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.

Entering the New Year with Radical Acceptance

A new year is upon us. We may not be ready to leave the one left behind; or, we may be grateful to let go and never look back. For some of us, this was a wonderful year. We achieved recovery. We worked incredibly hard, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, we grieved, we cried, we conquered. And for some of us, the cloud of darkness hasn’t lifted as we are still in the throes of our battle with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder.

The new year tends to make us want to set goals, both realistic and not. We attempt to define the best version of the person or mom we want to be. She, most often, is not the reflection we see in the mirror. This realization can lead to feelings of guilt, shame and defeat which perpetuate cycles of depression and self-loathing. But, trust me when I say, you are already enough, mama.

Instead of viewing the turn of the year as a fresh start or a new beginning, we spend time beating ourselves up about all the things we didn’t accomplish, the days we couldn’t get out of bed or the number of times we lost our patience. We relive the failed medication trials, the sleepless nights and the panic attacks. We dwell on the things we may have missed due to our illness and we question our strength and our resolve. We question if we were meant to be mothers at all.

But we cannot live in either the past or the future; therefore, we must learn to accept wherever we are on our journey. We must embrace what we are capable of right now and truly believe that whatever that is, it’s okay. We need to sit with our emotions, good or bad, and acknowledge that both are part of the human experience. In doing so, we learn to sit with our anxiety, discomfort or pain and experience even greater joy when good times arrive again.

So, enter this new year day by day, or even moment by moment. Set appropriate boundaries and expectations for both yourself, and others. Ask for, and accept help, professional or otherwise. And perhaps, most importantly, do what you can to care for and love yourself for, without self-compassion, all other efforts are futile. Know that we often discover purpose in our pain and through this, you will learn so many amazing things about yourself. I know how hard you tried, mama. I know how hard you’re still trying and how you worry that you will never be able to NOT try so hard again. But you have it in you. This new year may not be without its trials, but you will overcome. You are enough…strong enough, brave enough and loved enough. And, you are never, ever alone.

-Written by Alexis Bruce

Experiencing the Holidays in the Midst of a Perinatal Mood or Anxiety Disorder

The holidays can be a joyful time of year. However, they can also be a source of great stress, overwhelm and even pain. For moms who are struggling with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, the pressure to share in the happiness and spirit of the holidays can be intense and feel nearly impossible. The following are some perspectives you may not have considered from the point of view of the mom who is battling a PMAD.

First, imagine the thought of bundling up baby and standing in line at a crowded mall to visit Santa when finding the energy to get out of bed is too much. If you haven’t been able to take a shower all week, guess where buying and wrapping gifts falls on your priority list?  Things like decorating, making food, throwing a party, dressing baby in fancy holiday attire or even trying to feel joy may seem too overwhelming. Imagine what it would feel like to not even want to be around your family or baby at all. Picture wishing you could just hide from everything and everyone until it was all over.

Maybe the holidays cause a spike in your anxiety or OCD. Let’s say you find the courage to attend a holiday party with family or friends. You exhaust yourself pretending to be social; meanwhile, your mind is thwarting intrusive thoughts and you’re ready to jump out of your skin. Your head is filled with questions like, “What if they knew the thoughts I was having about hurting my baby?” “What if they knew I wish I never became a mother?” “What if they knew I thought my family would be better off without me?”

Or, you may be the mom who feels filled with rage. You can’t stand the lines in every store or the added clutter around the house. You fear you might lose it if you hear “Jingle Bells” one more time. And irritated doesn’t even begin to describe how it makes you feel to see others enjoying this time of year. You just wish everyone would just leave you alone.

Perhaps the holidays are difficult because painful memories begin to resurface. Maybe your depression was too heavy last year and you feel you missed out on a special time in your baby’s life. You may be grieving the holidays you wanted to have but didn’t because of your illness. Or, it’s possible that you experienced trauma around the holidays and even just seeing the holiday lights around the neighborhood brings you back to that awful time and place.

Now, imagine the guilt and shame you might feel for not being the mom who is decorating cookies, singing carols or staging the perfect holiday card. Imagine how easy it would be to feel some jealousy or resentment towards the moms who seem to skate effortlessly through the holiday season. It’s hard for the mom fighting a PMAD not to wonder “why me?” It’s no wonder she thinks something must be wrong with her when she sees such happiness in the hearts of those around her and she feels nothing at all.

But, have hope. There are some things this mom can do to help cope with this time of year. Here are some basic tips:

  • Set realistic expectations with yourself and others. Know where you are in your recovery journey and respect what you are capable of right now. The lights might not get up this year and you might still be wrapping gifts on Christmas Eve. That’s okay. If attending every holiday party you were invited to is too overwhelming, pick one or two. People will understand.
  • Learn when to say “no.” This also means, asking for help when you need it. Maybe it’s as simple as requesting family members bring a dish to pass; or, it might mean asking for some additional sessions with a therapist.
  • Be mindful. Try to accept whatever feelings, emotions or thoughts come to the surface and try your best to sit with them. They will pass if you let them.
  • Practice good self-care. In the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it can be difficult to find a moment to yourself but carving out this time is absolutely necessary in order to preserve your mental health. Take a bubble bath and listen to your favorite holiday music or treat yourself to a gingerbread latte at your favorite coffee shop.

