When we talk about “looking after our bodies” during pregnancy and after childbirth, you might think about what you are eating, or how much exercise you are getting, but are you also considering the importance of relaxation?
In today’s fast paced society, relaxation is often thought of as a luxury. But it is an important part of our wellbeing. Emotional stress has been shown to affect memory, cognition, our immune system, our cardiovascular system, and our gastrointestinal function.
1 Physical stress can cause tension in the body, leading to discomfort or even pain. Relaxation can help to decrease the mental and physical effects of stress. In pregnancy and motherhood in particular, it is important that we allow our bodies sufficient opportunity to relax.
In Pregnancy: During the course of your pregnancy you will probably experience a range of emotions. Whilst pregnancy is often a happy and exciting time, it is quite common to also feel some degree of stress, anxiety or overwhelm. A study in the US reported that as many of 84% of women reported some degree of psychosocial stress during their pregnancy.
2 As your baby grows the changes to your body, such as increasing weight of the uterus and changes to your body shape, place extra strain on joints and muscles as they compensate for these changes.
3 Certain muscles can become over worked and over-sensitised, and this can result in tightness, discomfort or pain for some people.
4 In Motherhood: After childbirth, the body’s restoration takes time. Yet almost immediately physical demands are placed on new Mums, such as lifting, carrying, nursing and sleepless nights. Emotional stress can feature heavily at this time as you adapt to the new responsibilities of motherhood. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that you may find yourself holding a lot of tension in your body, particularly your back, abdomen and pelvic floor. The anxieties of being a new Mum can leave our bodies in an almost constant fight or flight response state. Relaxation techniques can help to signal the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down and return to our “rest and digest” state of being.
RELAXATION TECHNIQUES TO HELP YOU MOVE AND FEEL WELL.
Relaxation doesn’t always require a huge investment of time or money. I’m going to focus on some simple things that you can easily fit in to your everyday activities at home to help release tension and promote relaxation.
1) Breathe well
“Above all, learn to breathe correctly”.
Slow, deep breathing has been shown to trigger a relaxation response in the body, and to benefit mental and physical health. 5 Taking a few minutes out of your day to simply focus on your breathing is a simple but effective way to help the body relax.
Here are a couple of breathing techniques that I like to teach my pregnant and postnatal clients.
During pregnancy: Deep abdominal breathing is a lovely way to focus the mind, calm the body and promote relaxation. It is a wonderful tool for use during pregnancy and labour to help bring you into a relaxed state and aid oxygen flow.
Sit tall to create a sense of space in the torso. Let your shoulders relax
Gently cradle the lower part of your baby bump with your hands
Take a full, natural breath in through your nose, visualising the breath flowing all
the way down into your hands
Part your lips slightly and allow your jaw and shoulders to relax as you exhale.
In motherhood: I teach diaphragmatic or “360º” breathing to optimise the natural movement of the diaphragm and auxiliary breathing muscles. It can take a little while to get the hang of this but stick with it and the breath will start to flow. When trying this for the first time, you might find it helpful to lie on your back with your hands placed on top
of the lower part of your ribcage. This allows you to feel the ribcage expanding into your hands and against the mat (i.e. in a 360º manner).
Visualise there is a circle around the lower part of the ribcage.
Take a gentle yet full breath in through your nose, feeling as if you are breathing
into the circle and allowing it to expand to the front, side and back
As you exhale, notice the rib cage gently softening and sinking
2) Move well
“Tension is the enemy of movement”
Eric Franklin, The Franklin Method
If we want to move well, we are going to need to release those overworked or tense areas of the muscles, release endorphins and increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” system).
If you are able to get to a Pregnancy or Postnatal movement class such as Pilates or Yoga, this can be a great way to release tension and open out the body. Most pregnancy/postnatal Pilates or Yoga classes will include elements of breathwork, movement and meditation. I recommend attending classes that are specifically for pregnant or
postnatal women, with a suitably qualified instructor, to ensure that the exercises are appropriate for you and the class is tailored to meet your body’s needs at that time. Group classes are a lovely way of meeting other Mums, however if you aren’t comfortable with a group class format, many instructors will also offer private sessions. Some instructors may also run online classes if you cannot get to a studio.
If you don’t have an instructor near you, or attending classes is not feasible for you right now here are some simple releases that you can do at home to help promote relaxation. Remember, these are releases rather than stretches. We are seeking to release tension, not increase flexibility at this time, so keep it gentle, relax into the position and do not force a stretch. If anything does not feel comfortable, don’t do it and seek medical advice where appropriate.
A super simple way to reduce tension in the shoulders and help promote good posture in the upper back.
