Not only do I work in mental health, I’m also a mum. And I know what it’s like to live with the black dog.
The post natal period is a physically and emotionally exhausting time. Aside from the obvious biological impact of a new baby, like changing hormones, sleep deprivation, and pain from stitches/tearing, there can also be a tremendous psychological shift.
And the psychological shift is sometimes the most challenging.
In many ways, symptoms of post-natal depression are like those of any other form of depression. There’s a cycle of negative thinking that goes something like this: a person has a sad thought, which leads to a sad feeling. This alters the person’s brain chemistry – the neural pathways associated with sadness become dominant, while pathways associated with happiness become less active. The person is now primed to observe the world through a filter of sadness, and becomes more likely to
- remember other sad thoughts and memories (past upsets, for example)
- identify sad events and stories in the media
- have negative self-talk (e.g. “I’m a bad parent”)
- interpret situations in a negative way
- adopt a physical state of sadness (low energy, slumped posture, unhappy facial expression)
Once a person goes into the sadness cycle, it’s easy to get carried along by the momentum of negative thinking and negative emotions. And that’s when sadness turns into depression – when the negative cycle predominates.
So how can we turn it around?
Changing our state thinking requires breaking our habitual patterns of thinking. This means, slowing the negative cycle enough to shift into a positive cycle. It’s like a speeding car. If you’re travelling at 100 km/hr and you want to go into reverse, you can’t just suddenly shift gears. You first need to slow the car. And it’s the same with our thinking. When we’re in the throes of a sadness cycle, we want to slow down the negative momentum long enough to switch gears.
That’s why the advice to “just think happy thoughts” doesn’t usually work. Because when a person is really in a sadness cycle, “happiness” is just too much of a shock to the system. It’s too out of reach. It’s like trying to go from 100 km/hr into reverse, instantly.
Some people suggest gratitude as a way to slow the sadness cycle. Gratitude definitely has its place in creating positive momentum. However, for some, even gratitude is challenging, because being grateful implies being pleased and/or thankful – which might also be out of reach when in the throes of sadness.
So what’s the answer?
Simply acknowledging the things in our lives that are going well. Or, if that’s too far out of reach, then the things that are going ok. Like, acknowledging that a cool breeze feels refreshing on a hot day. Acknowledging that it feels nice to cuddle with a smiling child. Acknowledging that it feels comforting to wear a soft, fluffy robe.
And that’s really it. Simply finding something to acknowledge. And the next day, finding two things. And then three things.
What this does is it shifts our focus away from things that make us sad. Gradually, it becomes easier and easier to find things to acknowledge. At the same time, acknowledgement turns to appreciation, which turns to gratitude… and that’s how the positive momentum is created. And, as an added bonus, we become more mindful to the present moment.
The better we feel, the more things we find to feel good about.
The more things we find to feel good about, the better we feel.
If you’re feeling stuck in a pattern of negative thinking, I encourage you to try this exercise in acknowledgement. Work your way up to finding 5-10 things to acknowledge each day. Do it for 30 days and watch what happens!
More information about post natal depression can be found at Beyond Blue and PANDA. Information in this post is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are in urgent need for advice, please contact your doctor or emergency services to get prompt medical attention.