What I Believe Created my Post-Partum Mood Disorder and What I Am Doing To Heal It
When my son was five and half months old I went into a very deep healing crisis which involved intense anxiety, depression and insomnia. It’s taken me almost a year to get myself back on my feet and to start to heal from the experience. I now feel a deep passion for helping other mothers, both in the prevention and the healing from Postpartum Mood Disorders.
The past few days I have been really reflecting on what I think created my postpartum depression and anxiety. There has often seemed to be so many causes, like a perfect storm of complex stressors and behaviours. These are just some of the ones that I have identified and what I have been doing to shift the patterns.
When my son was about four months old he started waking up every 45 min to 2 hrs in the night. We were co-sleeping and also living in a very small space, so I started to “freeze” every time he woke up with the thought that maybe he would go back to sleep on his own. I noticed that because he would often wake up crying or screaming my body would go instantly into fight or flight because that is how mothers are wired, to respond instantly to a baby’s cries in case they may be injured or in danger, or hungry, wet or cold, etc. The freeze mechanism is also a part of this fight or flight mechanism although not talked about as much. It has been likened to putting one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake in a car. Your adrenaline still ramps up in the case that you might be able to respond either by fighting or fleeing, but another mechanism comes in to make you freeze. In nature this “playing dead” was not just so the predator thought you were dead, but as a way for the entire being to be able to deal with its impending death by numbing the entire system.This mechanism can also show up in humans when they are experiencing a traumatic event or situation and can’t see a possibility of it ever ending or that they may ever get out of it.My system went into what’s been called “overdrive”. I was super exhausted from all the sleep interruptions. Often, I’d just be falling back asleep when my son would wake up again. My system was not getting a chance to decompress and relax in the night. I was living off of adrenaline and didn’t know how to relax. All my muscles went into an almost permanent state of tension, which created a lot of pain in the body – yet I was almost numb to it as it took me awhile before I noticed that the pain was even there. This pain and tension also affected my sleep which became a vicious cycle.
Once I became aware many months later that I had been regularly going into this state of freeze, I started practicing finding tiny small movements in the moments when I might be lying beside my son while he fell asleep or in the odd moments we’d be co-sleeping again and I was awake. I’d do my best to remember to check in and to see if I was tensing up my body or holding my breath.
I also found that practicing relaxation methods helped a lot. Some of the ones I have found useful are Restorative Yoga and the Body Scan from Mindfulness Meditation. I found that systematically tensing and relaxing different key muscles in my body has supported my body to re-learn how to relax and also how to notice when my muscles are tense.Finding moments of creative moment and dance have also relieved a lot of the tension in my body.
I notice I am often scanning my body to see if I am tensing up anywhere and when I do find bits of tension I invite it to release and let go. Finding a couple moments in the day to sit and pause and scan my body to see what it is holding has been so useful. And to remind it that it is safe and can relax. A bit different than seated meditation I allow myself to shift and change position or find small movements that create more ease and comfort in my body while I do this.
Not Feeling Safe to Process My Emotions
Before I had my son, I had tools I used to feel, process and integrate my emotions. I knew that repressing or denying emotions that arose only caused me tension and illness. After I had my son, I floundered in dealing with my emotions. I was exhausted, tired, and also had a strong desire to protect my son from any “negative” emotions. As we lived in a small space and I was quite attached to my little one in those early months I was instinctively pushing my emotions down and not dealing with them. Sometimes they would explode out of me, scaring myself, my son and my partner. I no longer felt safe to cry when I needed to cry,or to find creative outlets for frustration and anger. Seeing how my emotions affected my son and my partner only made me want to stuff them deeper. I was often just putting on a happy face while taking care of my son and just getting on with my day.
These repressed emotions got wound up with a lot of guilt and shame. They got caught in my nervous system causing it to fritz out. There was a constant shake or vibration in my body.
I finally realized one day that although I may not know the “perfect” way to process my emotions now that I had a child, I had to do my best to feel and express them in the safest way possible when they arose, or as soon as I could create a safe container. Yes, things got messy for a little while however choosing to feel my emotions as they arose started to decompress and discharge a lot of the pent-up stress in my nervous system.
My son inspired me, he instinctively knew how to cry or get mad in the moment when the feeling arose. I had to be okay with sometimes melting down in his presence or asking my partner to let me go to another room so I would feel safe to do so. I now feel more okay with allowing the tears to flow in the presence of my son and I just do my best to talk to him about what is happening and support him to feel safe. On the occasion that I do lose my cool I do my best to turn away from my son and let some sound out so it’s not directed at him, and come back to him as soon as I can to let him know that everything is okay and it’s not his fault.
