When I got pregnant, I was warned about postpartum depression. As someone with a history of depression, I knew what to look for in terms of warning signs. But, I also knew the habits I could put into place to ease depression’s grip on me. What I wasn’t prepared for was pregnancy anxiety.
What is pregnancy anxiety?
Pregnancy anxiety might include obsessive or intrusive thoughts and overly worrying about the health and well-being of the baby. It may also manifest as physical symptoms, including disturbed sleep, breathing difficulties, and rapid heart rate. For some, like me, this may escalate into full-blown panic attacks.
The reality is that pregnancy is a time when so much of our energy is focused on the future. That kind of attention to what’s ahead of us—rather than to the present—can create a lot of stress. When you add how much of our pregnancy is out of our control, that can be a recipe for intense anxiety.
My experience with pregnancy anxiety
My pregnancy anxiety began almost right away and continued even after birth. While I was familiar with the shape of depression: the lack of energy, the disinterest in my normal activities, and general malaise, my pregnancy anxiety felt very different.
I was terrified that something would happen to the baby, that I would be a bad mom, that I wouldn’t love my son, and that my life as I knew it was over. (That last part might have been true, but the rest of it was my mind playing tricks on me.)
I experienced terrible insomnia that kept me awake in the middle of the night, leading to even more exhaustion and stress. It was a self-perpetuating cycle. I experienced intrusive thoughts and a general feeling of being on edge all the time. While my depression sapped my energy, anxiety was exhausting in a whole new way.
Managing my pregnancy anxiety with meditation
Luckily for me, I had a meditation practice already well-established at that point, and I was able to turn to my practice in order to alleviate some of my symptoms. I think of meditation as taking a break from all the “what ifs” in our minds to focus on the “what’s here” of the present. While it didn’t get rid of my intrusive thoughts, it helped me to see them for what they were. And though my insomnia was still present, meditating while I was wide awake was calming for my mind and body.
There are many forms of meditation, and it can be done while sitting, walking, or even lying down. However, all forms involve focusing your attention and reducing the constant chatter that happens in our minds. Meditation promotes a connection between mind and body and aims to create a more peaceful state of being. There is strong research to suggest that meditation can be useful in managing anxiety and its symptoms, among many other chronic health issues.
If you’re interested in trying meditation to help with anxiety, start small, with just a few minutes, and see how it feels.
Things to keep in mind when starting a meditation practice
Meditation can be highly beneficial, especially during pregnancy. Although, in some cases, it can bring those feelings of anxiety to the surface. In quiet and stillness, stressful thoughts can arise. So what do we do then?
Consider what kind of meditation to practice
As a meditation teacher and as a person with anxiety, I recommend trying a concentration practice rather than a mindfulness practice. With mindfulness, we are simply observing all of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise. This can be a wonderful practice but difficult if you’re already feeling anxious.
A concentration practice, on the other hand, gives the mind something to do during meditation. This may be gazing at a candle, repeating a mantra, or some other practice to anchor the mind on something during the meditation. I’ve included some ideas for both types of practices.
Find a comfortable position
When we think about meditation, most of us imagine someone seated on the floor or on a cushion crossed-legged. When I was pregnant, the idea of sitting on the floor was downright laughable. Get yourself actually comfortable before you begin meditating. You might sit in a favorite chair or even lie down on your bed. Ensure that your body isn’t aching so that your mind can relax.
Tips to get started
Connect to your breath
Anyone who has been pregnant will tell you that, especially after a certain point, breathing becomes a challenge. I joke that my son had his foot wedged into my right lung for the second half of my pregnancy.
But by learning to connect to your breath, you can bring yourself back into the moment rather than following your anxious thoughts. Instead of spinning out, you can come back to what is concrete and certain: your body and the way things are right at this moment.
The simplest meditation you can do is to simply observe your breath, watching the inhale and exhale as they come and go. (You might even name them: Inhale, as you breathe in, and exhale, as you breathe out). By paying attention to this passive action, we are bringing mindfulness to it and giving ourselves an opportunity to be in the present moment, wherever we are.
Count your breaths
In this practice, you’ll begin by watching your inhale and exhale. But rather than simply observing them, you’ll focus on making them the same length as one another. Sometimes, when we’re feeling anxious, we may find that we’re holding our breath or breathing shallowly.
Here, you’ll count the length of the inhale and the length of the exhale, altering if you need to, to make them the same length. You might begin with a count of two for each, working your way up to longer counts (and slower breaths).
Counting will help to focus your mind away from the source of anxiety and give it something productive to work on instead. (Learning to breathe evenly is also good practice for labor!)
Use a mantra
When I was pregnant, I practiced lovingkindness meditation almost every day. In lovingkindness meditation, we repeat a set of phrases throughout the meditation. These phrases are expressions of compassion and hope for well-being for yourself and others. We send these expressions of care first to ourselves, then to a mentor, a loved one, a neutral person, and finally, a difficult person in our lives.
I found a lot of relief from my anxiety by repeating those phrases for myself during pregnancy and was able to better connect to my future baby by offering him those phrases. While I was in labor, I repeated those same phrases for myself and my baby. Often, simply receiving those messages of care can ease the intensity of anxiety.
Some sample phrases might include:
- May you feel loved
- May you feel safe
- May you feel courageous
- May you feel peaceful
- May you be filled with ease
Gaze at a single point
Most meditation instructions invite you to close your eyes, but some people with anxiety may find this activating. If this is you, don’t despair. Instead of closing your eyes, focus on something real that you can see in front of you.
While keeping your eyes open, pick a single point on which to focus your eyes. You might gaze at a flower, at a lit candle, or simply at a point on the floor or wall. This gives your mind a place to rest without the feelings that come with having your eyes closed. This concentration practice gives your brain a small amount of input that allows it to relax and focus itself rather than spinning out.
Close your meditation
In most traditions, we place our hands together and bow to end our meditation practice. We may also dedicate the merit of our practice, sending any potential benefit that our meditation may have created out to touch others.
The reality is that my anxiety didn’t really end. Anxiety is something I still live with to this day, but it doesn’t completely control my thoughts—or my life—the way I feared it might. Meditation offered me the chance to deepen my compassion for myself in a season when everything seemed to focus on the future. And it’s a practice I still turn to when I’m feeling fearful or on edge about something I can’t control.