Updated: Aug 9, 2022
If you’re pregnant or recently had a baby, you may feel physically, and emotionally overwhelmed. You might even struggle with mood swings, sadness, irritability, anxiety, have trouble concentrating, or see changes in your appetite or sleep. If these symptoms worsen or linger more than several weeks, you may be developing a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD).
(See my previous post here to learn about the variety of PMADs and their common symptoms).
PMADs are the number one medical complication related to pregnancy. They can limit our ability to enjoy pregnancy and/or the first few months of our baby’s life, as well as our ability to care for and bond with our baby. PMADs can also impair daily functioning and have negative consequences on our baby’s well being.
After the birth of my youngest, I experienced severe depression. I felt alone, exhausted, hopeless, sad, guilty, and overwhelmed. With a combination of lifestyle changes, mental, medical, and physical care, I got better. I began feeling like myself again. I learned that PMADs are very treatable, and that there’s hope and an opportunity for healing.
Thinking back on my own experience, I would like to suggest the following 10 things to help you prepare for postpartum, and to help lift the symptoms you may be experiencing.
Here are 10 ways to cope with PMADs:
1. Create a Postpartum/Sleep Plan – Before Giving Birth
You may have put a lot of focus, and time on creating a “birth plan”. However, creating an after-care plan is just as important, if not more. When you are already experiencing distressing symptoms, and are transitioning postpartum, coming up with solutions in-the-moment can be very difficult.
Completing this document during pregnancy will help you clarify your priorities for after birth, and help set you up for postpartum success.
2. Create a Postpartum Pact
It can be difficult to gauge our own emotional struggles and to notice changes in our behaviours when we are trying to survive the intense period after giving birth. During pregnancy, designate a partner or trusted friend to give you honest feedback if they see that you seem distressed. Their observations will be helpful for you to seek help before things get worse. Learn more here.
3. Encourage Physical Movement
The benefits of physical movement & activity are well established. It increases energy, lifts our mood, provides an outlet, decreases stress hormones, and much more. I encourage you to check with your physician to confirm it’s safe for you to begin physical activities, especially after a c-section. The goal here is to get moving, and for that, you may need to get away from the “all or nothing” way of thinking. You don’t need to fit in a long exercise session. Set small, easily achievable goals. Walking is always a good starting point, or turn to yoga poses or stretches with the endless number of (free!) online videos right at our fingertips.
4. Use Relaxation Techniques
Techniques such as deep/slow breathing, mindfulness, visualization, and meditation activate our body’s natural relaxation response, a state of deep rest that brings our body and mind back into balance. They make us feel calmer, more energized, more grounded, and helps us get out of our head and into our bodies. I highly recommend the app Insight Timer, for great guided meditation.
5. Make Time for Self Check-Ins
Some of the symptoms experienced with PMADs can spin out of control quickly. Therefore, it’s important to take time throughout the day to ask yourself the following questions: “how do I feel emotionally and physically right now?” and “what do I need at this moment?”. This will help you keep an eye on how you’re doing, and alert you if something needs to be done to get yourself back into balance. Please be honest with yourself, and if needed, share these observations with someone close to you.
6. Set Aside Quality Time for Yourself
In the perinatal period, it’s easy to get carried away by all the demands, parenting duties, and home responsibilities, leaving no time to care for ourselves. Don’t pour all of your energy into doing things for others, at the expense of taking care of yourself. Ensure that you set aside some quality time just for YOU. You can, for example, take a bubble bath, light scented candles, savour a hot cup of tea, read a book, paint, go for a massage, journal, pick up an old hobby/try a new one, or simply do nothing.
7. Be Kind and Compassionate to Yourself
You are invited to have an attitude of self-compassion and have grace toward yourself. Befriending self-compassion is a coping strategy that helps us forgive ourselves, our behaviours, our guilt, and other negative feelings related to parenthood. I highly recommend the work of Kristen Neff for this topic. She has great guided self-compassion meditations available on her website, here.
8. Access Peer Support
Who can better understand the perinatal struggles than other people who have experienced them, or are in the midst of it? Peer support can alleviate symptoms related to PMADs, by providing information, and a safe space to discuss the challenges and fears related to birth and caregiving. It helps those on the journey feel supported, heard, and understood.
For those in the Saskatoon area, here is a great resource. For other Canadian resources, visit this site. Finally, PSI International also offers 20+ different, online support groups - check them out here.
9. As Much as Possible, Prioritize Sleep and Rest
Something I often find myself telling people is: “the main thing that will make or break your mental health is sleep”. Sleep is crucial when we think about our mood, level of functioning, and our overall sense of wellbeing. With PMADs, sleep reduces symptoms, and is the fastest way to help you feel better. I know how tricky it is to “sleep when the baby sleeps”, or to get a good night’s rest during pregnancy or postpartum. We need, however, to get creative and think outside the box to assure we restore our sleep. If you have the resources, you might want to consider postpartum doulas, or babysitters. Otherwise, you can involve your spouse, or family members to schedule time, and shifts, to make sure you get more uninterrupted sleep as much as possible.
10. Try Counselling and/or Medication
If you’ve seen no improvements after trying self-help methods, making lifestyle changes and receiving peer support, you may want to seek counselling and/or start medication. A therapist will provide a space for you to explore your concerns, and feelings. They will set therapeutic goals to work towards and provide tools to respond to situations appropriately. Some may require medication, depending on the symptoms experienced and on their severity.
It bears repeating that PMADs are common, and treatable. There are methods and modes of support that will help someone understand what is going on, and help them to feel better sooner. I hope that the tips addressed in this article help decrease the likelihood of you developing PMADs, or help you find some relief if you have been struggling.