Finding Inner Rhythm during the Holidays

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by the choir and folks dressed up like Eskimos. Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright…..

 While there is inherent beauty, magic, wonder and awe in the Holiday season, there can also be increased demands upon each of us. One may get pulled into the frenetic pace of external tasks. Children may become overwhelmed emotionally. Our time and energy may be taxed causing stress and anxiety in our system.

When we are in stress and anxiety, the body, brain and heart are out of balance. Our brains can ruminate in repetitive thought patterns and our emotions can become overwhelmed. Both pull us out of our core center, our inner balance. 

Heart coherence is the state when our heart, mind and emotions are in energetic alignment and balance with one another. This state radiates energy of peace and love and harmony. 

Heart rate variability is the variation of the time between consecutive heartbeats. When one learns to influence their heart rate variability, internal stability restores itself. Balance is gained between mind, emotions and heart creating inner peace and calm.

A study by Beckham, et all (2012) worked with 15 mothers experiencing perinatal depression.  They introduced a protocol of heart rate variability biofeedback using Heartmath systems. All 15 women demonstrated statistically significant changes on three assessment tools from pretest to posttest demonstrating an improved emotional balance. 

Conscious breathing is a powerful tool that can bring us back to a harmonious sense of self and well-being.  Puran and Susanna Bair, authors of Energize Your Heart, indicate that breath can significantly improve heart rate variability through a technique called heart rhythm meditation. 

Try this simple practice daily for 2-5 minutes.

  1. Sit upright with a straight spine and feet firmly on the ground.
  2. Breathe in fully expanding your belly.
  3. Breathe out fully squeezing your belly to your spine pushing all the air out.
  4. Breathe in counting for 4 counts.
  5. Hold your breath in your heart for 4 counts.
  6. Breathe out and exhale for 4 counts. 
  7. Stay focused on your count and let other thoughts move through.
  8. You can add a positive affirmation phrase to the count pattern to increase focus.

As you become more comfortable with this pattern add this next step:

  1. Find your pulse either in your wrist or at your neck. 
  2. As you do steps 4-6, synchronize your count pattern with your pulse rate. 

Continue practicing this breathing technique daily to influence your heart rate variability. The more consistently you practice, the more inner peace you may feel.

And so I’m offering this simple phrase. For kids from one to ninety two,

Although it’s been said many times, many ways

Merry Christmas to you!

Written by: Donna Seegers Abler, OTR/L, PPNE

Donna is a pediatric occupational therapist. She is also certified as a prenatal and perinatal psychology educator and Calm Birth Prenatal Meditation instructor. Donna is also the author of Love Me In: a Sacred Pregnancy Journal.

A Story of Hope: Jessica’s Story

I look at this photo, taken nearly two years after my experience with postpartum psychosis, and think “Wow, I never thought I’d get here. To this point of happiness and love and self-acceptance and hope.” 

The first year and a half of my son’s life was not as picture perfect.

Here’s my story. My husband and I are high school sweethearts. We were together 10 years before we married in 2013. We wanted kids, sure. But I was focused on my career and wanted to be financially secure before starting a family. So, we decided to wait until 2017 to try to conceive. It definitely didn’t come easy for us. It took about a year before we finally got pregnant. But weeks later our world stopped. I had a miscarriage at 5 weeks pregnant. This happened while we were both also dealing with the loss of our fur baby, Otis (a cat we had since we began dating 15 years earlier). That, coupled with a lot of other personal stuff going on in our lives, broke me. I tried to remain strong, and opted to look to the future instead of dealing with my pain. 

Once it was safe to do so, we continued to try for a baby. Four months later, we found out we were pregnant. We. Were. Elated. Our rainbow baby. 

My pregnancy was a smooth one. But, I am a little anxious by nature and that became more obvious throughout the pregnancy, especially with the constant fear that I may miscarry again, or something else terrible might happen to me or the baby. 

As an expecting mom, or parent, you often spend so much time eagerly preparing for your baby’s arrival. Learning all about baby’s development, getting the nursery set-up, making sure you’re registered for all the latest and greatest baby gadgets, the list goes on. Not once during my pregnancy did I consider the effect having a baby would have on my mental health. After all, women have had babies for centuries, no big deal, right? 

