A woman looking into the distance while holding her baby.

Mental wellbeing in motherhood

Mental health refers to your overall psychological well-being. It includes how you feel about yourself and your relationships, and your ability to manage your emotions and deal with problems.

How do you feel? Happy, sad, down in the dumps, worried, over the moon, stressed out, delighted with yourself, depressed, anxious, worried, scared, can’t cope, don’t care, numb, angry, positive? No one feels completely happy all the time. Life is full of changes and challenges that affect all of us, and those around us, and these influence our mood and wellbeing. It is normal to feel down, sad, worried, stressed, anxious and even angry some of the time. It is how we cope or deal with the challenges of life that matters and this can be different from woman to woman, person to person.

Motherhood is a time of upheaval and transition, women can experience a range of strong, changing and even confusing emotions.

That is why it is important to:

  • Know what positive mental health looks like: having a clear picture of what positive mental health looks like in everyday life helps us to see where areas of our mental health may need some extra attention from time to time.

  • Know the difference between a normal reaction to a challenging life event and the signs or indicators of a mental health problem, and know how and when to get help from a health care professional.

What does positive mental health look like?

The World Health Organization defines mental health as a

“state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Positive mental health is more than living without a mental health problem, it is living with the skills and characteristics that allow you to manage life’s challenges and live a healthy and fulfilled life. Positive mental health is when you can achieve what you want to achieve, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and maintain positive social relationships.

Positive mental health means feeling

  • A sense of contentment
  • You have energy and an appetite for life
  • Good about your relationships and connected to people around you
  • You have the ability to deal with stress, negative feelings and emotions in a positive way
  • You have a balance between work and recreation
  • Good about yourself

Mental health problems

When we hear about mental health in motherhood, the term that is most often mentioned is postnatal depression, sometimes referred to as ‘postnatal blues’ or ‘baby blues’. However, we are learning more and more about other mental health issues that can happen in the postpartum period, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis.

Our mental wellbeing is changeable and as a new mother we may have short periods of low mood, anxiety or anger that are not indications of a mental health problem. The important point is that these are ‘short periods’ of changing mood and are a ‘normal’ part of the process of adjusting to life with a new baby. They are not prolonged or persistent mood changes.

When to seek help

So, how do we know if these feelings point to a mental health problem and that we should seek help?

  • If these negative emotions persist for more than two weeks,
  • If they impact your enjoyment of life, your relationships or of the hobbies or pastimes that you would normally enjoy,
  • If they interfere with your ability to function in everyday life, such as looking after your baby, leaving your home to run errands, or if you are experiencing intrusive thoughts that cause you distress.

You should make an appointment to speak with your doctor or other healthcare provider to address these issues and find positive solutions.

Mental health problems can be very hard to talk about, we feel vulnerable, or maybe afraid of being seen as ‘weak’. However, to get well and back to positive mental health, it’s important to find someone we trust to open up to - start with a good friend or, if you prefer, start by talking to someone outside your close friends and family, like a doctor or counsellor, and take it from there. The key message is ‘it’s good to talk’. If you know someone who may be affected, it is good to listen in a non-judgemental way to their concerns and support them to access help.

Supporting positive mental health

Talk to someone

It can be difficult, as a new mother, to ask for help, especially for mental health challenges. Women worry about being judged as not being able to cope, or as being unfit for motherhood. They worry that asking for help is somehow a weakness, that it might make them a burden to others or that they should just ‘get on with it’.

Becoming more aware of negative attitudes around mental health helps us to recognise when we also hold beliefs about mental health that might be preventing us from getting help.

  • Ask yourself about your thoughts on seeking mental health help, is something preventing you from speaking about your mental health with your partner, family or a mental health professional?
  • If another person was experiencing mental health problems, would you encourage them to seek help?
  • How would this advice differ from the actions you take for your own mental health? If it is different, why?

Remember seeking help is not weakness or defeat. It is a positive, active step of self-care.

Social interaction

There is a lot of research that shows that connecting with others and maintaining social relationships is an important part of a healthy and fulfilled life. Positive social connections increase our sense of wellbeing, belonging and community (Kawachi et al., 2001).

We also find our social support networks through our relationships and friendships. Life as a new mother can often be isolating, and it is really important to maintain the relationships with family and friends that provide for our social and emotional needs.

Stay physically active

Physical activity releases endorphins, these are often referred to as ‘feel good’ hormones that help to lift mood and give energy. Regular exercise has also been shown to have a positive impact on mental and emotional health by relieving stress, and improving memory and sleep (Head et al., 2012, Khattab et al., 2007).

Physical activities are also a great way to build on social relationships - chat with a friend on a walk or hike, or join an exercise class, like baby boot camp, Zumba or something you haven’t done before. Combining new experiences, social interaction and physical activity are three suggested ways of improving mental wellbeing.

Make time for you

Becoming a mother can be overwhelming, it is a huge change in identity and you can start to lose sight of the things that made you feel like ‘you’. Making time for yourself, your hobbies, and activities that bring you enjoyment, is just as important to your overall emotional and mental wellbeing now as it was before you became a mother.

Sleep and eat well

Try not to roll your eyes at this one! We know that all mothers are sleep and time deprived; getting a full night’s sleep is a thing of the past!

Give yourself the best chance of getting the rest you need by taking a break from the stimulation of TV, computer and phone screens at least an hour before you plan to sleep. Try to choose turning in 20 minutes early over scrolling through social media. Remember, if you wouldn’t get up early to do it, it’s not worth staying up later to do it!

You may be tired during the day, but try to limit your caffeine intake because caffeine reduces sleep quality and causes some people to experience increased anxiety (Smith A., 2002). Similarly, some people feel that a glass of wine helps them to sleep but, while you may feel sleepy after drinking, research shows that alcohol consumption negatively affects sleep quality (Roehrset al., 2001).

Be kind to yourself

Judging yourself on how you compare to someone else is rarely helpful to your mental health. We might look with curiosity at the life, actions and achievements of another person and find ourselves feeling upset or dissatisfied with our own.

Try not to compare yourself to other people; everyone else always seems to ‘have it together’! But, you can’t always see another’s person’s struggle.

Keep in mind that the ‘influencer’ moms you see on social media are also putting their best face forward! What you see online is an edited version of their life; it is what someone else wants you to see, and it doesn’t always match with reality.

The idea of the ‘perfect’ mother as it is portrayed by the media, social media or even created in your own mind, does not exist! What’s more, you don’t need to be perfect - being content with yourself is what matters.

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Women’s Health After Motherhood

Trinity College Dublin

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