I recently watched the beautiful movie Tully and had a profound and visceral reaction to it. The film follows Marlow, a mom of three young kids (including an infant), and her silent descent into depression and burn-out. What’s poignant about this movie, however, is how absolutely relatable it is.
It doesn’t tackle postpartum depression in an obvious way. No, what is so alarming is how “normal” everything seems. No one, not even the character herself, is even aware of or tuned in to the menacing signs and symptoms of exhaustion and depression that appear so obvious to the viewer.
For me, this is a cautionary tale about the ways moms mostly do not prioritize self-care in their everyday lives due to overwhelm, guilt, survival, or lack of resources for help and support.
And as I watched the film, I too felt the pangs of empathy, knowing exactly what it’s like to be so hormonal, so prideful, and so stubborn as a new mom that even if help was offered to me I was loathe to accept it. I was going to be “that” mom. The mom with a golden nipple spouting water in the backyard as an award for my breastfeeding prowess and tenacity to keep going at all costs. The mom who could work full time and endure sleepless nights (and even a little mastitis from time to time) and still keep smiling, and doing, and giving.
Now that my kids are older, I see what a disservice I was doing by not claiming the self-care time I needed. But it doesn’t make it any easier for moms to accept help, let alone ask for it. The “it takes a village” concept is amazing, but what if you feel isolated in your community? What if you don’t have family around or good friends to rely on?
Below are some (completely free) self-care strategies that mamas of any stripe can utilize to help calm the nervous system. You can even do these with your baby or child! Most importantly, these strategies are not a quick fix but are a blueprint for continuous and sustainable self-care. And the best part is that they are effective at reducing stress and boosting dopamine production fast.
1. 4-7-8 breathing technique
This is one of my favorite breathing exercises. I use it when I’m nervous before a speaking engagement, when I’m angry and feel a bubble of rage coming up, and even while watching scary movies. It’s very easy and very effective. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four. Hold it for a count of seven and then breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight. Do this four times. What you’re doing is helping to shut down the amygdala, which is the “smoke detector” in your brain alerting you to “fight or flight.” When you can dampen the amygdala it helps beef up the prefrontal cortex, where your rational thoughts reside.
2. Shower yoga
Even if I’m taking a quick shower, I’ll do five minutes of shower yoga. What is shower yoga? Well, it’s basic yoga postures that can be done in the shower. Obviously, make sure your shower is not slippery, and gauge your space so you can take safety precautions. I keep it very simple with a few sun salutations, a chair pose, a squat, and warrior two (I follow that sequence about four times). I love the feel of the water from the shower on my back, and it’s just enough time to get me energized for the day (no matter what kind of sleep I got the night before).
3. Yoga nidra
On the nights that I’m really wired or stressed and can’t wind down easily, I use a yoga nidra recording. Yoga nidra is a beautiful, calming sleep yoga that works through different levels of consciousness, called koshas. The cool part is that even if I fall asleep while listening, my unconscious mind is soaking in the goodness. Some studies have found that 30 minutes of yoga nidra a few days a week can have the same effect as two hours of restorative REM sleep and can boost dopamine production by as much as 60% for just one session!
Music soothes your baby to sleep, calms cranky criers, and boosts brain activity and creativity. So why wouldn’t it do the same for you? In fact, while so many people think of self-care as a spa day or mani-pedi sesh or a girls weekend away, something as simple as music can provide many of the same benefits of relaxation, pleasure, calm, and connection. With so many free options to find just the right tune for the activity (Google Play, Spotify, Brain FM, Pandora) self-care can be as easy as putting on some headphones for 10 minutes while doing a diaper change or preparing a meal.
Our brains have neuroplasticity, which means that even deeply-ingrained habits and negative thought patterns can change. New neural pathways can be laid down simply by repeating mantras and affirmations. Remember, the brain sees anything real OR imagined as a possible threat. In the same way we work ourselves into a frenzy, we can also train our brains to be wired toward joy and gratitude and positivity. Affirmations are a great way to do that. Make up your own simple catchphrases or mantras, or use these: “I am a good mom.” “I deserve self-care and rest.” “I love nourishing and nurturing myself as well as my family.”
This one is my favorite. Whenever I’m in a funk, I head for the forest. Forest bathing, or what the Japanese call shinrin yoku is the practice of simply being among the trees. Benefits include increased immunity, lowered stress hormones, lower blood pressure, and increased energy and vitality. But, most importantly, it changes the scenery, which sometimes is the best self-care of all. When my babies were little, just going outside changed the mood so quickly, with new smells and sights and stimulation. I could ward off a tantrum even on the streets of Cambridge. If you live near a nature reserve, park, or forest, wear your baby or bring your stroller and head out on a path.
How do you self-care?