The fine art of tackling anxiety during pregnancy

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Perinatal anxiety is a serious health issue affecting many pregnant women, but the use of art and music therapy might just be the simple, and low cost, treatment needed to help ease their concerns, according to Adelaide researchers.

Flinders University lecturer in midwifery Helena Anolak, registered music therapist Bec Watt and Associate Professor Charlene Thornton are conducting a year long pilot study examining the benefits of art and music therapy this year at the Flinders Medical Centre.

They want to show how music and art therapy can help the one in five pregnant women who experience perinatal anxiety in this country and, in turn, the health of their unborn children.

"Anxiety in pregnancy can cause the foetus' heart rate to fluctuate, which can lead to unnecessary medical intervention in labour," Ms Anolak said.

"Anxiety can also lead to premature birthing and antenatal depression and post birth it can lead to poorer maternal infant attachment/bonding, cognitive, behavioural and emotional problems in the children and post-natal depression."

The research team will closely examine how art and music therapy has impacted 12 women experiencing difficult pregnancies, all who've been admitted to the antenatal ward at the FMC.

Participants will be asked to join group therapy sessions offering music and art therapy techniques using guided relaxation, listening to music, drawing and narrative exercises.

"Listening to music can cause a shift in emotions and relax muscle tone, as well as increase serotonin, fostering relaxation," she said.

"Using art in therapy can help a person to resolve psychological conflicts, reduce anxiety and explore emotions.


"By combining these two methods, participants in this study are supported by the music to explore issues underlying their anxiety through art."

The use of art and music to help treat anxiety is not a new concept, but one that should be further explored in maternity wards.

A recent study out of Spain examined 409 pregnant women in their third trimester– half took part in music therapy and the other half did not. The women who did listen to music had lower levels of anxiety about the birthing process.

Ms Anolak has also been using drawing and narrative exercises in her midwifery work for the past decade. She hopes this study will show significant benefits to the women involved and will ultimately encourage a wider use of the techniques to help alleviate anxiety in pregnant women.

"The sessions could make a significant contribution to the way midwives and the community work with women experiencing anxiety both before and after they give birth," she said.

"The women-centred care program is unobtrusive, easy to implement and conduct, ethical, flexible (which means it can be delivered in any space or environment) and non-pharmacological."

And it doesn't just need to be done at hospital, pregnant women who are experiencing anxiety can use art and music at home to help feel calm.

"Pregnant women at home can try different methods to reduce their anxiety such as listening to music that they enjoy and that helps them to feel less

anxious," she said.

"They can also focus their attention on a beautiful piece of art or create their own artwork.

"Combining art and music is a safe, non-pharmaceutical method to alleviate anxiety symptoms and can be accessed readily at home."

Adelaide mum Laura participated in art and music therapy when she was in hospital with pregnancy complications.

"During almost four months in hospital, it felt like there wasn't a lot of positive things going on, so I found the group to be a beacon of light during a tough

time," she said.

"I found the sessions gave me time to process and heal from my complicated pregnancy in ways I otherwise wouldn't have.

"It was helpful to see visually that there were positive aspects of my pregnancy, it was hard to see at the time amongst so many negatives and challenges."

Anita, from Adelaide, is 34 weeks pregnant and has also found art has helped her throughout her pregnancy.

"It relaxed me and made me feel more complete," she said.

"I was able to zone out to the world for an hour and became more open to my feelings.

"I actually went and purchased some oil pastels and paper to start doing more of this at home by myself."