Emotional wellness has been getting a lot more buzz and we are here for it (do we sound like the cool kids now?)! But what exactly is it? And why should I care? Well, since we're definitely not experts in this area, we asked our amazing friend, Leah Krieger, (a real expert) to fill us in.
Emotional Wellness For New Mamas
by Leah Krieger, LPC, MA, MBA
Emotional wellness has been getting a lot more attention over the past few years. This is a good thing as emotional wellness can be a hard topic to talk about. In my experience, the more we talk about a topic, the more it allows us to not feel alone, and the more we do not feel alone, the more we are open to talking about a topic. So I am absolutely thrilled that I have been asked to guest blog on AVYN and keep the emotional wellness conversation going!
So, what is emotional wellness?
It is a broad term for how a person is able to handle stress at a specific moment. Every person is going to face tough situations, no one gets to experience a life without hard stuff. It is important to note that every person is going to deal with tough situations in their own way, and there is no right or wrong way to handle tough situations.
However, there are ways to handle stress that are healthy and ways to handle stress that are less healthy. I like to think of emotional wellness as existing on a continuum from high to low. Someone with high emotional wellness will be able to face a tough situation, take on whatever is thrown their way, and come out on the other side standing. Someone with low emotional wellness will come out on the other side, but they may be laying on the floor. Whether an individual has high emotional wellness or low emotional wellness can vary depending on the situation.
Having high emotional wellness does not mean one is happy and joyful all the time. If an individual has high emotional wellness, that person will be able to implement healthy coping strategies that will allow for appropriate processing of a stressor. If an individual has low emotional wellness, that person may not be able to access their positive coping strategies or even have awareness of the need for coping strategies at all.
The Postpartum Period
One specific time period that seems to test emotional wellness is the time period immediately following birth through twelve months, also known as postpartum time period. While the American medical model considers this period to last from birth to the traditional postpartum visit at 6 weeks, the time period in which it can challenge emotional wellness is much longer. I believe this limiting time frame provided by the medical community is one reason postpartum emotional health is not given more visibility.
Why is it imperative in the postpartum period to focus on emotional wellness? Because we all need mom to be okay.
Let’s talk about the factors going against mental wellness during the postpartum period.
Hormones (they're real):
Immediately following birth, the postpartum body experiences the largest fluctuation in hormones that a human body will ever experience. Estrogen and progesterone levels plummet in the first 24 hours. In the first 72 hours, prolactin levels fluctuate and oxytocin levels skyrocket as the body gets ready to stimulate milk production. Hormones directly influence one’s emotional state. If this scenario of hormone fluctuations happened in isolation, a person would be experiencing mood swings and general emotional instability. Now add on top of this scenario the birth trauma that has just occurred, the new tiny human(s) dependent on this postpartum body for survival, and the postpartum mind attempting to comprehend everything going on.
The fluctuation in hormones continues throughout the first year as the body continues to heal, produce milk, regulate or stop milk production, re-start ovulation, and regulate ovulation. These hormonal changes can be experienced in physical changes such as hair loss, weight redistribution, hot flashes and changes in skin, nails, and breasts. These hormonal changes can also be felt emotionally in many ways.
Your new role: Baby CEO
Whether it is an individual’s first birth or fifth, life changes. In the first year of a baby’s life, caregivers spend the majority of that time ensuring the baby is alive. Feedings, naps, diaper changes, baths, cuddles, mental stimulation…these all go into ensuring a baby is getting what they need to thrive. So no matter your role before baby, you now have a new role as Baby CEO. The other roles you had before? You still have those too. Life transitions and changes can have high impacts on emotional wellness.
A large part of emotional wellness is adequate sleep. Research shows that when a person does not get enough sleep, the neurons in the brain fire at a slower pace. Slower neurons lead to impairment of our executive functioning. Executive functioning is needed to be able to access our positive coping skills. The first year of life of your beautiful baby does not equate to a year of good sleep. Therefore, we are not operating at 100% and are susceptible to handling situations in ways that do not increase our emotional wellbeing. Examples of low emotional wellbeing due to sleep changes in new moms may include delayed response time and clothing worn inside-out or backwards to their place of employment.
Find your tribe and get some support:
During the pregnancy, the mom is showered with love and support. In America we literally have a societal custom of throwing a mom-to-be a “baby shower”. Unfortunately, after the baby comes, the showering of love and support may follow the baby right out of the uterus. Often, that can leave the new momma alone in a time when help is needed the most. It also seems to be hard for people to ask the new mom how she is feeling emotionally.
This list is in no way exhaustive, but it is a good start to understanding the factors going against a new mom’s emotional wellness.
So what can be done?
