“How can I feel this way when everything is so great?” Chrissy Teigen wrote in a moving essay for Glamour magazine, capturing perfectly the essence of a severe mood disorder that affects 1 in every 9 American postpartum women. (In some states, the number is as high as 1 in 5!)
Teigen, a television personality, NYT best-selling author, and spouse of celebrity singer John Legend, said as she opened up about her experience with postpartum depression, “What basically everyone around me—but me—knew up until December was this: I have postpartum depression.”
In the piece, Tiegen wrote in great detail about the severity of her symptoms—snapping at people around her, unwillingness to step out of the house to avoid social interaction, unreasonable emotional outbursts, loss of appetite, crippling body aches. Symptoms much worse than commonly experienced ‘baby blues’ that are feelings like sadness, worry, anxiety—something new mothers usually experience due to the physiological and emotional transformation post-pregnancy.
The journey from pregnancy to nursing a baby can be a difficult one for a mother physiologically or emotionally. The social expectation to be happy and positive when she actually is feeling quite the opposite, and going through a host of opposite and confusing emotions, can be even more psychologically wrecking. But lately more women and celebrity moms like Teigen are coming out with their stories of postpartum depression (PPD) to let other women know that they are not alone.
The birth of a baby triggers a kaleidoscope of physiological, emotional, hormonal or chemical and behavioral changes in a woman. The term ‘postpartum depression’ refers to a range of these changes. A key factor that explains the onset of the condition is the sharp and fast drop in hormones like estrogen and progesterone, female reproductive hormones that increase, according to some estimates, ten-fold during pregnancy. As these hormones normalize, they cause related emotional and physical changes in the body.
The emotional stress and fatigue caused by sleep deprivation, anxiety about being a new mother, can make it difficult to accomplish the simplest of tasks. Add to this a sense of insecurity due to physical changes like weight gain, sagging breasts and stretch marks, constant fatigue, seeming loss of control, and a menstrual cycle gone topsy turvy and depression symptoms can begin to spiral.
Though the baby blues is fairly common among new mothers, postpartum depression is categorized as a major depressive order by mental health professionals. But this shouldn’t make you worry more. It turns out it can be managed—and even prevented—through alternative and complementary treatments.
The symptoms of postpartum depression are more intensified versions of those of the baby blues. They last longer and seem darker. They may include
- Severe mood swings
- Crying without triggers
- Trouble in bonding with the baby
- Emotional withdrawal
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Loss of interest
- Intense anger/irritation/frustration
- A sense of inadequacy
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Foggy thinking
- Attention deficit
- And, in some cases, even suicidal thoughts.
When should you seek medical care? Immediately if you’re having suicidal thoughts or unable to take care of your baby. After two weeks if your other symptoms do not decrease or disappear, or if they seem to be getting worse.
Fathers & Postpartum Depression
Believe it or not, even fathers can suffer the symptoms—called paternal postpartum depression. These can set in during pregnancy or in the first year after childbirth. The demands and responsibilities of the new role coupled with behavioral changes in the partner who is a new mother, can take a toll on the mental health of the father. Due to patriarchal stereotypes, fathers may not have episodes of crying but their symptoms may manifest as anger, irritation, frustration, impulsiveness, and lack of interest as well as present themselves similar to those of postpartum mothers. Research shows that fathers experiencing postpartum depression are more likely to abuse substances and display violent behaviors. Particular risk factors for fathers include
- Family history of depression
- Young age, immaturity
- Financial instability
- Relationship problems
- Difficulty in bonding with baby
- Lack of family support
- Changes in the marriage and levels of intimacy
- Lower levels of testosterone.
Yoga provides a mechanism for new parents to come to grips with their roles. It forces the body to slow down and the mind to clear, and provides tools to deeply relax and find peace regardless of the external environment. You emerge from the practice energized, with more clarity and calm. The effects of the physical practice on postpartum bodies is just an added bonus.
Within the science of yoga, the role of breath has been given a lot of importance. It also holds one of the deepest and most important secrets for one’s emotional well-being—our emotions are linked to our breath. Each emotion has a specific breathing pattern corresponding to it. For example, when you are angry, your breath is short and fast paced; when you are sad, your exhalation is longer; or when you are praying or meditating, your breath is slower and more relaxed. So, breath gives you the power to control your emotions.
If you are a new mother, you may not be able to control negative emotions by just making positive affirmations because the mind has a tendency to do the opposite of what it is instructed to do, especially when it is stressed. Learning a few deep diaphragmatic breathing techniques can effectively help in managing the emotional yo-yos after delivering a baby and achieve emotional stability.
Correcting the Autonomic Balance
The balance achieved between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system is called the autonomic balance. While the sympathetic system is active in an emotionally tense situation like a flight-or-fight response situation, the parasympathetic system is related to the body’s resting phase. More and more wellness and mental health professionals are talking about the benefits of putting the body and mind in states where the parasympathetic system is active often.
By affecting the balance, yoga increases one’s awareness and acceptance of the moment while allowing deep rest for the body and an eased heart rate. This balance
- Positively affects mood and memory
- Activates neurochemical systems linked to attention, wellness and positivity
- Increases body’s capacity to deal with stress triggers.