Boy, how naive. Looking back, preparing for a baby should have included preparing myself for the potential of what I was about to experience postpartum. Instead, my husband and I were left unprepared to navigate the tragic mental health system while in such a dire condition. 

Right after Henry was born, my stress levels were at an all time high. I won’t go into all the details, but basically my perfectionism and my need to feel like I could handle it all — the late night feedings, the laundry, the other house work, the same busy social calendar — took its toll. I wasn’t taking care of myself, I wasn’t eating or sleeping. I was constantly “revved up” is the best way to explain it. Looking back, I now see how all of this led up to the ultimate breaking point. 

About 6 weeks into my postpartum journey, while my husband was behind the scenes frantically Googling “when will my wife’s hormone levels even out after baby?” I lost grip with reality. Literally. I didn’t believe it was me in all the photos hanging throughout our house, as if this was someone else’s life I was living in. I became paranoid. I thought someone was trying to steal my son. I thought my family was plotting against me. I would go from crying to laughing hysterically within the same breath. I was not myself and was behaving erratically. 

It was then that my husband realized that something was not right. He took me to the ER. Sadly, due to how our mental health system is run, I wasn’t able to get the care I needed unless I volunteered to be admitted into a psychiatric hospital. They ER doctors advised us to go home and get some sleep, and we could reevaluate in the morning. There was no change. I didn’t sleep and it was the same paranoid, anxious, erratic cycle the next day. We went back to the ER and ultimately decided it would be best to be admitted into the psychiatric hospital. 

I didn’t realize what was going on or how long I’d be there. All I knew was something was not right and I wanted to get better. I had to take an ambulance to the psychiatric hospital, even though it was voluntary. Once there, my husband wasn’t able to stay with me. I had to give up all the belongings I had on me (which wasn’t much because I didn’t bring anything to the ER but the clothes on my back, chapstick and my cell phone). 

After I was settled in at the psychiatric hospital, I was delusional. Memories of my life, childhood, and other experiences all rushed to me — the good, the bad, the ugly all constantly running through my mind. I felt like I was constantly trying to uncover something, find meaning, connect the dots. I experienced all of this alone, in a tiny, white room with a thin mattress. Seriously, it would make a sane person crazy. 

While it was bleak and uncomfortable, the psychiatric hospital gave me direct access to the right mental health professionals (psychiatrist, therapist, etc). During my evaluation, I was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis. I had never heard of this postpartum mood disorder (PPMD) before, but the words psychosis and psychotic do not really have the most favorable reputation. I was a crazy person — that’s all I heard.

The care team recommended that I go on medication. I knew it was necessary but I wasn’t in the frame of mind to make decisions. I questioned everything, but was unable to sort through all the noise in my head. Ultimately they put me on an antipsychotic drug to help “unscatter” my brain. They also gave me melatonin to help me sleep – after I refused other sleep aids because I was overly concerned about becoming addicted. 

It all felt surreal. It was dreamlike. I kept thinking I’ve got to be sleeping and this is all a dream. When will I wake up? 

I finally was able to get some sleep. My husband knows this part better than me, but I believe he said I slept something like 18 hours straight. After two days there, I was evaluated and deemed fit to return home to recover. It was truly a short period of time, considering the severity of my diagnosis. 

Once home, I chose to stop breastfeeding so I could get help with feedings from my husband and other family members. I began therapy, opting for an intensive outpatient program. I was a bit resistant with the therapy as I didn’t feel like it was specific to my situation — as a new mom with a newly diagnosed mood disorder, I didn’t feel like I fit in. Because of this, and because I had started to feel better with the medication, I made the decision to end the program early. 

Then, my maternity leave ended and I had to go back to work. The antipsychotic medication affected my concentration and ability to function to my fullest potential. I started having panic attacks. I was overly anxious that I would lose my job and we’d lose my income. I spiraled. I became deeply depressed, felt hopeless and my self confidence plummeted. 

In my lowest moment, I had to shop for a new therapist and a psychiatrist. That was the last thing I wanted to do, but knew I needed the help. 

