Mental and Emotional Wellness
When we set our topics for our meet-ups we try to find topics that will be interesting to a wide variety of people. Often we talk about perinatal mental health and we sometimes find people aren't sure if that applies to them. Even people who have struggled with feeling anxious or low mood while pregnant or parenting can be given the impression by society and the healthcare system that they should just get on with it and not moan because other people have it worse. So for future reference, if you see mental health on our topic list and wonder, yes this is for you. Another important note when we're talking about perinatal emotional and mental health we're not just talking about mums and birthing people. Partners, dads, all parents can struggle during the year or more around having a baby and all of the same things about reaching out for and providing your self with support apply to all of us.
Hopefully, the tide is turning and we're getting the message out to more people that we all deserve love and support and we don't need to reach a level of not coping to reach out for that support. Our meet-ups (and other groups that connect you with people who are pregnant at the same time or have a similar age baby) are one of the things that fill the gap between trying to struggle through alone feeling overwhelmed and being really unwell and needing medical care for mental illness. Never underestimate the importance of connection with other people (especially people at a similar life stage to you) for positive mental and emotional well-being.
One of the things that many of the people at our recent online meet-up (where we covered this topic) identified with was that they don't always know how to put into words how or why they feel anxious, overwhelmed or sad but when other people talk about how they feel they can recognise that in themselves. Just knowing they are not alone helps many people to feel a little better. Our favourite part of talking about mental and emotional wellness is everyone sharing the things that help them to develop healthy coping mechanisms in the long term and the things that help them pull through the tough moments.
Perinatal wellness is part of the whole picture
Our meet-up invitations always include an invitation to bring any questions or concerns that are affecting you at the moment regardless of whether they are on the advertised topic of the meet-up or not. When the topic is mental health pretty much any question you have, especially if it's something you're worrying about, is relevant to the topic.
So we started our meet-up this month with a question about fussy babies and cluster feeding. Feeling like things aren't going well with feeding your baby is one of the most stressful things for many parents in the early days and weeks and can have a massive impact on your mental and emotional wellness. One of the things that really helps is connecting with people who have been there and done that. Another that can help is being encouraged to seek out trained support, to know that it's really common to need that and not a sign you're failing in any way. Sometimes it can also be helpful to be signposted to information about what's normal and what might be a sign you need more support. This is one useful source when your baby is fussy and feeding very frequently.
We live in a culture that values getting "back" after your baby is born. But the reality is you need to rest and you can't go back only forward. One concept a lot of people find very helpful is the idea of the fourth trimester. This is the first 12 weeks of your baby's life, where they are getting used to the idea of being outside your body and you are recovering from your pregnancy and birth. We're reminded to be easy on ourselves and to accept that our babies need us to parent responsively day and night. Those two things can be our priorities without any guilt or concern that we "should" be doing anything else or "achieving" anything other than our mutual well-being. If you're interested in reading more you might enjoy the book The Fourth Trimester by Kimberly Johnson.
Is it "just" the baby blues?
There's a reasonably well-known and very common experience usually around days 3-5 after your birth, coinciding with your milk "coming-in" (the start of the production of mature milk rather than colostrum) where you feel overwhelmed and may find yourself crying for no apparent reason. This completely normal physiological stage can be scary if you're not expecting it. But if what's going on for you is more than this, very low mood over a longer time, overwhelming anxiety that stops you from enjoying life, trauma symptoms like flashbacks and panic attacks, for example, it can be very unhelpful for people (especially) health professionals to dismiss that as "just the baby blues". We're often told to just reach out or just say something if you're not feeling right but if you find you've reached out and the person hasn't been willing or able to offer an appropriate response please don't let it stop you from trying again. This can be another time it's really helpful to find peer support, people who can help you find a second opinion or offer solidarity and empathy can make a big difference. Our groups are a safe space for this especially if you don't have anyone already in your life who is knowledgeable and empathetic. If you can't make it along to a meet-up or you feel nervous or shy you can use the anonymous post option in our Facebook group.
What might be going on with your mental health?
There are some common things that often affect people during the year around having a baby (the perinatal time period) that you might want to be aware of and know that it's worth reaching out for help with. It's also a good idea to give this information to your support team (partner, friends, family etc) so that they can watch out and be ready to support you and even prepared to be the one who suggests more support might be useful.
Birth/Perinatal Trauma: This can happen to anyone no matter what kind of birth you had, it's about your experience, not specific things that happened or didn't. Symptoms of this include: reliving aspects of the traumatic experience, alertness or feeling on edge, avoiding feelings or memories and difficult feelings such as feeling unsafe or angry or like you can't trust anyone. One source of more detail is this article from Mind. You may also find our blog post When birth doesn't go to plan helpful.