The major trigger for postpartum depression—the drop in hormone levels—can be corrected with the help of specific yoga poses, or asanas, that work on improving the hypothalamus function in the brain along with pituitary and pineal glands. These glands regulate hormones in your body.
Yoga is crucial in managing sustained psychological stress caused by the increasing responsibilities of new motherhood and change in relationship dynamics in new parenthood.
Yoga helps eliminate stress by
- Improving body’s stress response
- Regulating cortisol levels (stress hormone that can cause blood pressure and sugar levels to rise)
- Switching the body’s rest mode on (parasympathetic nervous system is activated in resting period that eases heart rate and works up digestion)
- Stimulating the vagus nerve which is directly linked to well-being, thereby revving up the body’s happy and relaxed emotional state.
For Overall Well-Being
Yoga simply keeps you more physically active, improves neuroendocrine function that regulates hormonal secretions in the body, promotes weight loss, and improves sleep and overall fitness. This way, by managing symptoms of postpartum depression, yoga can help reverse the loop of depression triggers.
In a ground-breaking study carried out to learn about the effect of yoga in managing the symptoms of postpartum depression, half of the 57 women in their postpartum phase were assigned to a yoga protocol consisting of 16 classes over 8 weeks. The other half was part of the wait-list control group. The results showed that 78% of the women in the study reported ‘clinically significant changes’ in the form of improvement in depression, anxiety and overall quality of life.
Your Yoga Guide Through Postpartum Depression
Start with meditation and pranayamas.
New moms should take their own time and listen to their bodies before getting back to intense yoga poses. For the first few months, you may start with light pranayamas and meditation.
Some of the deep breathing practices you can practice include
- Ujjayi (victory) breath
- Full yogic breath
- Bhramari pranayama (bee breath)
- Nadi shodhan pranayama (alternate nostril breathing technique).
Yoga mudras are yet another effective tool to fight symptoms of postpartum depression. They heal the body by increasing the energy of flow, or prana, in the body through specific yogic gestures, or mudras. Each yoga mudra has unique benefits for different organs and tissues. Yoga mudras help balance the five great elements that Ayurveda believes we are made of—air, ether, earth, fire, and water. Each element is known to serve a specific function in the body like controlling movement, metabolism, nourishment, assimilation, egestion among others. The fingers in these yoga mudras help adjust the flow of prana affecting the balance of these five elements. The result is, one feels instantly energized, calm, relaxed, and pain is reduced. Some of the mudras that can be practiced by postpartum women include
- The index finger and thumb touch each other lightly.
- The other three fingers are extended straight.
- Place the hands on the thighs facing the ceiling.
- Take 10–12 deep ujjai (victory) breaths.
- Observe the flow of breath.
- Keep your eyes gently closed.
- In this mudra, form a ring with your thumb and forefinger.
- The remaining three will curl into a light fist into the palm.
- Place the hands on your thighs.
- Take a few deep and gentle ujjayi breaths.
- Observe your breath moving in and moving out of the nostrils.
- In this mudra, the thumb touches the base of the small finger.
- Rest of the fingers curl over the thumb.
- The palms are on the thighs facing the ceiling.
- Observe your breath moving in and moving out of the nostrils.
You can start with some gentle poses after about six months. Start with the sequence of sun salutations to give your body the full stretch while working up all the major organs and muscle systems. This sequence includes poses like the child pose, cobra, and backward and forward bends which are important poses for improving endocrine functions in the body that regulate hormones and fight postpartum depression symptoms.
Meditation for Better Sleep
After practicing the breathing techniques and yoga poses, your body and mind are effortlessly ready to get into meditation. Why should new moms meditate?
The quality of rest is deeper.
Researchers also say, patients of postpartum depression are prone to sleep disorders like insomnia or light sleep, and may have disturbed sleep due to frequent urge to urinate at night, restlessness, and anxiety about the baby, In this vicious cycle, lack of sleep can trigger release of stress hormones as much as stress can thwart your natural sleep cycle. So what can you do to make up for this lack of rest? Meditate!
One of the important sources of energy for the human body comes from good quality rest. It is possible to sleep for eight hours and still wake up feeling tired and unrested. According to research, the quality of rest that one gets from meditating for just 20 minutes a day is equal to the rest you get six hours of sleep.
The additional benefits of meditation are also incredible:
- It helps in your mental detox, rids your negative thoughts and feelings.
- It calms the mind.
- Helps improve clarity of thought.
- Improves communication—key in managing relationships in new parental roles.
- Bolsters inner strength and healing.
- Promotes connectedness that improves social interaction.
- Provides relaxation and rejuvenation.
Yoga Nidra or Yogic Sleep
Yoga nidra is a beautiful practice which can be done by anyone. All you need to do is lie down in the corpse pose (shavasana) with your hands by your sides. The attention is taken through different parts of the body, giving energy and relieving fatigue stored in each cell. It gives a deep relaxation. Yoga nidra takes away the tiredness and rejuvenates the mind in only 20 minutes or less. Try this guided meditation: