day; over time, it will become a habit.
Lower Your Stress
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t mean it needs to consume your life or be a major part of it. Finding ways to reduce your stress will also help reduce your anxiety, as the two tend to go hand in hand. You can reduce stress in multiple ways (and the more of these you do, the better):
- Delegating tasks (both at home and at work)
- Practicing the fine art of saying “no”
- Eliminating clutter
- Scheduling your day in advance
- Surrounding yourself with supportive people
- Choosing your battles wisely (with your partner, your boss, your kids, etc.)
- Keeping your goals realistic
- Cutting back on your workload (e.g., going from full time to part time if possible, or not putting in overtime)
- Getting sufficient, restful sleep
- Getting regular aerobic exercise (with your doctor’s OK, such as brisk walking or swimming)
- Making time for relaxation and fun
You may find that simply by reducing your stress, much of your anxiety subsides.
Take a Prenatal Yoga Class
The mental and physical benefits of yoga have been well-documented and experienced by many for centuries. The ancient practice – which combines slow, controlled movements, stretches and poses with proper breathing – is particularly beneficial for both anxiety and pregnant women. Before you start, be sure to get your doctor’s OK, and find a prenatal yoga class with an experienced instructor.
While yoga may seem simple and harmless, you need to take extra caution when you’re pregnant. Some poses – such as those that put pressure on your belly – can be dangerous when you’re expecting, especially the further along you are.
One of the great benefits of regularly practicing yoga is improved sleep. Sleep deprivation can quickly exacerbate anxiety. When you’re well-rested, you’ll feel less overwhelmed and more capable of handling life’s curveballs.
Meditation is one of the most excellent – and underutilized – ways to alleviate anxiety. Although it does take practice, it doesn’t cost anything and takes up very little of your time. It also doesn’t require any special skills or props, and you can do it almost anywhere (well, anywhere that’s quiet for at least a few minutes). And it’s perfectly safe for pregnant women!
While some people use meditation for spiritual purposes, it doesn’t have to be connected to any particular beliefs.
Meditation is powerful because it helps you learn to totally quiet your mind and it utilizes slow, controlled breathing which helps quell anxiety.
You can purchase books, CDs and DVDs that will help you learn to meditate. However, they’re not necessary. In a nutshell, the process is incredibly simple:
1) Find a quiet spot where you’ll be undisturbed for several minutes (10 to 15 is perfect when starting out).
2) Choose a time of day that works well for you, and try to meditate at the same time each day.
3) Sit on the floor (or chair or sofa, etc.) so that you’re comfortable.
4) Close your eyes.
5) Allow all your thoughts to leave your mind so that you’re focused only on your breathing.
6) Continue focusing on nothing but your breathing for several minutes.
7) As thoughts come in (and they will, especially at first and even more so when you’re anxious), don’t fight them; instead, picture your mind releasing them (e.g., like an autumn leaf gently falling from a tree, or whatever imagery feels right for you).
The first few (or many) times you meditate, it may feel impossible to clear your mind. That’s OK. Don’t fight it; just accept it and keep releasing the thoughts. The more you practice, the easier it will become. Many people start with 10 minutes a day and work their way up to 30 or more. There’s no set rule; do what works best for you.
When to Seek Treatment
Many of the above techniques are often used by therapists to treat anxiety-ridden individuals. If you’re anxiety is mild to moderate, you may do just fine practicing them on your own. However, in some cases, professional help may be warranted when it comes to managing your anxiety.
If you feel your anxiety is excessive (e.g., the troubling thoughts are constantly or very frequently on your mind, or are extreme in nature), or if it’s negatively impacting your sleep, appetite, concentration, energy level or any other aspect of your life, then an evaluation with a mental health professional is warranted.
There are several different types of anxiety disorders, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder, to name a few. While medication may help reduce symptoms, it should not be the sole source of treatment for your anxiety – especially when you’re pregnant. Therapy, especially when combined with many of the above tips, can be very effective without medication in many cases. Even just a few sessions with a skilled therapist can help you find healthy ways to cope and reduce (and possibly eradicate altogether) troubling symptoms of anxiety.
If you’re pregnant and battling anxiety, know that there is hope. If you’ve tried implementing several of the suggestions listed above and they’re not helping, contact a mental health professional today for an evaluation. You can also ask your ob-gyn for a referral. Working with a skilled therapist can make all the difference in the world when it comes to reducing and managing anxiety during your pregnancy, helping you and your baby.