If it’s been a particularly stressful day, I try to pause for a few moments especially when my son is napping or in bed at the end of the day to tune in to see what’s present in my body and see if there is anything that is needed to be felt to be released.
A wise man once said “Depression is repression and the key to it is expression.” I definitely found this to be true as having a good cleansing cry often supported me to feel a lot better after.
I think that many mothers and parents need to find new ways to process and integrate their emotions. Emotions often arise as part of the stress cycle, and it’s a way that we can decompress our nervous systems from the stress that we have experienced. Finding creative ways to release this energy is important so that it doesn’t end up being taken out on your kids or turned inwards creating illness and disease.
Not Honoring My Bodies Impulses
This is almost impossible for new parents. Mothers especially are wired to put the needs of their children first, and in the first few months with a new born it can be very difficult to eat, or poop or pee or take a nap when you need to unless you have enough support. But similar to what they instruct you to do on a plane around the emergency oxygen mask, it’s important to take care of your needs first so that you can be healthy and present for your children.Our body knows how to heal itself and how to come back to a state of equilibrium. All of its processes are important pieces to this. The ways that we eliminate can also be a part of letting go of stress and tension and when not honoured can cause that stress to be stored inside. It’s been such a simple but profound process to continually throughout the day tune in to what my body needs and what Its impulses are. To pee, poop, fart, eat, drink, go outside, take a walk, take a nap, go to bed – as soon as my body asks me to do this. Pushing these impulses aside only creates stagnation and tension within.
I even took this practice a bit further since I knew that I had been repressing these impulses. I experimented with exaggerating or magnifying the impulse. When I needed to yawn, I took my time and let out a really long big yawn. I found that this released a lot of tension and tightness in my neck, upper shoulders and jaw. When I need to pee, I take my time and notice what is happening in my body and often there is a lot of tension that is released in my lower belly. There are times I have had to tense up my body and just let it shake in order to release the anxiety I am feeling inside.
I do my very best to honor the impulse when it arises. Of course, that is not always possible, but I do my best to honor it as soon as I can. There is something rewiring in me as I do this. I think that many people repress their impulses to get more work done or for many other reasons in our go go go society. I also take some time throughout the day, at least once anyway, to pause and check in and see what my body needs. Especially when it’s been a busy day I find this so important. On slower days I will pause more often and check in. I really have found that this has helped me to release a lot of stress and tension and support my body in its healing process.
Thinking That Everything is an Emergency
Again, I think that mothers and parents are wired to respond to their babies cries and sounds. Especially in the middle of the night, and often during the day, I noticed that when my baby cried my heart rate quickened and anxiety arose. This of course is a useful evolutionary process that supports the parent to act to make sure their child is safe, fed, warm and comforted. However, when it puts the parent in a state of panic even though the child is safe it can cause havoc in their body and nervous system.
My partner handed me the book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” when I was at the peak of my healing crisis. At first, I felt mad “This is NOT small stuff” – my health and mental state were deeply suffering and it was a HUGE responsibility to take care of and raise a child.One chapter however caught my attention and it was the phrase “Life is Not an Emergency” that got me. I had to make this my mantra to re-wire what was happening in my system. I started to pause and take a few breaths before responding to my child when he cried out (unless of course he was actually in danger.) I did my best to be calm and respond and check in to see what he needed or if he was able to self-soothe. Of course, I do believe it is very important for parents to respond to their child’s needs, as this is a big part of creating healthy attachment. However, if it causes undue stress for the parent, the way they are responding needs to be looked at.
What I also noticed is that I was causing myself stress by anticipating my child’s needs before they even arose and stressing about them causing myself even more stress. Making sure he had a nap on time or went to bed on time became an emergency. My nervous system was already exhausted and stressed out that it couldn’t deal with my child’s whines or cries and so it pushed me to constantly be on lookout to prevent him from doing so.I had to learn and also teach my nervous system that it was okay for him to cry. I am not talking about letting him cry for an hour or even 15 minutes. But sometimes children and babies need to cry just like we do to decompress their nervous systems. When they can’t speak they need to whine and cry out to make sure their needs are met.
Having this mantra “life is not an emergency” supported me to relax and become more present to the moment, which then supported me to actually respond to my child’s needs in a better way and created a lot less stress in my life.