How Exercise Restored My Postpartum Mental Health

One of the questions new coaching clients sometimes ask me is about how and why I started running and lifting regularly.  I’m always honest about the fact that exercise is one of the few things that I felt like helped me manage my mental health difficulties.  It feels like anxiety and depression have always been in the background, and occasionally the foreground, of my life.  In college, I took my first psychology class, and was somewhat surprised to hear that exercise was considered a treatment for both anxiety and depression (thankfully this came in handy when I struggled with postpartum mental health).

Related Post: Exercise and Anxiety

At that point, I wasn’t super comfortable with my body, and struggling with my mental health. So I decided that it was worth a shot. I started running 1-2 miles 4x a week and bumbling around a gym for an hour or so 3-4x. And even though I was a horrifically unskilled athlete, I noticed that I did in fact feel better. I still had periods of difficulty, but I realized that my mind raced a whole lot less when I was exercising regularly.

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Fast forward several years later, my husband and I decided to try to start our family.  We were both very active at that point.  I was running half and full marathons and CrossFitting, and my husband (a natural athlete) was able to join me and keep up without much training.  We both assumed that getting pregnant would be no problem; we were young, healthy, and didn’t have any red flags between the two of us.  In fact, we both came from fairly large families, so clearly having kids wouldn’t be difficult.

We were incorrect.  After multiple miscarriages, we did finally have a successful pregnancy without intervention.  My anxiety was damn near intolerable for the first 20 weeks of my pregnancy, as I played out every possible scenario that resulted in another loss.  Once we passed that mile stone, I felt a little more at ease, and focused on being the mom I had envisioned.  Relaxed, calm, easy-going.  I am none of those things in every day life, so I’m not sure where I ever got the idea that I would be this way as a mother.  But none the less, I tried.

And for about the first 3 whole weeks of my sons life, I succeeded. I slept when he slept, I reveled in his adorable tininess, and I had the full new mom glow. Then, he developed severe reflux, stopped sleeping, and screamed in pain. Sometimes all night. The relaxed mom ran away. She was replaced with a frantic, anxious woman who constantly worried about her son suddenly dying in his sleep. Or lack there of.

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He was cute, but made me very nervous

I initially thought that my anxiety was somewhat standard “pregnancy blues”.  But after several months of never feeling like I could relax, it was clear something bigger was going on.  Several years removed, I can now see that I was struggling with pretty severe postpartum anxiety.  I had some reason to be anxious, but my worry was definitely disproportionate to reality.  And even as a therapist, it took me a long time to recognize.

I’ve never been a fan of the way anxiety medications have made me feel in the past, so I’ve always relied on exercise and supportive therapy to get me through the rough spots.  And fortunately, these two things did not let me down when it came to managing my postpartum anxiety.  Which is why working out is something I recommend to all new moms (once your doctor has given you the green light).  We have so much more information about how exercise impacts mental health, and I want to share a few ways that working out can improve postpartum mental health.

Exercise & Postpartum Mental Health

Hormones & Brain Chemistry

It is well-known that regular exercise can have significantly positive impacts on brain chemistry, including regulating and releasing endorphins and serotonin. More specific to postpartum health, regular exercise can help hormones return to pre-pregnancy levels, which can help improve mood and stress levels. Exercise also helps promote better sleep patterns, which plays a huge role in postpartum mental health. It’s tough to get quality sleep as a new mom, and mental health symptoms can make it significantly more difficult. Lifting weights might not help your new born sleep through the night, but it can help you take advantage of the few hours that are available to you.

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Physical Changes

It’s an unfortunate reality that the majority of women surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with their post-partum bodies.  Not only do most women struggle to love what they see in the mirror, it’s also very common for women to feel like their body has become foreign or unfamiliar.  This has a significant impact of maternal mental health.  And one of the best ways to begin to feel more comfortable within your body is to begin to use it in a way that feels empowering.  Engaging in a regular workout routine can help women feel more appreciative and satisfied with their bodies, even if there aren’t immediate changes in appearance.

