Being a mom can be a stressful feat- we are pushed and pulled and twisted both internally and externally and there are times, for all of us, that we feel like we just might crack. Moms who are struggling with a Postpartum Mood or Anxiety Disorder are often in this place of high stress more often than not, and these moments can feel way outside of any resemblance of “control.” It is likely that these moments are filled with reactions that are based on a need to release pent up energy that is swirling with anger, agitation, lack of patience, and extreme fatigue. It is in these instances that we are likely to act in ways that we wish we hadn’t: we yell, we storm out of a room, we crumble in tears of defeat, we close off entirely. In other words- we “react” rather than “respond.” And you know where these reactions lead us: to more self-judgment and continued vulnerability.
There are several factors that we know can be helpful in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety in pregnancy and the postpartum period:
1. Getting adequate sleep
2. Getting appropriate nutrition
3. Receiving adequate community support
4. Getting mild to moderate daily exercise
5. Having established stress reduction strategies
Usually Moms will have some idea of what the first 4 elements of emotional wellness involve, and they can picture what it might look like (even if, at the moment, these thing seem impossible). But what I get most of the time from moms who I work with when I discuss the last point, is a look of confusion. You see, many of us have learned to cope with stress through reacting in the moment without realizing that there is much that can be done before the moment becomes too big for us.
So- here are several strategies that have been proven to work in slowing down the stress reaction, in creating space for thoughtful responses, and for literally calming the body’s response to chaos. It is worth practicing each of these when you need them least- so that they are accessible to you when you need them most.
1. Diaphragmatic breathing: When most of us are stressed, we will realize that our breath is short and is contained in the chest. It is as if we literally forget to breathe. Lowered oxygen in the brain can add to physiological reactions that make us feel even more anxious and less clear headed. Instead, practice the following: Take 10 deep belly breaths, all the way to the bottom of your belly known as the diaphragm. Make these breaths as deep and slow as you can. Visualize your belly rising and falling with each breath. If you like, see if you can notice the space between the inhale and the exhale. After 10 of these breaths, notice how you feel different.
2. Progressive relaxation: This is a great practice for when you are in bed at night- especially if you are having a difficult time falling to sleep. Most of us, when we are stressed, are holding tension in our bodies- be it our shoulders, neck, or some place else. And we grow accustomed to this tension. Beginning at your feet and working your way up your body to your head, tense up and then relax each part of your body. Your feet, your calves, your entire leg, your buttocks and your hips, your belly and your back and on and on. Each time you relax these parts of your body, notice how this feels. Once you have moved through your whole body, see if you can let go of any remaining tension. Notice how this changes how you feel both internally and externally (when practiced enough, moms I work with say that they are asleep before they make it through each body part!)
3. Visualize a calm and healing place: This might be a place that you have been before or one that you imagine up all by yourself. This is a place that should feel calm to you… That represents the way that you want to feel when you feel the most tense and out of control. As you “create” this place, make sure that you gain access to each sense: What does this place look like? What noises do you hear there? Are there any smells associated with this place? Any sounds? What does it feel like to be there? Again- the point is to practice “going” to this place when you don’t really need it so that, when you do, you can get there relatively quickly. This exercise acts as a reminder of your ability to feel calm despite the chaos that may exist in the moment.
4. Ground yourself in the present: Feelings of anxiety and panic typically involve being focused on the past or the future rather than what is happening in the present moment. If you begin to feel that you are becoming untethered, try the following: Go through each of your five senses and tell yourself, preferably out loud, what is happening. What do you see at this moment? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you taste? What does it feel like to be sitting in your chair or standing where you are? Do you feel sunlight on your face? Wind in your hair? This exercise reminds you to be here, now.
5. Brain dump it: While the first 4 strategies are about “being”, this last is a strategy that involves “doing.” Often, high stress involves lots of obsessive thinking and overwhelming thought that can contribute to emotional turbulence. These thoughts get stored in our minds and can make us feel foggy headed, headachy, or simply unable to think clearly. Sometimes, the simply act of getting onto paper what is flooding your mind is an incredibly useful tool. Many of the moms who I work with will have a pad or paper or a journal by their bed where they can “dump” all of their stress-inducing thoughts. It is likely that this act will clear out some space in your brain for more useful thought…. and sometimes when you see on paper what has been taking up such space, you may have more of a say in whether or not to let some of it go.
Wishing you some stress relief, Dear Readers!