Becoming a parent is one of the most life-changing things we'll ever do. It's amazing, rewarding, constantly surprising and exciting... but it's also damned hard work, confusing and mentally challenging at times!
Most new parents feel overwhelmed and unable to cope at some point. I certainly did despite great support and good mental health awareness and a good number of my mum friends have admitted similar feelings.
Why is it though that some people are able to bounce back and carry on, whilst for some it's the start of the slippery slope into depression and/or anxiety? Is it pot luck or is there anything you can do to help safeguard your mental health?
Both with my therapist's hat on and speaking from personal experience, I believe there are things you can do to help.
Surely my mental state is just down to hormones?
Hormones do play a role but as the NHS says of Postnatal Depression 'it's actually caused by many different factors' and 'not all of these are completely clear'.
What we do know is that our hormones are regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain, which is in turn influenced by our activities and thoughts.
So nature may give us a hard time by messing about with our hormonal balance - but we're not completely powerless. We can encourage the creation of certain neurotransmitters - chemicals which are helpful to our state of mind (serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine) and we can help prevent an overload of unhelpful stress hormones.
Not the whole story
This isn't to say anyone suffering from depression or anxiety is somehow doing things wrong or is to blame - absolutely not. They are both extremely complex conditions and we are all susceptible to different degrees. Parenthood is a huge catalyst for mental health issues because we suddenly encounter such enormous change and uncertainty in our lives which, when combined with sleep deprivation, can completely overwhelm us.
Sometimes seeking professional help is absolutely the best thing to do and I would really encourage you to do so as soon as you can if you're struggling in any way. However, the ideas below are known to be helpful and are certainly worth using, on their own or in conjunction with medication or professional therapy.
So, without further ado...
10 ways you can help yourself
1. Prepare yourself
The more you are able to lower your stress levels before baby arrives the better you will be able to deal with the early days of parenthood. Give yourself time to relax, maybe take a break somewhere, make sure you've tied up any loose ends so you don't have any worries hanging over you.
If you find yourself feeling anxious, guided relaxation sessions can really help. Hypnobirthing comes with the added advantage of ensuring your stress levels are at rock bottom and your hormones are beautifully balanced at the time of birth and immediately afterwards - it's thought that hypnobirthing women are less likely to develop mental health issues postnatally as a result.
2. Sleep - when you can! - and use relaxation when you can't
It's pretty ironic that at the time we most need sleep to help our brain stay healthy and our mind stay clear, we're least likely to get it!
When we're in the REM sleep state our brain carries out vital processing to offload stress, helping prevent depression and anxiety. Without our REM sleep we feel awful - tired, stressed, confused and miserable. If you're not getting good sleep (who does?!) stick on a relaxation track or some white noise, close your eyes for 10 minutes and just switch off - this will have a similar de-cluttering effect.
3. Accept whatever help you can and be kind to yourself
Something I found hard to swallow but ultimately essential - lowering my expectations and accepting that sometimes you just need to stop trying to be superwoman! Fretting over what you're not getting done just depletes your mental energy - it doesn't help change things. Let other people help if they can, concentrate on just doing the essentials well (i.e. looking after you and baby, sod the housework!) and know that you will be able to do more at some point in the future.
4. Stay social
It can be very tempting to get drawn in to sitting on the couch, day after day, not going anywhere or seeing anyone, just nesting with baby. Whilst this is absolutely what you need to do in the early days, in the longer term it doesn't do us any favours. Social interaction and rewarding activities both boost those mental health hormones, so going along to your local baby group or even just a trip to the local shops will give you an instant boost.
5. Keep moving - gently
Study after study, exercise has been shown to be hugely beneficial to mental health - and we know that getting out in natural environments is also really good for us, too. Of course any exercise needs to be really gentle at first and only undertaken with your GP or health visitor's approval - but if you can find a way to fit some in, you'll reap the rewards. Walking and yoga in particular are great for helping build postpartum fitness gradually and are excellent for mental health.
6. Trust your own judgment
Lots of people like to have opinions on the best way to do everything with babies - and let's be honest, lots of books get sold on the back of desperate parents looking for clear guidance. Sleeping, feeding, you name it! A lot of the information out there is very contradictory and has a surprising knack of making you feel guilty for things that are actually not a problem for your baby. Try to avoid anything that creates extra concerns, find out facts rather than opinions and do what feels right for you and your baby rather than trying to fit in with anyone else's ideas.
7. Don't forget yourself
Much as it can be really hard to think of anything but your new arrival, try not to make them your entire focus in life - make sure you give yourself time to think about and do other things you enjoy as well. Even if it's as simple as reading something non-baby related or watching some comedy, letting your brain focus on something else for a bit is really really important. Looking after your own needs and doing things you enjoy gives you more energy, more confidence and boosts those helpful brain chemicals - so ultimately you're happier, more relaxed and more, not less, emotionally available for those who need you! Leaving your little one alone with someone else for the first time can be daunting and worrying - but it does get easier and it's good for you both to have a little time apart now and then.
8. Look after your other relationships
Our relationships are hugely important to our mental wellbeing, but all too easily neglected when a new baby comes along. If you have a partner it's particularly important to try and invest some energy in keeping things sweet, to benefit you both. Try to bear in mind you're both tired and stressed, show trust and appreciation, talk any issues through, make time for them where you can and you'll find you grow stronger together.
9. Focus on now
On a subconscious level our brains are pretty hopeless at telling the difference between imagination and reality. So - if we have worries about the future or the past and dwell on them, to the 'fight or flight' stress-loving part of our subconscious it's as though what we're worrying about is actually happening. This puts our system on red alert and triggers the production of stress hormones which can cause us to feel more anxious and unwell. Trying to avoid going back over old events and worrying about the future is really worthwhile!
10. Look for little positives
Have you ever noticed how if you focus on counting red cars you miss all the blue ones? In very simple terms our brain is selectively attentive and can only focus on seeing things one way. So if we're in a negative state of mind, we see more bad things in the world and feel more negative - it creates a vicious cycle. If we try to reverse that by focusing on tiny positive things in our lives, gradually we start to notice more of them and eventually, our world feels like a better place. It takes work but we really can train our brains to be more naturally positive in this way.
I really hope some of those points will be helpful to you and of course, most of them apply to everyone (not just new parents!) so do feel free to share this article with anyone who might get some benefit.
Abigail Rogers is a registered Solution Focused Clinical Hypnotherapist based in Bristol