Guided imagery was the most effective technique for helping pregnant women relax, when compared with progressive muscle relaxation and passive relaxation, according to a small study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology (2010;doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.03.008). Prenatal maternal stress can adversely affect an otherwise healthy pregnancy and exacerbate other pregnancy-related conditions like preeclampsia and hypertension. Studies show that pregnant women who are stressed experience direct physiological consequences through changes in biochemistry, underscoring the importance of the mind-body connection.
Researchers from the University of Basel, Switzerland, and from Harvard Medical School, Boston, conducted a study to compare the immediate effects of two brief active relaxation exercises—progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery—on pregnant women’s general psychological, endocrine and cardiovascular functioning.
Investigators randomly assigned 39 healthy pregnant women in their third trimester to one of three groups: progressive muscle relaxation [PMR], guided imagery [GI] or a control group. PMR members did an adjusted PMR exercise, leaving out the abdominal muscles; GI subjects imagined a safe place where they could invite a person to accompany them who could promote feelings of security and well-being; and control group participants sat quietly without falling asleep. Everyone relaxed for 10 minutes. Before and after relaxation, scientists measured heart rateand blood pressure, took blood and saliva samples and asked subjects to self-report their own relaxation levels.
Data analysis showed that GI was most effective at promoting relaxation. Both GI and PMR helped reduce heart rate. Study limitations included the fact that most subjects were highly educated, were motivated to learn and had stable partners and jobs, making them not representative of the general population. More research using larger sample sizes and more relaxation intervals is warranted.