When confronted with postpartum depression, women face a triple burden; the symptoms of the illness itself, the overwhelming responsibility of caring for a newborn, and finally the pressure of society’s expectations. Although one in seven women experience postpartum depression, society’s attitudes to the illness and motherhood, in general, can make it difficult for women to find appropriate support – or even realise that they need it. Meditation can help those looking for a natural treatment for postnatal depression, and it’s a great addition to any overall plan to tackle this misunderstood condition.
Everyone expects motherhood (indeed, parenthood in general) to be hard work, full of challenges and uncomfortable moments. Unfortunately, this natural expectation can make it difficult to reach out when the months or years after giving birth aren’t just hard work, they are hardly bearable. Being desperately unhappy or anxious feels to many mothers like a failure, and the way people respond to this can at times be very unhelpful.
Research has shown that women’s physical pain is often trivialised. The pain of childbirth (which can last long after the birth itself) and the pain some women experience during breastfeeding can be especially belittled, often viewed as a “natural part of being a woman”. The emotional impact of postnatal stress and depression is also undervalued, and women can internalise these messages, leading them to question if they are indeed a good mother and feel that’s it’s all their fault.
This of course is completely untrue, and postpartum depression isn’t something that women need to struggle with alone. Everything from support groups to therapy, to prescribed medication, have been used to tackle this illness, and which approach works best tends to depend on the individual. However, meditation is an often-overlooked technique that can be used to set people firmly on the path to recovery.
Meditation is especially useful for people who want to cope with the condition naturally (although there’s no reason not to use it alongside traditional medical advice) as it helps on multiple levels. The exact cause of postpartum depression is still unknown, but it’s thought that the physical and emotional trauma of childbirth, huge hormonal upheaval and exhausting demands of motherhood all contribute.
Difficult births can also result in PTSD, which often goes undiagnosed and worsens postpartum depression and anxiety. Characterised by a traumatic event resulting in the habitual overreaction of the panic response in our brain, PTSD can be alleviated with regular meditation.
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The amygdala, which floods our systems with stress hormones in reaction to perceived dangers, is the area of the brain that triggers panicky, anxious feelings. People who meditate regularly have been shown to have less activity in their amygdala, and initial studies suggest that meditation results in a lessening of symptoms in PTSD sufferers.
After only 8 weeks of meditation, brain scans have shown that the amygdala not only responds with less intensity, but is physically reduced. This is incredibly helpful even for those with postpartum depression without signs of PTSD, allowing them to experience less stress and anxiety. This in turn helps our bodies to achieve hormonal homeostasis after the stresses of both pregnancy and birth, reducing the levels of the stress hormones, such as cortisol, by up to a third.
Parents of young children also experience not just a lack of sleep, but a lack of quality sleep. Unable to sleep long enough to get any REM or slow-wave cycle rest only exacerbates the problem. The worry of looking after a baby, constant vigilance required, deprivation of rest and the sheer monotony of it all can have a huge impact on a mother’s wellbeing, and when in the depths of post-partum depression people can find it hard to imagine when they’ll ever feel normal again, sometimes leading to a growing feeling of despair.
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When tackling these issues, meditation can help enormously just by providing a form of deep relaxation. The reality is that, especially with new-borns and when breastfeeding, it could be many months before the opportunity to get a good night’s sleep appears again. Meditation offers an alternative during this time, as it lets the body and brain rest deeply without the need for 8 hours uninterrupted sleep.
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Everyone is different, and everyone’s way of dealing with postpartum depression and anxiety is going to be particular to them. As part of a larger strategy, meditation can be another tool in your armoury as you fight against this illness and come out, healthy and happy, on the other side.
This post was written by Holly Ashby, who works for Will Williams Meditation, a meditation centre in London that aims to help people face life’s challenges through the practice of Vedic meditation. Images: Lori Spindler, Michael Salvato and Vasile Hurghis via Flickr.