6 Ways I'm Learning to Manage Stress As a New Mom
Here's how I'm sane with a little one at home. Plus, what science has to say about dealing with stress—period.
Ask any new mom what an ideal day to herself might look like and you could expect something that includes all or some of this: a full night's sleep, a quiet room, a long bath, a yoga class. I didn't *quite* understand just how attractive a "day off", or heck, even a few hours to myself, looked until giving birth to my daughter a few months ago. Quickly, I learned that while fun and rewarding, being a new mom can also be stressful, like seriously stressful.
"Your body and brain have an automatic stress response, the fight or flight response," explains Wendy N. Davis, Ph.D., executive director of Postpartum Support International. "When you're stressed, you're flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which affect how you feel, think, and move." Read: Not great for when you're trying to deal with sleep deprivation, diaper changes, and tears. (Related: How Anxiety and Stress Can Affect Your Fertility)
The good news? You also have an automatic relaxation response, too. "When you use de-stressing techniques, fight or flight chemicals are replaced by the opposite — hormones and neurotransmitters such as serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins," says Davis. "You're not just thinking happy thoughts, you are changing the chemistry and messages in your brain."
Fortunately, activating this relaxation response doesn't take much time and can even be done when you're with your baby. Here, a few ways I've found relief from stress as a new mom—plus why these simple steps can help you find some much-needed zen.
Anyone who's ever felt the sweet relief of a long run, a killer spin class, or an epic yoga class knows the power exercise has over mental health. Personally, exercise has always been a way for me to handle stress and anxiety. This didn't change upon becoming a new mom. (That's exactly why I refuse to feel guilty about working out while my baby sleeps.) Short at-home circuits, walks with my baby, or trips to the gym (when I have help with childcare) help to soften the blow of stressful days and sleep deprivation. Science says exercise works to calm you down, too. When you exercise, your brain creates "happy" hormones (a la endorphins) which improve mood, sleep, and self-esteem. Even just a few minutes of movement can help to quell feelings of anxiety. (Related: More Proof That Any Exercise Is Better Than No Exercise)
Fun fact: Did you know breast milk is about 87 percent water? That's likely why new moms feel really thirst every time their baby feeds. Staying hydrated is a priority for not just my physical health, but mental health, too. Even as little as 1 percent dehydration has been linked with negative mood changes. So when I start to feel on edge, and I recognize that sleep deprivation isn't the only culprit, I simply fill my water bottle back up.
FWIW, there's no set amount that you're supposed to drink more when nursing: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) simply recommends drinking "plenty" of water and more if your urine is dark. For me, Nuun electrolyte tablets that I dissolve in water have been a game-changer as well as an insulated water bottle to keep it cold (I like Takeya bottles because they're easy to sip from and hard to spill).
3. Include my daughter in things I love.
Being one-on-one with a baby for hours on end can be hard—and isolating. I admit I have indeed Googled "what to do with a newborn" (and so have many, many others, mind you). And while time on an activity mat is important for a baby's development, sometimes, I also include my daughter in activities that love to do. Whether that's having her in a bouncer while I cook and listen to music or in a stroller for a long walk. It's easy to assume that in order to do the things the "old you" loved to do, that you have to get a babysitter, but I've found that having her be present for even small activities that bring me joy, helps me to feel calmer. I also wind up stressing less about how I'm filling her time awake. (Related: What a Day In the Life As a New Mom ~Really~ Looks Like)
4. Talk about it.
As a new mom, it's super easy to get in your own head, be overcome with endless thoughts, or question any and everything you're doing. That internal dialogue can be exhausting, and if you're not careful, also potentially harmful. It often helps to have another human give you some input (and let you know that you're doing the best you can). "Giving voice to your feelings and emotions helps the thinking part of your brain come online, instead of feeling overwhelmed and irrational," confirms Davis. Alone at home? You can do this by simply saying aloud something like "I'm really frustrated right now!" or "I'm so angry right now, but I know I'll get through this," notes Davis. Or, yes, you could always talk to a therapist—that's just one way to prioritize your mental health before, during, and after pregnancy.
Certain scenarios—i.e a baby projectile vomiting on you *right* after you change them and their outfit—can make you want to either laugh or cry. It's important to choose the former option from time to time. Laughter is indeed a natural stress-reliever, activating your heart, lungs, and muscles, and encouraging your brain to create those feel-good hormones.
6. Give me some attention.
You know how you're supposed to look for certain cues in a baby so that you know when to put them down for a nap or when to feed them? Well, paying attention to how *you* feel can help you notice when stress is starting to build, says Davis. I, for one, can get super irritable and frustrated when I'm starting to get stressed; my fuse suddenly shortens. (Related: 7 Physical Signs You're More Stressed Out Than You Realize)
Other signs of stress include a pounding heart, quicker breathing, tense muscles, and sweating, according to Davis. Noticing what's happening, catching yourself, and taking a few deep breaths can help you relax, sending a message to your brain to start the relaxation response, she says. Try this: Inhale for four counts, hold the breath for four counts, then exhale slowly fo four counts.