So, this holiday season, give yourself permission to be wherever you are in your journey. The holidays are a difficult time for many of us so please trust me when I say that you are not alone. Be kind and gentle to yourself. It won’t always be this hard and this darkness is not forever. My hope is that a year from now, you will have found joy again and will be able to enter the holiday season with the happiness and excitement you once knew so well.

-Written by Alexis Bruce

The Waiting Game

No one ever warned you about this. No one told you that you were vulnerable from the moment you saw the positive pregnancy test. But here you are; rock bottom, the lowest of lows…the saddest and scariest place you’ve ever been. But this is reality. You’re here and you’ve decided to ask for help, GOOD FOR YOU! Time to put on that armor and fight for your life.

Since you probably weren’t expecting this, it’s hard to know where to go first. You cover your bases – OB, primary care…you know you really need to talk to someone and frantically Google therapists and psychiatrists nearby. What you’re feeling is urgent and real.

OB is too busy and you can’t get an appointment for 3 weeks…

Primary care doctor tells you this is just the baby blues…

Therapist can’t see you for another 4 weeks…

Psychiatrist can’t see you for another 5 weeks…

But you are hanging on by.a.thread.

You are playing the waiting game. The space between realizing this is bigger than you and the time where you can connect with the help that you so desperately want and need. You’re terrified. Holding your breath. Fearful that you can’t wait that long. You are not alone!

If you’re reading this, you’re lucky. Because that means you’ve found Moms Mental Health Initiative. It means that you’ve likely been connected with resources near you and that you’ve been given access to a peer support network of moms on a similar journey. Suddenly, there is hope.

But you still may be left with a wait. Whether that is hours or days, how do you fill that time? Here are some things that have been helpful for this struggling mama:

  • SELF-CARE: You might be thinking that taking time for yourself is selfish. Or, maybe you tell yourself that you have a newborn and all this comes with the territory. But I encourage you to think of the safety instructions before a flight: “the passenger should always fit his or her own mask on before helping children, the disabled, or any persons requiring assistance.” You can’t take care of anyone if you’re not taking care of yourself. What does this mean to you? Maybe it’s a walk outside, a 5 minute guided meditation or a few minutes reading a book you enjoy. Whatever it is, make time for it. You do deserve it and it’s essential.
  • MINDFULNESS: This takes dedication and practice. My OCD loves to latch on to the “what-if’s” and mindfulness is often able to shut that down. An exercise that has been helpful for me is the 5 Senses Exercise. The idea is to ground yourself in the present moment through the five senses. Start by sitting upright, rest your hands on top of your thighs, and make sure you’re comfortable. Next, breathe slowly and deeply. Focus in on the 5 senses one by one: hearing, smell, sight, taste, touch. Try to find 3-5 things that you can partner with each of the senses. If you get distracted, that’s okay, just start again. 
    • TIP: YouTube offers many videos guiding you through this exercise if that is helpful for you!
  • BEHAVIORAL ACTIVATION: Essentially, Behavioral Activation is doing the opposite of what you feel like doing. When depression hits, even the smallest of tasks can seem insurmountable. Call a friend, go for a walk or (depending on where you are) this might even mean getting out of bed or taking a shower. That’s okay. The key is to challenge yourself and go against the scary, negative feelings you are feeling. By doing this, you are proving to yourself that it’s possible one step at a time.
  • SELF-COMPASSION: Self-compassion has been a hard lesson for me. However, through my journey, I’ve come to realize just how critical self-compassion is. We all have hard days, we all make mistakes, we all wish we’d handled certain things differently. In those moments, what would you say to a friend? How would you comfort or support them? Why do you deserve any different? The next time you notice negative self-talk, try to shift the perspective and treat yourself like you would a dear friend.
  • GRATITUDE: I wish I had a nickel for everytime someone told me to start a gratitude journal! In a very dark time, I decided I had nothing to lose and started each day by writing 3 things I was grateful for on a notebook beside my bed. What I soon realized is that the entries didn’t need to be profound or life-changing. Some days, I wrote that I was thankful for ice cream or the smell of my babies’ shampoo and those are 100% valid!
  • MOMENT BY MOMENT: Waiting will likely not be easy (boy, I have been there!). When things seem hopeless, the best advice I can give is to take it moment by moment. Remember that two opposite things can be true at the same time: “Right now I am struggling but I have taken action to get the help I need”. Try not to get too far ahead of yourself and focus on what is right in front of you.

I wish I could hit the fast-forward button because I’ve been where you are and it is absolutely agonizing. But hopefully the tips above and even just knowing you aren’t alone gives you some comfort. Above all else, be kind and gentle to yourself. Remind yourself that (even though you might not believe it right now) you are incredible, you are strong and you WILL get better!

-Written by Alexis Bruce