Once I found the right fit, it took months of therapy to realize that I needed to make some tough decisions. I decided to take a step back in my career and found a new job closer to home. The job change, all the work I was doing through therapy, and the support of my family and friends helped me slowly find my way back to me (or atleast the new me). 

Today, I look at my beautiful family and am so thankful for how we have been able to overcome the darkest of days. Yet, I also reflect back on my experience and am saddened. I’m saddened that I wasn’t more prepared for the potential after effects of having a baby. I’m saddened that our healthcare system isn’t set up to help moms — only screening for depression at a 6 week check-up when there are so many other ways moms struggle postpartum. I’m saddened that not everyone is as fortunate as I was to have a support system to lift me up and help me recover.  

While my story has a happy ending, I understand that many others aren’t as fortunate and may still be fighting to survive their darkest of days. Or, may not be prepared for the potential of what could happen postpartum. 

If you’re reading my story, my ask is to please be proactive with your mental health, and advocate for it during and after pregnancy. Here are some tips to get prepared and form a plan of action, in the event it’s ever needed, or you are unsure where to start: 

  • Educate yourself on PPMDs. There are a lot of great resources out there, like Moms Mental Health Initiative, Hopeful Mamma, Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance, Postpartum Support International, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and more.
  • Research mental healthcare providers in your area, talk to your primary care doctor or OB/GYN (and if you don’t have one, get one!). If you’re insured, gather a list of what providers are in your network, for both therapists and psychiatrists, so you know what’s covered and to avoid any financial barriers. 
  • Loop in your support person(s) and let them know that if anything seems out of the ordinary with you once your baby arrives, to contact your doctor right away. Create a list of three people who you trust to share your experience and information with. Include their contact information so it’s handy if needed during a crisis. 
  • Make a list of positive coping skills that help put you at ease. This might be different for everyone, but art, music, calling a friend, watching a movie, or mediatiting are all good options. 
  • Before the baby comes, determine a schedule of how to fit in time for self care. Carve out time for a nap, reading, exercise, cooking a healthy meal, or enjoying a hobby you love. Even if it is only an hour a week. 
  • Write a letter to yourself before the baby comes with some encouraging thoughts to read when times get tough. 
  • Know there is help out there, especially if you need it urgently. Make a list of hotlines and phone numbers to call should things get bad. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is free and confidential. 

And above all else, know that you’re not alone. <3 

-Written by Jessica Akright

A Story of Hope: Talia’s Story – Love Takes Time

Trigger warning: birth trauma

I watched my son as he fell asleep in my arms today. In a simple way, it was magical. The way he gazed at me as his eyes started to close melted my heart. He held my finger as dreams began filling his sweet head. Little puffs of breath floated against my chest as he drifted off.

And while I watched, I found myself enamored with this beautiful little soul who now trusts me to be his safe place. It felt like one of those unicorn moments of motherhood.

I cherished the moment as I realized I had experienced very few memories like that in the first part of his life. My postpartum anxiety, depression and PTSD robbed me of them all.

After a hugely traumatic birth experience and hospital stay, my early days of motherhood were filled with grief and rage. My son and I almost died in birth, and in those coming days, weeks, and months after his birth, the darkness that enveloped me made me wish over and over that I had died.

There was no light. There was no joy.

I recall taking hundreds of pictures of him as a newborn hoping that someday I’d actually care. I felt no connection with my son. Or with myself. I was supposed to be a mom now, but what did that even mean?

I was drowning in depression and anxiety. I wanted to escape from what felt like the prison bars of motherhood.

Every time my son cried, I cried too. For every passing day where I couldn’t put him down for even a moment, I felt panic grow in my suffocation.

I felt I was failing as a mom in every way. I knew I needed help. I couldn’t continue on like that.

I started seeing an amazing art therapist twice a week. I began to work through the trauma. I felt supported, and she cheered for me and supported me every step of the way.

I had to face my grief. My rage. I had to accept the work it would take to heal what felt so broken within me.

Slowly, and I do mean very slowly, the haze started to lift.

I’ve had to take motherhood day by day…most times, second by second.

My son will be 10 months on Wednesday, and I’ll be honest, I sometimes feel behind in my healing process. To my own disappointment, there are still dark days.

