Guest Blog by Dr Tuesday Watts-Overall. Birth and Postpartum Coach and mum of two gives her top tips for taking care of your mental and maternal health during moments that challenge you in pregnancy.
During pregnancy we make sure to take our prenatal vitamins. We maintain a level of physical activity. We try our best to eat nutritious food (when nausea isn’t a dominating feature of our experience). We make sure that we stay well hydrated. We put a lot of thought into our physical wellness during pregnancy, which is important, of course. But we don’t talk nearly enough about maintaining our mental wellness during pregnancy.
Here’s the thing – as humans, we crave certainty, predictability, and familiarity. These are essential to our safety and survival. That can mean that pregnancy (and birth), which can be filled with uncertainty and unknowns, can present a real challenge for us (and our mental health). Especially if it’s our first pregnancy and we have no previous experience to compare it to or take comfort from.
In my experience as someone who works with pregnant people and as someone who has experienced two pregnancies, we don’t talk nearly enough about navigating this uncertainty, dealing with the stress it can create and managing the anxious, unhelpful thoughts it can generate. We talk even less about healthy ways to manage these experiences and take care of our mental health during those moments that challenge us during pregnancy.
So for World Mental Health Day (#worldmentalheathday) I thought I’d share my go-to process for moving through anxious feelings and unhelpful thoughts during pregnancy (it’s one that works for me and I know my clients like it).
Try identifying exactly what’s going on for you in the moment. What’s the feeling or the specific thought swirling around in your head?
Give yourself space to feel it
Once you’ve named it, allow it. So often we try and move ourselves away from uncomfortable feelings or thoughts as quickly as possible. But what if you just sat with it all for a bit? What if it was ok for you to feel stressed or worried? What if it was ok for you to just ‘hear’ the thought out? If it feels safe for you to do so, tune in to it for a bit and notice the way it feels in your body.
When we are stressed or anxious we tend to engage in quite shallow, fast breathing, which tells our brain to keep producing stress hormones, keep our heart rate elevated and our blood pressure raised. In other words, if our breathing is off, it can maintain the state we’re in. So first, let out a deep, exaggerated sighhhhh. That’s going to act like a pressure release valve for your body by stimulating your vagus nerve, which will slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. Once you’ve done that, spend a few minutes focusing on slowing and deepening your breathing. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Imagine you are pulling the breath all the way down to your baby. Then release the breath through your mouth, for twice as long if you can. Breathing in this way can have a really regulating and balancing effect on our body and mind.
Use grounding techniques in the moment
If your thoughts are particularly noisy and spirally, try using the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique to bring yourself out of your own head for a bit. Take note of...
5 things you can see
4 things you can feel
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
Turning your attention away from what’s happening internally to your external environment can be a great way of soothing your mind in the moment.
Get out for a walk
Research suggests that walking helps to reduce activation of the amygdala, the part of our brain primarily linked with anxious feelings. Walking in itself is also a form of bilateral stimulation, meaning that it stimulates both sides of our brain, which in turn supports emotional processing and can help us get back to a calmer state.
Make use of visualisation
It might not always be possible to get out for a walk at any given moment. But just because you can’t physically be out walking, doesn’t mean that you can’t take yourself to your favourite walking place in your mind. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and imagine yourself out on your favourite walk, wherever that may be. Focusing on this visual for just a few moments can be a great stress reliever and nervous system regulator.
Time to get curious
Once the initial thoughts and feelings have passed and if it feels safe for you to do so, it’s time to reflect on where that experience came from. What was the thing that triggered that feeling or thought for you? And what does it mean? What’s the message in the feeling or thought? Consider whether there is something that needs to be addressed in order for you to feel or think differently.
Get it down on paper
Writing down your thoughts and feelings is something I’d really recommend. Grab a pen and some paper/your journal and jot down whatever is coming up – it doesn’t have to be perfect prose and your writing doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else. In words or even drawings that make sense to you, just make a note of the thoughts and feelings that are coming up for you along with the answers to the questions in the 'Time to get curious' section.
Shift your focus
It can be really easy to get wrapped up in all of the things outside of our control during pregnancy. It’s also really understandable and very human of us – predictability is what keeps us safe. Uncertainty is unsettling. That’s why it’s important to focus on the things that are within your control and let the rest go (easier said than done, I appreciate!). Try carving out time for regular relaxation practices and routines during your pregnancy. You may find that the predictability of these rituals works to enhance your feelings of control. Doing a birth preparation course can also work to increase your confidence and feelings of control, even in the face of all of the unknowns of birth.
Know when to seek extra support
Although it’s common to find all of the unpredictability and unknowns of pregnancy challenging and to occasionally experience feelings of stress and anxiety, it’s super important to recognise when these experiences are becoming overwhelming. If they do, please reach out for extra support by talking to your GP, midwife or an appropriately trained professional about your experiences.
My name is Dr Tuesday Watts-Overall, I am mum of two (absolute terrors!) and a Birth and Postpartum Coach. My background is in Psychology, and I have additional training across many different areas, all of which form important parts of the work that I do. My approach is integrative and offers a potent combination of perinatal education and specialist therapeutic and coaching tools. In my work I create a truly nurturing and supportive space for you to learn and grow as you navigate pregnancy, birth and life afterwards. Want to know more? Visit my website or come find me on Instagram.