It is important to be proactive about your mental wellness postpartum. Remember how much time you spent nesting before the arrival of baby? How about taking some minutes to sit down and put your mental wellness at the forefront. It is okay if you have not done this yet, it is never too late.
Below is a quick ‘Awareness Guide’ that can be a great place to start putting focus on your emotional wellness. Being a new mom in the postpartum time period is exhausting and I can already hear shouts at the screen right now. I get it. When I was in the postpartum period, I had to remind myself to go to the bathroom. But I encourage you to carve out 15 minutes and work through the steps below to complete your own Awareness Guide. You cannot prevent fluctuations in emotional wellness as a new mom, but awareness can help you cope when they occur.
Remember there is no right or wrong way to complete this guide. This is a completely subjective exercise with the focus being on YOU and the goal being to identify ways you may be able to provide yourself with healthy support when you really need it.
Identify what you are emotionally vulnerable to. What are you experiencing that really sets you off and hi-jacks your emotions? I like to call these ‘hot button items’. Everyone experiences things that trigger emotional responses, but not everyone takes the time to identify what these things are. Take a moment to become aware of some of your hot button items. Examples may be being told how to parent, having your parenting questioned, breastfeeding, being asked a specific question, having someone break a promise, not feeling valued, and being asked to complete an Awareness Guide.
Take a moment to think about what you experience when your hot button item is pushed. Does your heart begin racing? Do you feel like you are in a fog and cannot focus? Maybe you twirl your hair, shake your leg, or begin cleaning like a banshee. Recognizing the signs our body and mind are giving us can help us dial in and realize when we are straddling the line of being in control of our emotions and straight up losing it. If you do not know the answer to this, make a pact with yourself to take a moment and be aware of the sensations you experience the next time you are face to face with a hot button item.
Identify what has helped you when you have been emotionally hi-jacked, both in healthy ways and unhealthy ways. No one knows you better than you know yourself. Look to your past, what has worked for you and what has made the situation worse? Examples of healthy coping may be removing yourself from the situation for 2 minutes, taking a walk, calling a trusted friend, taking 3 deep breaths, journaling, crying, having some chocolate, or watching your favorite episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Examples of coping that may not be healthy are screaming, yelling, shopping to excess, isolating yourself, over-eating, binge drinking, neglecting your own well-being, or turning off your emotions completely. If you are at a loss for what has helped you, think about things you like to engage in and try to do a form of that the next time you find your stress level rising. Always remember that utilizing professional therapy services can function as a safe place to explore healthy and unhealthy coping.
Identify your supports. Who do you have in your corner that you know you can turn to for help? Call them and let them know you are struggling and need support. If you are not in a moment of being triggered, call them anyways. Tell them that you are taking time to complete an awareness guide, you consider them a support, and talk about what support might look like for you in a moment of need. Many times we may feel alone in moments of emotional need, and doing the work ahead of time to identify these supports can help remove a barrier to reaching out to others.
Take pride in yourself, you just did something awesome for your emotional wellbeing.
I encourage you to do this Awareness Guide and have it in a place where you can easily access it. (We created a printable version below (conveniently sized for your phone as well) so you can store/print this image and reference it as often as you need). Maybe next to the chair where you rock your new tiny human. Maybe on the bathroom mirror where you brush your teeth. I encourage you to reference your answers as often as needed and have compassion with yourself while you practice integrating what you have learned into your life. You can also complete this Awareness Guide at multiple times during the postpartum period. In my experience, what was a hot button item for me one month postpartum was very different six months later.
Please also continue to listen to yourself and have awareness of where you are emotionally. If you are having any thoughts that scare you or concern you, please seek professional help. If you experience any thoughts of harm to yourself or your baby, call 911 immediately and get the assistance you deserve. Functioning in the postpartum period is hard, you do not have to go through this time period alone.
Please give yourself a high five in the mirror as you are already well on your way to emotional wellness by even being a part of the AVYN community. Emotional wellness is a topic that continues to gain strides towards busting through the shame barrier that it used to be shrouded in.
The great news is that we all are capable of high emotional wellness. We all are going to experience stress, and we all get to have a say whether we are standing or laying on the ground when the stress settles. I encourage you to continue this conversation. Grab a friend, tell your partner, talk to the lady at CVS…lets help each other to not feel alone when it comes to something as important as emotional health.
You can download our Awareness Guide here.
Leah is a Licensed Professional Counselor who is passionate about mental health. She’s a momma to two awesome little humans and often questions what she did with all her free time before kids. You can learn more about her practice at www.lkcounseling.org and follow her on instagram (@awarenessofyou) for a healthy dose of self awareness.