And yet, today was proof that I am making progress. I was able to see the beauty in that moment. There are now days when I can delight in my son’s giggles and watch in amazement as he grows. Now, no matter how dark the days, the connection I feel with him is unbreakable. It grows stronger by the day. And so do I.

When I became a mom, I thought I’d know what to do. I expected to instantly love my son in the way they talk about in movies. I believed I’d be over the moon with motherhood. It turns out that although my journey would be nothing like that, this broken and worn path I’ve had to take has ended up being even more exceptional and gratifying. Each moment…each milestone is even more meaningful now.

So if you’re somewhere in the middle of this journey, too, know you’re not alone or behind, Mama. You’re exactly where you need to be, and I promise, you’re everything your baby needs, here and now. There is light out there for you, even if you can’t see it right now. Sometimes the best things in life take time. Love. Connection. Motherhood. We’re all works in progress, and perhaps that’s where the magic happens.

–Written by Talia Granzow

A Post of Hope: Katie’s Story

My journey with PPD started very quickly after my first was born. Leading up to giving birth, I was happy, full of life, and overjoyed to meet my little one. I did my hair and makeup the morning I was going to be induced. I couldn’t wait to have her. Quite literally the second after my daughter left my body, I was numb. All the happiness went away, all the joy, and I was completely lost. The next two weeks, I was very weepy, overprotective of my daughter, but also felt nothing for her. I knew that the baby blues were very common right after giving birth, so I chalked it up to that. And mostly, all of the baby blues symptoms did go away after the two weeks. I felt like “Whew! I’m in the clear!”

Fast forward to 4.5 months later. The weepiness started returning. I thought “It’s just because I’m home all day long with the baby. I just need to get out and socialize.” But even something as simple as going to lunch with my husband and mother-in-law brought me to tears for no apparent reason. Quickly, the weepiness turned into depression. Anxiety piggybacked right on top of that shortly after. Yet for weeks, I still kept trying to deny what was going on in my head. Eventually, I went to my doctor and put on a brave face. I told her I MAY have postpartum depression, but I may just be getting cooped up at home. I really down-played it because it all terrified me. She told me I wasn’t showing the signs, and to just keep an eye on it. A week later, on a Sunday morning, something made it very clear to me that something just wasn’t right: my first intrusive thought. A thought I thought I was NEVER capable of having. It scared the life out of me. I knew then and there I had to contact my doctor. I happened to have her direct number, so I called her. I thought “Forget it. No more pretending like something isn’t right. I never want to have a thought like that EVER again.” I told her I felt very disconnected, down, weepy, etc. However, I didn’t share about my thoughts in fear that I would lose my child. After giving her my symptoms, she immediately took action and then knew it was time to treat me for PPD. Even though, in that moment, I was so terrified, I also felt an enormous amount of relief knowing I was finally on my way to getting help.

The next couple of months were still pretty rough. I kept having intrusive thoughts. I still felt weepy. I still felt downright just dark and sad. But slowly, with the undeniable help of God, along with medication and exercise, I started to get better. I started to see the light again. I started to find myself again, which was a huge fear for me…that I would never be myself again.

Now, looking back on it all and having learned so much more about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, I understand that I not only had PPD, but also PPA and PPOCD. I had the scary thoughts that so many moms with this disease want to deny having. Up until this moment writing my story, I denied it as well. But I’m done hiding my story. I want my story to help any other mom going through this, so that they know they AREN’T crazy, and they ARE NOT a horrible mom. I want the other moms to know I’m with you. And with the proper help and care, you WILL get better. You WILL be yourself again. Please don’t give up. I’ve made it out on the other side, stronger than ever before, and so can you. 

