After the birth of her daughter, Christina Barger miscarried twice. When she got pregnant with her son, it was an “anxiety-provoking time,” Barger says. Instead of being excited, she was worried and stress-ridden. A nurse, she once checked her blood pressure, noticed it was high, and, fearing preeclampsia, called her doctor in a panic. He reassured her nothing was wrong.
“You need to sit down,” she recalls him telling her. “You need to relax. You need to get something to eat. Something to drink. Take a couple Tylenol.”
So, she listened.
“I knew I needed to calm the hell down,” Barger, now 31, says. She went into her office, unhooked the landline and turned on a 10-minute meditation using an app called Expectful. The app is designed for hopeful, expectant and soon-to-be moms, and it has a series of 10- and 20-minute meditations for each stage of the pregnancy process.
After meditating, she checked her blood pressure again. It had gone down. From then on, whenever Barger was having a rough day, she repeated this process.
“Ten minutes was all I could possibly begin to afford at work,” Barger says. “But it was enough to bring [my blood pressure] down to a range where I could stay at work, cope and be okay.”
If a woman experiences stress and anxiety during pregnancy, it can increase the likelihood of postpartum depression and impact a child’s development. Meditation and mindfulness can reduce anxiety levels, creating a healthier environment for the mother and child.
Many women who have experienced pregnancy loss worry it can happen again, adding an extra layer of stress to subsequent pregnancies.
Jessica Zucker, a clinical psychologist, practices mindfulness techniques with her patients. If they’re pregnant again after experiencing loss, she tries to help them “be in the now.”
“What if I start spotting?” some patients will ask her. “What if there’s no heartbeat at the next appointment?”
It’s important to acknowledge the unknowns, Zucker says, but “what we do know is that the heart is beating. You’re pregnant now. You’re scared, understandably. It’s kind of just about the here and now.”
Miscarriage occurs in about 20 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies in the United States, says Samuel Zev Williams, the chief of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the Columbia University Medical Center. Between one and two percent of women experience repeated miscarriages.
“We are all vulnerable,” says Zucker, who specializes in reproductive and maternal mental health. “No amount of education, socioeconomic status, culture, race, whatever it is — provides any kind of shield for this issue. Anybody who gets messy in this business of making babies is vulnerable to losing them.”
Despite the frequency of early pregnancy loss, many women or couples struggle with feelings of guilt and loneliness.
Although Zucker had spent years listening to women talk about the guilt, self-blame and isolation they felt after pregnancy loss, she had never experienced it herself. But about four years after the birth of her first child, she miscarried at 16 weeks. Her loss shifted her perspective as a woman and psychologist.
When she saw pregnant women, her first thought would be, “Well, you don’t know for how long.” Like most women who miscarry, Zucker was able to get pregnant again and carry to term. The emotional switchboards were just as difficult to navigate.
When patients saw her pregnant, “it would stir feelings of, ‘Why are you the lucky one who doesn’t have a loss?’”
“Now I understand from a body-based perspective … just how intense and just how rigorously pregnancy and infant loss can change all aspects of your life,” Zucker says.
Zucker created the #IHadAMiscarriage campaign on Instagram to reduce the stigma around miscarriages and start a conversation. Women began sharing their experiences of loss, showing that miscarriage is not a singular experience.
It wasn’t until Sarah Stone, 41, experienced her first miscarriage that she started talking to friends and family about their losses.
It helped to hear that women who had miscarried ended up going on to have healthy children, Stone says. A nurse said something that stuck with her:
“I had two miscarriages,” the nurse told Stone. “Your body just needs to kind of figure out what this whole pregnancy thing is about.”
Optimistic, Stone and her husband kept trying. She ended up miscarrying twice more.
At work, it seemed like more and more of her coworkers were starting families. They asked her when she and her husband planned to have kids. Since she was in a leadership role, her miscarriages weren’t “something I wanted to advertise to everyone.”
She decided to take some time off, in part because work added an extra layer of stress. Three weeks later — and a few months before her one-year wedding anniversary — Stone got pregnant with her first daughter.
She began doing acupuncture and meditating every day while pregnant. It helped her focus on the present rather than worrying about what could happen in the future. When she got pregnant with her second daughter and had trouble sleeping, Stone would meditate before bed. Now, when she’s walking with her girls sitting quietly in a stroller, she puts her earbuds in and meditates on the move. The practice helps the mother of two quiet her brain, organize her thoughts and be “mindful in the moment.”
Although stress can impact someone’s ability to get pregnant, it does not cause pregnancy loss.
Williams, of Columbia University Medical Center, says there are widespread misconceptions about why miscarriages occur. The vast majority of miscarriages are the result of aneuploidy, which is when there are an abnormal number of chromosomes in the cell. Other causes include uterine abnormalities, hormone problems and autoimmune disorders.
“To do things that remove stress from your life is good, but I don’t want people thinking that their stress is what caused the loss,” Williams says.
If patients who are trying to get pregnant are struggling after experiencing miscarriage, Williams says he tries to “give patients every tool possible” to help them through the process. This includes mental-health related approaches, such as meditation, mindfulness, group therapy, massage and acupuncture.
“Those things can be very helpful for the woman and the couple to get through this difficult period,” Williams says.