My story….well, some of it anyway
25 years ago, I was stopped in my tracks by postnatal depression.
I went from a happy, energetic and capable woman to a reclusive, anxious, hyper-vigilant mother who could barely cope with the simplest of everyday tasks.
It’s not unreasonable to say, the experience nearly robbed me of my life, but as I began to re-emerge from the dark tunnel of deep depression, I remember asking myself a question that would go on to alter the course of my life and send me on a journey of discovery about mental health, well-being and resilience.
The question consisted of just four words:
‘How did this happen?’
25 years on, I’m now in the fortunate position as a professional psychotherapist, to be able to look back at my younger self and offer her the answers she so desperately needed at that time.
The mechanism of breakdown
To begin to unravel the mysteries of postnatal depression, it’s helpful to start by looking through the SAFE SPACE * lens.
The needs of a new mother are often challenged by the very different lifestyle she now finds herself living.
A shift from work to home can cause a changed sense of status, achievement and engagement. Very small children and babies provide their own challenges and rewards but don’t provide the kind of intellectual and social stimulation so healthy for the human brain, which is a social organ.
A life which formerly may have felt autonomous is sharply contrasted with the routine the baby, who is difficult (and quite rightly so) to control. So life can feel chaotic, which may raise anxiety in the mother, and subsequently the child, who is attuned to the mother’s mood.
Paradoxically, although reduced social engagement can cause a sense of isolation, the privacy we all crave from time to time, the ability to step back, be quiet and hear our own thoughts, may also be reduced.
Days and nights are dominated and disrupted by feeding, changing and bathing, so much so, that the common crie de coeur of a new mother is often ‘there is no time to be me’ or ‘I’ve lost myself.’
Although the mother gives lots of attention to baby, she may find she receives less herself as baby’s needs come first but, as depression develops, the ability to give attention may also become impaired as the focus switches to concerns with self, which then also reduces opportunities for fun, family and friends.
For me, I also no longer felt safe. I felt my body and mind were letting me down badly and began to ‘catastrophise’ running horror movies in my head about what the future might hold if I was unable to be a good mother. Having my children taken away became a negative preoccupation and also prevented me reaching out to others for help.
I simply did not want to admit I was struggling, when everyone else seemed to regard me as strong and capable and told me I was doing well.
SAFE SPACE then provides clues about the kind of tinder-dry landscape into which the seeds of postnatal depression can start to grow. But it was the worry and anxiety which really fuelled the forest fires for me. This is how:
I began to worry.
There seemed to be so many things to worry about; money, the house, health, the car, family and neighbours. But I think it was actually the responsibility for the well-being and safety of two small children which weighed so heavily on me. The burden felt greater than anything I had ever experienced when working.
My sleep had also been interrupted for a long time, first by the discomfort of pregnancy and then by night-time feeding. Worry interrupts sleep patterns too and drains serotonin, the feel good brain hormone.
I stopped going out. Staying indoors for long periods prevents the opportunity for the natural mood boosting benefits of full spectrum light.
My breathing was affected. Chronic anxiety disrupts the natural, relaxed breathing pattern which, in itself causes physical symptoms associated with fight or flight such as palpitations, chest pains, digestive problems and so many more.
I grew more and more emotional. Emotional arousal and hijacking affect the rational thinking of the left hemisphere and create a kind of black or white thinking style which generally makes every thing seem worse.
This ‘domino effect,’ where one problem leads to another and then another, creates an environment where needs are less and less fulfilled, creating a dangerous, and sometimes life threatening, cycle.
To any new mums out there who are struggling, I would say reach out for help sooner rather than later and consider taking action in the following ways, to interrupt the negative pattern.
- Be aware if your ‘SAFE SPACE’ needs are not being met and try to reorganise things to get a more balanced, relaxed and healthy lifestyle. Remember self care is not vanity. It is essential to ‘place your oxygen mask on yourself first’ as airline safety instructions so helpfully inform us.
- Get outdoors. The full spectrum light will boost your mood and the fresh air and exercise will benefit both you and your children.
- Slow your breathing down to relax mind and body. Make a regular appointment with yourself to take a break, sit down, breath and relax. You will take your base stress level further and further away from ‘screaming pitch’ with this simple but immensely powerful practice.
- Eat well and avoid too much sugar. Sugar will boost your energy in the short term but will create blood sugar crashes, destabilise your mood and create anxiety long term.
- ‘Put a fence around worry’ by having dedicated ‘worry time’ each day. Get all the problems down in an exercise book. This will externalise the thoughts which can go round and round in your head, like an old fashioned record stuck in a groove.
- Sort problems and create an action plan by adopting the 4D approach: Do it, Delegate it, Delay it or Ditch it! Once your worry time is up, close the book and affirm to yourself that you will come back to it tomorrow. In that way, you will free up the rest of the day from worry. There’s really no point in worrying 24/7. Half and hour each day is enough for anyone, surely?
- Socialise. Life should not be all work and no play. The human brain is a social organ. We do best when we interact with others.
- Get some time away from the children and reconnect with your sense of self. You are not just a mum. Who were you before you had children? What did you love to do just for fun?
- Make an agreement with a trusted friend to watch their child for a while so they can have a break and then you do the same. Everyone benefits. The children will start to socialise and learn to tolerate brief absences from mum which will also help them begin to regulate anxiety in a safe environment, a very useful skill for managing emotion later in life.
- Get some intellectual stimulation. ‘Baby brain’ is a myth. You do not suffer brain damage after having a baby, but you may be distracted by the new routine, or may be over-tired or over emotional, all of which will affect your ability to concentrate.
- Talk to your partner, your family, your friends, your GP, your health visitor. Be honest. No one expects you to have all the answers or be a super woman. Create a supportive network by being open about your needs.
- Forget perfectionism. People won’t judge you if your house is less than perfect, your roots are showing or your children misbehave. If they do, their opinion says more about them than it does about you and you should avoid being in their company.
- Take responsibility for your own happiness and well being. Remember, no one can make you miserable without your permission. You have to allow that to happen.
Knowledge is power. This article has been written by someone who really understands how terribly isolating post natal depression can feel, and who went on her own long, and sometimes bumpy, journey to find answers.
If my rocky road can smooth the path for someone else, I am happy ……and it has all been worthwhile.
* The SAFE SPACE ‘recipe’ of emotional needs: Safety, Attention, Fun, family, friends, Emotional intimacy, Status, Privacy, Achievement, Control, Engagement.