-Written by Katie Palmisano

Never Say Never – Deciding to have a baby after PPD

The sun was shining brightly on a perfect Arizona day in early April. Our brains were set in relaxation mode, with no clue that a major shift in our lives was about to be set in motion. My husband and I had left our 3 year old back home in Wisconsin with my parents so that we could have a much needed vacation. We headed down to the resort’s pool complex to find that the only loungers available together werein front of the kiddie pool. I didn’t care; all I needed was the sun, a good book, and a fruity cocktail. I could tune out the noisy children like a pro (a survival skill that all moms learn). After some time, I glanced up from Big Little Lies and noticed a baby fast asleep in the shade two chairs down. She looked adorably peaceful as her mom and older sister played in the pool a few feet away. A voice inside my head said, “I could do that. I could have a second baby.” Followed by, “Where the f*ck did that come from?” My heart rate sped up and my chest grew painfully tight. I struggled to control my breathing as the anxiety attack took hold. The thought of having another child was shocking, foreign, and unwanted. It had popped up out of nowhere and needed to go away. Over two and half years ago, I had taken the possibility of more children off the table. My son, Adrian, would be an only child and that was that. It was a hard decision but I came to terms with it, locking any lingering baby-fever in a box marked “never open.” Close friends and family understood and didn’t blame me. Severe postpartum depression and anxiety had left its mark.

Four years ago, as a new mom-to-be, I had high expectations for myself and what life would be like as a parent. Immediately after Adrian was born, reality smacked me across the face. Instead of that post-birth feeling of euphoria, love, and joy that I had expected, I

 felt dead inside. As the days went on, that numbness was replaced by fear, hopelessness, and despair. I felt incapable of doing the one job I had to do: mother my son. Following a diagnosis of postpartum depression and anxiety, I started medications and weekly talk therapy, but my condition continued to worsen. Dosages were increased; medications were switched out; more therapy sessions were added to my schedule; radical treatment options like Electroconvulsive Therapy were attempted. It wasn’t working. About a year and a half passed and my mental health deteriorated further. There were periods of intense suicidal ideation that at times became irresistible. My husband had to hide all the knives and sharp objects in the house. My medications were locked in a safe and dosed out daily. I knew that if I somehow survived this illness, I could never risk putting myself or my family through it again. Having another baby was unthinkable at the time.

Eventually I found a relatively new treatment program that was proven to be highly effective for individuals with major depressive disorder and suicidal ideation. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy saved my life. As I started to improve and finally reached a state of full recovery, I still felt good about the decision to stop at one child. Life with my family felt happy and peaceful. Knowing that the risk of postpartum depression and anxiety is higher after the first episode, I felt no need to rock the boat. Hence, the anxiety that accompanied the thought of having another baby on that fateful day in Arizona. Reaffirming the belief that I was done having babies helped me return to a state of relaxation in that moment. Still the unwelcomed thought persisted.  For weeks I attempted to ignore it, not wanting to face the tough emotions it brought up. Therapy had taught me the importance of getting curious about my emotions. I knew this needed to be unpacked or it would continue to haunt me. I decided to bring it up with my husband, expecting him to look at me like I was crazy and reiterate that we were done having children. Instead, he loved the idea. He felt that we were ready and could handle whatever came our way. I was surprised again when my therapist said he thought it was a great idea. He was sure I’d be able to use my new skills to cope through the postpartum period in a much healthier way. My mom’s reaction was the same. Frankly, I was shocked. Why weren’t these people, who saw firsthand how bad it was, trying to talk me out of this? I know now that it’s because they believed in me, even if I didn’t fully believe in myself yet.

On a sleepless night while wrestling with the big decision, I grabbed my journal and made a three page pros and cons list of having another baby. Reading the list over and over again brought on a mental clarity that I hadn’t felt in more than a month. All the cons could be problem-solved. They were scary, but I was not about to let fear stand in the way of something my heart truly wanted. The pros made it obvious: baby #2 would never feel like a mistake, but not having him or her probably would. The list also helped me develop a sense of confidence in my ability to handle another baby and face the potential of postpartum depression and anxiety. I would do my research, talk to women who had done this before, learn from my experience, and make a comprehensive postpartum plan. Plus, my husband and I make a solid team; by working together to face any obstacles, we could have the family we’d always dreamed of.

After Adrian was born, I went into battle naked, unarmed, and blind to the demons I was about to face. This time around, I will enter the arena wearing a full suit of armor, carrying a sword made of Valyrian steel, and with eyes wide open. I know exactly what my demons look like and how to defeat them.  The fear is still there, though not as intense, and it feels like a natural human reaction given the stakes. There’s also a sense of courage and strength that comes from knowing that I have what it takes to survive. The postpartum period will be hard. And it will be worth it.

Written by Megan Nazaret