Perinatal Depression: postnatal depression is probably the most well-known perinatal mental health problem research suggests 10-15% of new parents experience depression symptoms. Reaching for help can still be very challenging but can be easier if your friends and family know what to look out for and how to support you too. Symptoms of this include: Low mood and persistent sadness, lack of energy, difficulty bonding with baby, changes to eating patterns, loss of interest in life and activities, trouble sleeping, withdrawing from contact with friends etc. One great source of information and support is the charity PANDAS.
Perinatal Anxiety: some amount of anxiety is completely normal when you have a new baby. Being a parent comes with a level of responsibility like nothing else and it's very natural for that to make you feel anxious to a certain extent. But if you are so anxious it's affecting your enjoyment of parenting that might be common but also something you may need support or treatment to overcome. There's more information on perinatal anxiety on the Mind website.
Postnatal Rage: This is a lot more common than people realise as it's one of the things we're still most reluctant to talk about or admit to. But just like feeling low or anxious feeling angry or dysregulated and snapping at your partner and family is just another way you may find your mental and emotional health is not good. Anger is often a really natural reaction to situations that are out of your control or unfair or unmanageable. Your overall support levels as a new parent can make a really big difference with feelings of anger. More details in this article by Amy Brown.
Postnatal Psychosis: This involves losing touch with reality and is a mental health emergency that requires immediate medical intervention. For more details or if you need support with this please check out the charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis.
Positive choices you can make for your own mental and emotional well-being
Some things are outside of our control. Sometimes upsetting things happen and have to be processed. Some stages of life are really hard work. Practical and emotional support is often the key to maintaining or returning to the positive side of emotional health, to feeling like you're at least getting through. But there are also lots of things you can do for yourself to support your own emotional well-being. Here are some of the suggestions from the people at our meet-up split into things that you can do when you're feeling calm and able to work on your overall well-being and things you can do at the time to bring yourself out of a moment of complete overwhelm.
Long term strategies
Exercise. Lots of people love exercise, for them, it's the thing that keeps them going. They love going for a run or they love going to the gym. It's the time that they can have to themselves. For others, the idea of exercise feels like an extra thing we're supposed to do but don't want to. We know it's good for our mental health as well as our physical health but we need something extra to get us going. Making it fun can be that extra boost, going to a class with a friend so it's a social activity can help. Going for a walk somewhere lovely like the beach or the woods and again doing that with a friend or an organised group can be helpful. Adding music and having a good dance around your kitchen counts as exercise and may not even feel like it.
Journaling. This can sometimes feel like one of those things that adds to your list of things to do. And if that's how it feels for you, maybe it's not the right thing for you, or maybe it could be if you look at it differently. Journaling doesn't have to be done every day to be useful, cutting out the idea that you can fail at it by not doing it regularly enough can be helpful. It also doesn't have to be done in any specific way to be useful. Some people find a journal that's a stream of consciousness helpful. Others like to follow a set of prompts to help them think through how they manage stress or talk to themselves, and how to set their priorities or boundaries to better serve their positive mental and emotional well-being.
Gratitude. This concept of finding things to be grateful for each day can be challenging to get started with as it can feel false or fake. Finding believable things and starting small can help you to grow this habit. As can not putting pressure on yourself to always be coming up with new things or expanding your list if that's not happening naturally. This works like positive self-talk and affirmations in terms of occupying your brain with helpful things rather than allowing the natural "negative bias" to have free reign. It's also something that can often be best done with support either from a therapist or through peer support.
Learning positive self-talk. We're not always aware of our negative self talk especially when it's something we developed very young. But the process of becoming aware of how we talk to ourselves and evaluating if that's positive or negative for our emotional and mental well-being is another thing we can do to help ourselves. Again this doesn't mean taking up things that don't feel genuine. Check out self-compassion with Kristen Neff for a helpful starting point for changing your self-talk habits.
Affirmations. These are another potentially helpful tool that needs to be removed from the culture of forced or fake positivity that has grown up, especially on social media. The most important thing about affirmations for them to be effective is that you believe them. Telling yourself the grass is pink isn't going to work no matter how many times you do it because you know it's green. Telling yourself you're a strong and confident woman if that makes you feel ick is also useless. If you're trying to boost your self-confidence you might want to start with an affirmation that says "I'm working on being more confident." for example. It's also important that you write affirmations that sound like you, if you don't talk like a mindfulness teacher in everyday life an affirmation written by one in their style isn't going to feel authentic. Rewrite the sentiment you like in language that sounds like something you might say.
