As mothers, self-care is often the first thing that we neglect, especially in times of stress and anxiety. Self-care can seem like a luxury and something that we need time and money to achieve; for example an indulgent spa day with friends, a relaxing massage/facial or a long walk by the beach. These things are wonderful and are, of course going to make us feel better but are not necessarily accessible and can not be called upon day to day as cortisol (our stress hormone) levels rise in response to the strain of daily life.
So let’s rethink self-care. What if we looked at self-care as short 5 to 20 minute activities we can build into our daily life that tap into our calm and connect system, thus preventing our cortisol barometer from rising into the red. What if we had a ‘toolkit’ of restorative activities that we could draw on to help us get through the day without feeling completely depleted of energy and exhausted.
We have asked some of our practitioners who work closely with mums what they themselves do to keep their stress levels down and how they support mums with this in their work. Below are our moments of selfcare. Many of which you may already be doing but maybe hadn’t thought about as selfcare and as a way of keeping your parasympathetic (calming) nervous system in charge.
1. If in doubt, breath it out – We know that taking deep breaths can help us relax, however if we are stressed reinforcing unhelpful breathing patterns can actually feed into anxiety. Diaphragmatic/belly breathing that involves a conscious inhalation, hold and long exhalation has shown to reduce stress by activating our calm and rest system. One of the more cited breathing techniques to reduce stress is the 4-7-8 technique. Start with just a few rounds twice a day and for those that like technology and benefit from help visualising the breath try ‘Breathe’ a free App (Apple Store only).
2. The Nature Pill – Sometimes it can feel easier and safer to just stay in at home, however research has shown that spending just 20 minutes outside in nature significantly reduces cortisol levels. Antenatal teacher Sian from About Birth and Babies fully supports this and encourages her clients to consider getting outdoors everyday due to the positive effects it has on the mind and mood. “Moving into natural outdoor light and taking in deep breaths of fresh air helps you feel relaxed by reducing cortisol levels and when you feel relaxed your baby/child will feel calmer too.”
“The good news is that this can just be sitting outside, how fast and how far you go isn’t important so if getting the buggy or sling out or donning your trainers feels like too much of an upheaval just head on outside (barefoot even) and immerse yourself in nature for 20 minutes”.
3. Music is like Magic – Music has the power to stir a whole myriad of emotions, from the nerves of that first dance at your school disco to the joy of the first dance at your wedding. Music stimulates oxytocin and our happy hormone, dopamine which improves your sense of well being and it even reduces stress! Charlotte from Bloom Hypnobirthing talks about the magic of music in her Hypnobirthing and Postnatal courses and says “Create yourself a playlist of songs that stir feelings of happiness, love, laughter – songs that give you butterflies in your stomach and take you right back to wonderful memories is a sure fire way to boost your mood. My go-to while I’m dancing round the kitchen is The Cure (ok, Take That!) “
“When you’re listening to your playlist, allow your mind to travel back to your strongest memories of each song. What can you see? How do you feel? Notice the details. Sing along, dance, close your eyes (unless your driving!) and really feel those emotions. You’ll be amazed at how good it makes you feel”.
4. Get back into your body – Life is such that we spend much of our time in our heads consumed by thoughts that are generally unhelpful and feed into anxiety. Endless to-do lists, the voice of our inner critic, worries about what other people think, imagining things that may never happen, and wondering all the what if’s. All this thinking directs our energy in an upwards direction leaving us feeling disconnected from our body and our stable foundation. Grounding isn’t just a yoga term but is used in yoga to refocus energy in a downwards direction helping reconnect body and mind. Try some of these simple poses for a few minutes a day; surrendering your thoughts and body allowing the ground to support you.
5. See the magic in the mundane – Taking a few moments to pause each day to fully attend to what is happening and what you are doing, is the start of living a more mindful life. We are often too busy multitasking or thinking about our next moves to appreciate the present moment. Life is full of small opportunities to be more present and it doesn’t have to involve sitting and stillness.
Infant massage instructor and newborn and infant developmental Physiotherapist Rachel supports this way of thinking in her classes when working with new families. “Being more present in daily life is a quality that we all possess, we just have to learn how to access it. Having a baby gives the perfect opportunity to explore this as we get to know and bond with our incredible little humans. Feeding, dressing, nappy changes and interactions such as those that take place during baby massage are all opportunities to connect deeply with our babies; noticing, savouring and valuing rather than seeing these as daily chores”.
6. Changing our inner voice – Talking down or giving ourselves a hard time can really affect our mental health and self-worth. Charlotte from Bloom Hypnobirthing tells us how we can take simple steps “ Positive affirmations are a great way of boosting confidence and shifting your inner voice to focus on the positives. Used by many different professions from athletes to teachers, these short, impactful statements can, when practiced regularly, really help to improve your mood and reframe your more limiting beliefs. Choose affirmations that resonate with you, for example ‘I am the best parent for my children’, ‘I find joy in the smallest moments’ or ‘Where there is chaos, I am the calm’. Write each one out, and place them in areas you will notice them, such as on your mirror, on the fridge, or even the back of the bathroom door! When you notice them, repeat them to yourself, allow the words to sink in and allow yourself to believe them. It’s a simple, but very effective way to improve your mindset and bring yourself strength”.
7. The Oxytocin Factor – As mentioned earlier by Charlotte, one of our hormones responsible for activating the calm and connect system is oxytocin. Oxytocin is released (amongst other ways) in response to positive friendly interaction and touch, thus reducing cortisol levels and stress. Through her classes, Infant Massage Instructor Rachel explores how touch is important for us all throughout our lives. “Touching our babies and young children is instinctive but physical closeness is still important for older children, adolescents and us adults too. It helps us feel connected and valued as well as reducing stress levels for both parties”. In addition to baby massage, Rachel suggests initiating a soothing hand or foot massage with your children/teenagers or a relaxing neck and scalp massage with your partners. If this isn’t possible then playing games that involve touch or being playful in a physical way can reduce tension and boost oxytocin.
8. “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart” (William Wordsworth) – Sian from About Birth and Babies recommends that mums keep a notepad next to the bed and another in the kitchen draw and use them both from front to back and back to front. “The beginning of the book can be used to record any small wins, any small gains. This could be anything from managing a soak in a bath to remembering to put the bins out! Look back at it regularly to marvel at how much you’ve achieved. The back of the book can be used to note down anything worrying you or things you don’t want to forget. Unprocessed thoughts can spiral out of control and visualising what you’re worried about can help with rationalising your thoughts”. Journaling over time is a proven method to counteract the effects of stress, it can help with gaining valuable self knowledge, problem solving and reframing negative, anxious thoughts into positive ones.
We are not suggesting that you do these things every day and know that this list is not exhaustive and what works for one person will not work for the next. But by spending some time thinking about what works for you and having your own toolkit at your fingertips may help you get through the day feeling less stressed and tired and more able to face challenges that come your way.
Our team is keen for new mums reading this to know that the transition into motherhood can be tough, the stakes are high and there can be many challenges (as well as many rewards) along the way. If you are struggling please speak to your health visitor or failing that a family member or friend. You are not alone.