Sit tall. Imagine there is a piece of string coming out from the crown of your head
pulling up towards the ceiling
Take a breath in, lifting your shoulders up to your ears. Feel as if you are lifting
from underneath your armpits and try to get the tops of your shoulders to touch
As you breathe out, allow your shoulders to relax back down and feel your
shoulder blades sliding down the back, as if you were trying to pull them down
towards the back pockets of your trousers
Repeat this a few times as needed until your shoulders feel relaxed and open.
Child’s pose pelvic release
This is a wonderful position to lengthen the spine, relieve tension and open out the hips. I encourage this position particularly in pregnancy to relax the pelvis in preparation for childbirth, and postnatally as a release for the pelvic region.
Start on your hands and knees
Bring your big toes together and take your knees apart so your legs are making a
Bring your bottom back towards your heels and at the same time reach your
fingertips forward to get a lovely stretch through the spine. Hold this for a few
Seated roll down against a wall
This movement helps to release tension in the spine and improve mobility in the upper and mid back.
Sit in a comfortable position with your back against a wall. Bring your hands behind your head with your elbows out to the side
Take a breath in and lengthen your spine. Feel as if the crown of your head is being pulled up towards the ceiling
As you exhale, slowly roll down through the spine. Start by lowering the chin to the chest and then continue to peel your spine away from the wall, vertebra by vertebra, as far as feels comfortable
Take a breath in through your nose
As you exhale start to roll back up, restacking the spine vertebra by vertebra until you return to your starting position
As you take your next breath in, press your elbows back towards the wall to open up across the chest and shoulders
Repeat this 3 or 4 times.
In pregnancy this is a lovely movement for opening up the ribcage and stretching the intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs), especially during the 2 nd and 3 rd trimesters when the ribcage lifts and breathing can feel shallow.
My postnatal ladies love this movement too. Frequently carrying your baby on one side of the body can lead to hip hitching, making the waist feel tight and short. This release exercise helps you to lengthen out of the hip and lengthen the waist and side body. You can almost always tell which side a Mum carries by which side feels tightest in this
Sit in a comfortable position on the floor, such as cross legged, reaching your arms out to your sides.
Take your right arm overhead and reach over to your left side with your left arm supporting you on the floor. Try to keep both of your sitting bones down on the floor, paying particular attention to the right side. Try not to let it lift. (Your sitting bones are the two bones that you feel under the flesh of your bottom when you sit on it).
Hold for a few breaths, feeling as if you are “breathing into the ribcage” as you inhale to deepen the stretch
On an exhale, gently engage your pelvic floor and tummy muscles for support as you bring yourself up to sitting once again
Repeat to the other side
Meditation is a lovely way to promote relaxation and feelings of positive wellbeing. Results of a 2017 systematic review of published literature suggested that “mindfulness-based interventions can be beneficial for outcomes such as anxiety, depression, perceived stress and levels of mindfulness during the perinatal period’ 6 There are various different types of meditations that can help promote relaxation. Body scan meditations can be particularly good for relaxing the body. Visualisations and affirmations can be lovely for calming the mind and promoting positive feelings. Most pregnancy/postnatal yoga classes and some pregnancy/postnatal Pilates classes will include an element of
meditation within the class. If you attend hypnobirthing classes during your pregnancy you will be provided with some example meditations to help you relax during pregnancy and childbirth. There is a vast array of meditation resources online. There are videos and audio recordings that you can listen to, and scripts that you can recite to yourself or ask a partner to read to you. There are also several good meditation apps available, some of which offer meditations
specifically tailored towards pregnancy or motherhood. The benefit of all of these resources being online is that you can use them whenever you get even just 5-10 minutes to yourself. Find meditations that work for you. You may find some styles resonate better with you than others. That’s OK, focus on the ones you find most beneficial for you.
So really it is simple: Breathe well, move well and meditate. Don’t feel guilty for those 5 minutes of you-time during a busy day. Remember, you cannot pour from an empty cup. To look after your loved ones you need to look after yourself too. You’ve got this Mumma!
“The paradox of relaxation is the renewal of mind; rekindle of spirit and revitalize of strength”
Lailah Gifty Akita
About the Author:
Gina Craig is a Pilates teacher, specialising in working with pregnant women and Mums. She set up her company, Precision Poise, to have a strong focus on supporting Mums through all stage of motherhood. She believes in empowering her clients to better understand and work with their own bodies; building confidence in their own abilities. Gina is Mum to a 3 year old boy and lives in Chichester, West Sussex. Follow Gina on Facebook and Instagram
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