Mindfulness that’s not mindfulness. Mindfulness apps and guided meditations are very popular and you won't lose anything by giving them a go. But they are also not for everyone. Lots of people find other practices, activities and hobbies that allow them to be in the moment and present in their body. Examples of things that can be helpful include art, crafts, colouring, knitting, baking, crochet, cross-stitch, lego, puzzles, etc.
Boundaries and battle choices. Gaining confidence in setting your boundaries and deciding what's important to you might be one of the most effective things you will ever do for your own mental and emotional well-being. Learning about yourself and knowing what will make you feel relaxed in your home and help you to cope is the first step. This is particularly useful as you make your postnatal plan. Make a plan that's personal to you, that suits your own priorities and feelings. Thinking through what support will be helpful and what support will be actually stressful to have. Who will improve your emotional well-being when they come into your space and who do you need to set a no-visiting boundary with? Are you going to be tempted to do specific cleaning jobs because you will feel on edge if they are not done no matter how much you want to prioritise sitting on the sofa holding your sleeping baby? Can you make a list of those so your partner/mum/doula/support team knows to make them their priority rather than other things that are easier for you to allow to slide?
"Joyscrolling" not "DoomScrolling". Scrolling on social media can be positive for your mental health when it gives you an easy entertainment option and a sense of connection with friends, family and others in the same stage of life. It can also become a negative influence when your feed is full of stressful or upsetting news items or when it encourages you to feel inadequate because you're comparing the nitty-gritty of your life to the highlight reel of other people's lives. Curating your social media feeds to unfollow or mute things that will have a negative impact is an important self-care task you can do. Add or follow accounts that share cute animals, amazing scenery, funny memes, clips from your favourite comedy shows, whatever brings you joy. Make sure it's all things that will make you feel good to see.
Considering the impact of your surroundings. Another thing to consider when you're thinking about how you feel is that often, our surroundings can be a reflection of what's going on with us, mentally and emotionally. Some of us have brains where we actually need that stuff to be out so that we don't forget it exists. But you may also need to be aware there's a tipping point when the stuff around you starts to have a negative impact on how you feel. Maybe one of the best things that you can do for your mental health is to allow yourself, time to do a bit of sorting and having things in the places that they should be, to help you to feel In a bit more in control of your environment. Maybe it's an idea to get somebody in who can help you to declutter. There are some ideas about this here.
In the moment
Completing the adrenaline cycle. One of the most common experiences for any of us who struggle with our mental or emotional well-being is that we find everyday experiences push us into a fight-or-flight reaction. We're flooded with the adrenaline we would need if we were facing a tiger who wanted to eat our baby but when we're actually facing an uncomfortable conversation or trying to finish cooking the dinner while also providing the attention our children require. Using up that adrenaline surge with the high level physical activity that our body needs can be really useful for improving our overall stress levels. Running up and down stairs, high energy kitchen dance party, doing jumping jacks, or taking Taylor Swift's advice very literally and really "shake it off " are all things you can do to achieve this without leaving the house.
Grounding using senses/sensations. Lots of people find grounding themselves when their head is in a spin to be really helpful. This means using your senses to name things that you can see, smell, taste or hear. This allows you to find yourself in your environment, to feel your connection to the moment where you are safe. Another way to do this is to take yourself to a safe outdoor space and focus on feeling connected to the natural world. For example, feel grass under your feet, listen to the sound of waves or wind in the trees, smell flowers, herbs, coffee or your baby's head.
Drawing on long-term practice. In the moment of disconnection and disregulation, it's not the time to try new things, learn to knit, take up journaling, etc. But if you've been practising things like journaling or affirmations they may be more possible to use to calm yourself.
Connection, not feeling alone. Another thing you can do to prepare yourself and then make use of in the moment is to have a list of people who know you might need in-person support at unexpected times. Who will be able to drop what they had planned and meet up for a chat or a walk or a coffee etc.
Use of flow to give yourself space. We can often be made to feel guilty for taking a moment completely to ourselves to do something that requires no effort and has no practical "achievement" attached. But learning to value our own head space and not accept that guilt is a fantastic life skill to embrace. Calming our minds is an achievement that deserves recognition. One surprising thing that can give you a moment of "flow" and allow you to calm your mind is playing a game like Tetris on your phone. Check out the details of the research that showed how that works here.
Come and connect with us for a positive mental and emotional support system.
We hope you've found something useful here. If you're looking for a group of people you can feel safe to connect with and share the ups and downs of pregnancy, birth and beyond please come and join our groups. Details on the meet-ups page on this website.