Related Post: Running Postpartum: How Running Makes Us Stronger Moms

As a mental health therapist, I noticed that I felt much more grounded once I resumed my daily runs.  I was connecting with my body, and had to pay attention to how my legs moved, my breathing, and my energy levels.  That mindfulness and attention helped me get acquainted with my changed body in a positive way, and helped remind me of the gratitude that I had for the work my body had done in creating a new human.  I didn’t love every single stretch mark that resulted, but I had a much easier time accepting them after I had regained connection with my physical self.

Reminder of Our Strength

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Growing a human and bringing it into the world requires an impressive amount of strength. Physical and mental. But once babies are Earth side, it can be easy to forget about all that strength. Especially when our core feels more like a pillow than a six pack, and the third diaper blow out of the day can bring us to tears. Lifting weights, hiking, and running can allow us to recognize and appreciate all of the strength that motherhood demands. Honestly, any form of exercise can help remind us of our power and ability. So if you’re a new mom who feels woefully unequipped to tackle this mom thing (we all do at some point), try spending a couple of hours in a gym or group fitness class to help you remember all that you are physically capable of.

Reminder of Who We Are

One of the biggest mental health struggles women face in motherhood, beside sleep deprivation, is forgetting the fact that we are more than mothers.  Yes, being a mom is a full-time job, but there is always a part of our identity that needs to remain intact.  If we lose sight of that, it’s so much easier to feel like a failure when we yell, or trip over that stack of books we meant to put away, or pack our kids Cheerio’s for lunch when we realize that grocery store trip never happened.

Related Post: My B+ Mom Week

Placing our whole identity onto one part of our lives leaves us vulnerable.  But it’s easy to do when we’re needed 24/7.  Carving out time to train or work out reminds us that we have goals and interests outside of early childhood development.  It reminds us that we were whole people before we had kids, and that we are still more than another persons mom.  It helps us to remember that we have an identity outside and in addition to being a mom.  And in a world full of unrealistic expectations on moms and women in general, that can be very protective in terms of our mental wellbeing.

Opportunity for Time & Space

And speaking of being unique individuals with identities outside of “mom,” we all need some time and space away from being needed all the time. Every human needs some amount of alone time, and if you’re like me, you might need a lot. If I don’t make the time to get outside and run, the chaos of raising a 6 year old boy can turn me into a person who is not against kicking puppies. Sad, I know. I don’t want to be the person who kicks puppies. No one likes that person.

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But if I’m not careful and mindful, the chaos and noise gets overwhelming.  And I get cranky.  And then angry.  And then, well, hide your puppies.  Running and lifting give me alone time to breathe and process and not feel pressured or needed.  And then I don’t want to kick puppies.  Or start trashcan fires.  All good things.

Reminder That We Are Worth Caring For

A strange thing happens when you focus the majority of your time and energy on taking care of other people.  It becomes easy to forget that you are also a person.  And for that reason, you also need to be taken care of.  How many times have you seen a mom get everything ready for lunch, sit her lovely children down to eat, and then run to grab the paper towels when there’s a spill only to grab an apple juice refill.  And by the time lunch is done, she’s eating that leftover Poptart that was abandoned on the dresser 4 hours ago while she complains about how the trashcan is 3 feet away.

All that to say, working out is a form of self-care. And it is a reminder that we are worth caring for. We are worth the time set aside. We are not just care givers. But honestly, it is much easier to care for others when we are in a healthy place mentally and physically. Which is why I think working out regularly needs to be something sacred for moms. Setting aside an hour or two a day can have such significant impacts on your mental health, and that directly benefits everyone around you.

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So if you are a mom who is struggling, or if there is a mom in your circle that is having a rough time, have an honest conversation with your support system.  Let them know what you need and why, and create a plan.  Because motherhood is rough.  It is messy.  And it can break you if you’re not careful.

But tiny steps can get you moving in the right direction, and you are worth taking care of.

(If you’re looking for some recommendations on returning to running postpartum, please take a look at The Mother Runners, and this excellent post on A to Z Running.)

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