Take It Easy

10 ways to slow down, worry less and enjoy your pregnancy

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Few events in a woman’s life are as exciting or as stressful as pregnancy. Questions nag in the middle of the night: Will I be a good mother? What will happen to my marriage? Will I ever get back into shape? // If you looked hard enough, you could find plenty of reasons to spend your entire pregnancy stressed out — exactly what too many women do. “First-time mothers, especially, are often anxious throughout their pregnancy,” says Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., director of women’s health programs at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s division of behavioral medicine in Boston. “They read too much, think too much and worry.” That’s unfortunate, she adds, because pregnancy should be a glorious time of life.

Here are suggestions from the experts — professionals and women who’ve been there — designed to help you relax, minimize stress and celebrate your pregnancy.

1) Stop negative thoughts

“When a woman is preparing for the transition to motherhood, it’s important that she do so with a sense of mastery over her life,” says Gayle Peterson, Ph.D., M.S.S.W., a family therapist in Berkeley, Calif., and author of An Easier Childbirth (Shadow and Light Publications, 1994). Peterson suggests that you allow yourself brooding time once a day, but if your sessions are prolonged, consider mental exercises to help you change the way you think.

“The goal is to challenge the negative,” Domar says. Restructure a thought such as I’ll never be a good mother to something like I’m doing everything I can to prepare myself for motherhood. Or if you’re stuck on the I’ll never feel sexy again obsession, try substituting a statement that you know is true. For example, My hormones are completely whacked out, but I’ll feel different after I have the baby.

2) Express yourself in a journal

Make entries in a journal to help you confront your fears and doubts. Writing about emotionally powerful experiences can help you come to terms with what you are feeling while boosting your mental and even physical health, says James Pennebaker, Ph.D., author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (Guilford Press, 1997). “Pregnancy brings up all kinds of issues: changes in responsibility, relationships and activities,” he says. “The very act of writing can help sort out charged events.” His advice: Set aside 20 minutes, three or four days a week, to record your thoughts.

3) Stay fit; exercise is good for you

Pregnancy is not an excuse to be a couch potato. Unless you have a high-risk pregnancy, you should exercise three times a week or more, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Staying fit and strong also helps prepare your body for labor.

Research has shown that fit women are likely to have improved cardiovascular function, as well as easier, less complicated labors. They also require fewer interventions during delivery. Other benefits include higher self-esteem; more energy; a better ability to handle stress; reduced physical discomfort, such as backaches, constipation and swelling; and improved posture, muscle tone, strength and endurance.

What types of activities are the best? Practically anything you were doing before: walking, low-impact aerobics, strength training and swimming. Don’t have time to join a class? Try a pregnancy exercise video that follows ACOG guidelines. (Or try our Love Your Body” workout)

4) Slow down; you have permission

Tired? Put your feet up and thumb through a magazine. Need air? Take a brisk walk. As a registered nurse and educational counselor in San Francisco, Tori Kropp counsels pregnant women about how to take care of themselves. When it was her turn — Kropp had her first baby in December 2000 — she found out just how necessary it was to simply take a break. “Even if you don’t want to slow down, your body will eventually make you,” says the 40-year-old Kropp.

5) Reach out to people

Social support, which a growing body of research links to overall health and well-being, is crucial throughout pregnancy — and it may be just as important for your baby. A recent government study looked at 247 pregnant women and found a link between babies’ higher birth weight and the amount of support that their mothers received during pregnancy.

The researchers, who conducted the study at the University of California campuses at Los Angeles and Irvine, speculate that support may alter the nervous system’s response to stress and improve fetal growth. Sign up for a prenatal exercise class. Find out if a pregnancy or new-mothers support group exists in your community. If you can’t find one, start one.

6) Meditate

Let the cares of the world dissolve, even if it’s simply for a few minutes. Try the Relaxation Response, a simple, 10-minute practice developed by Herbert Benson, M.D., at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass. It involves three basic steps: repeating a word, sound, phrase or muscular activity; breathing slowly and deeply; and disregarding everyday thoughts. This can help you counteract the harmful effects of stress and anxiety by reducing your heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration and muscle tension. Learning to relax can pay off: Women who practiced a relaxation program had larger newborns and longer pregnancies, according to a 1999 study published in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing.

7) Visualize

Visualization is the creation of mental imagery coupled with relaxing messages to help resolve fear. In other words, you use your imagination to influence your attitude, behavior or physiological responses. Family therapist Peterson suggests that pregnant women create a visualization tape by reading appropriate imagery into a tape recorder. For example, you may picture yourself relaxing in a peaceful forest or listening to a trickling stream. “I like the image of a cat basking in the warm sunlight,” Peterson says. You may want to imagine your baby — not only how she looks, but how she smells, feels and sounds. “Talk to your baby,” she says. “Relax into this union.”

8) Get a massage

Want to do something really special? Treat yourself to a massage. It’s safe for most women with uncomplicated, low-risk pregnancies, provided it’s performed by a certified pregnancy massage therapist who knows what is safe (and what isn’t) for you and your baby.

“[Pregnant] clients who didn’t have massage therapy the first time around can’t believe the difference,” says Lynne Daize, a registered pregnancy massage therapist in Austin, Texas. “They tell me that with massage, their [subsequent] pregnancies are smoother, their recovery quicker.” Indeed, studies at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine have found that women who receive massage during pregnancy have shorter labors, less need for medication and less postpartum depression than women who are given standard breathing coaching alone.

For more information, contact the National Association of Pregnancy Massage Therapy at 888-451-4945

9) Splurge!

Indulge yourself just this once. Get a deluxe pedicure — the kind that involves sea salts and a leg massage. Buy a sexy shirt or sundress that shows off your belly or a pair of expensive strappy sandals. Eat a large slice of chocolate cake.

10) Continue to be yourself

Take time now to explore what you like to do. “I would tell women who are carrying their first baby to enjoy the freedom of being ‘single,’” says new mom Christina Tse, a 33-year-old graphic designer from New York. “No matter how difficult the pregnancy, it’s much harder — though even more wonderful — to be a mom.” Take the final course to complete a degree, write a business plan for your company or learn a language. In other words, cherish the little person inside, but don’t let the worry or the visions of how life will be different — and it will be different — consume you.

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