When we think of pregnancy, it’s easy to be beset by cliches; conjuring an alternative reality where glowing women breeze through without a hint of discomfort – and usually in flattering maternity wear. This idealised vision is so pervasive that the fact that many women find their pregnancies uncomfortable and the transition intimidating can come as a surprise – especially for the mothers-to-be.
One of the most pressing concerns for women’s wellbeing during pregnancy is perinatal mental health. Feeling depressed, anxious or lonely during the perinatal period is an all-too-common experience, and one that’s a growing concern.
Why Perinatal Mental Health Is So Important
According to the NHS, it is common for women to experience their first incidence of poor mental health during pregnancy. For those who have already lived with a severe mental health issue, the likelihood of becoming ill during pregnancy or within a year of the birth is higher than at any other point in life.
Everyone is different, and for some women, pregnancy is a time of consistent stability and happiness. But for many others, the normal feelings of anxiety and vulnerability – as well as powerful hormonal changes – can spill over to cause varying degrees of psychological discomfort and even mental health issues. Whether it’s fear about the birth, becoming overwhelmed at the thought of such a huge change in life or issues such as postnatal depression, pregnancy and early motherhood can be an extremely fraught time.
This has implications for both mother and baby. Research has suggested that increased levels of cortisol – which is a feature of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression – can affect an unborn child and increase their own chances of developing depression later in life. Women who experience mental health problems can also report difficulty in bonding with their newborn and relationship problems with their partner – both distressing outcomes which can perpetuate feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Yoga in Pregnancy
Practising yoga that’s been designed for pregnancy has many practical benefits – it’s one way to retain a gentle exercise routine, it helps the mother prepare for birth with increased strength and flexibility, and it promotes relaxation. All this is extremely helpful, but a major benefit of yoga therapy during the perinatal period (which lasts from conception to a year after the birth) is how it can help mothers protect their mental health.
When yoga teachers and therapists have been properly trained (so their yoga is appropriate and safe for pregnant women to practice), focused breathing and mindfulness can help women acknowledge and manage their feelings regarding the huge transition they are about to face. By giving women a non-judgemental space in which to consider their emotions, yoga therapy can help them actively embrace the inevitable changes to their body, identity and social role.
Furthermore, yoga during pregnancy and birth allows women to meet and bond with other expectant (and new) mothers. Taking time out of work, big new responsibilities and the unavoidable changes in women’s social lives can make pregnancy and new motherhood an isolating time – especially if the mum in question has a limited support group (for instance, living abroad from friends and family).
Avoiding loneliness and being in touch with peers who are all going through a similar experience can do a huge amount to protect the mental health of mothers, especially as loneliness and mental health are inextricably linked.
The relaxation associated with yoga – achieved through the calming of our nervous system and regulation of the stress response – is incredibly valuable to pregnant women, assisting them in what can be an understandably stressful time. The practice of yoga can act as a support for women to fall back on, allowing them to have the healthiest and most comfortable pregnancy that it is possible for them to experience.
Even at the best of times, life can be challenging and our mental health can suffer. Pregnancy represents a time filled with unique and particular problems, as well as excitement and happiness. By giving women more tools to solve these problems and retain a sense of calm, yoga therapy can help them ease into this new phase of life with the most resilience possible.