Pregnancy is a time of hope and excitement, but for many women it is also a nine-month-long, emotional-roller-coaster ride—much of it downhill. “Mood swings, mixed feelings, anxiety and irritability are all normal,” says Ariadna Cymet Lanski, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist with the Chicago School of Professional Psychology who specializes in prenatal and postnatal counseling in her private practice. “But even if you feel really down and anxious, there’s so much you can do to feel better,” she adds. Here are the five most effective ways to smooth out the bumps:
Get a handle on existing problems
Many women experience either a first episode or a recurrence of a pre-existing mood or anxiety disorder during pregnancy, says Margaret Howard, Ph.D., clinical director of a pregnancy and postpartum psychiatric day program at the Women and Infants’ Hospital in Providence, R.I., and a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.
Pre-existing problems can make things worse. If you’re already on medication, a psychiatrist who specializes in prenatal mental health can prescribe treatment that is safe for you and your baby. If you have a tendency toward depression, anxiety or similar problems—and even if you don’t—be on the lookout for symptoms. Seek treatment if you experience sadness or anxiety severe enough to interfere with eating, sleep, work or relationships for several days in a row, Howard advises. Also, don’t be alarmed if pregnancy stirs up difficult emotions stemming from unresolved loss, trauma or sexual abuse; therapy can help. “The message is: Don’t suffer in silence,” Howard says.
Reach out to others
Being isolated can be a downer. “Negative thinking can spiral when you are alone,” Howard explains. One solution is to reach out to friends, family and other women in settings like your childbirth class.
“Pregnancy and birth is not something nature intended for us to do alone,” Lanski says. “Women do really well when they connect with other women who are having similar experiences.” Build your support network by letting people know how you feel and specifying how they can help now and after the baby is born.
Build a better partnership
Research shows couples' satisfaction with their relationship drops after a baby is born. However, if you anticipate this and work on your relationship before you are sleep-deprived, you increase your chances of navigating the transition to parenthood smoothly.
"Share your experiences, even negetive ones, can be a relief to you both," Lanski says. Also stem anxiety by working out your post-baby financial and child care plan together while your're still pregnant. If you reach an impasse and find yourself getting more upset, try couples counseling.
Make time for fun, too. Plan "dates" and do something you both love so you can laugh together. "Time to connect stregthens your shared joy and your partnership," Lanski explains.
Simplify your life
Trying to be Superwoman can be exhausting and depressing, especially when pregnancy and motherhood add new demands on your energy and schedule. Set aside a few hours to reassess your life. List your responsibilities, the time they require and the rewards you reap, and try to let go of any that are not essential. Learn to say "no."
Relax and relieve stress
The stress hormone cortisol can cross the placenta, so excessive stress isn’t just hard on you, it’s also hard on the baby, says expert Margaret Howard, Ph.D. Yoga, meditation and aerobic exercise have been proven to reduce stress, but find what works for you. Breathe deeply, go to bed early or take walks. “Caring for yourself and taking breaks are not luxuries,” says psychologist Ariadna Cymet Lanski. “They’re essential to your mental health and the well-being of your baby.” Best of all, they can make the ride of your life—pregnancy and motherhood—more fun.