Last week, from my kitchen, I spoke to a mothers’ group in Colorado about moms’ mental health. During Q&A, a woman asked a question that she was concerned might sound a little harsh – but I thought was valid. She said that often women get out of the early childhood stage, start speaking, and write books with helpful tips that they know in hindsight (Yes. That’s exactly what I did.) But, she asked, are any of us really able to do what you’re telling us? I mean, how much control do we really have over our lives?
What a fantastic question! The topic I was speaking on was called “What Can Post Partum Depression Do For You?” When I was diagnosed with PPD, it became a gift that showed me that I needed help – after 10 years of struggle with chronic anxiety and depression, which I never had named. The gift that PPD keeps on giving me, is I now understand that daily practices beat out big gestures every day of the week when it comes to mental health. Daily vigilance to one’s own needs and weaknesses is the key.
So, I teach women how to name their “crazy factor.” I know that's not the most sensitive word, but it's memorable so that's why I use it. The question is, what is the element that will make push you over the edge, bring you down, steal your joy and rob you of your ability to make sound judgements if it is absent from your life. All of our thinking gets distorted if we don't take care of our bodies, minds and souls. Possible options for your must-have mental health ingredient: Good quality and quantity of sleep, time with friends, alone time, getting exercise, good nutrition, and the opportunity to finish a creative project or other work you find meaningful. These elements are ideal for all people’s mental health, but each of us needs them to varying degrees and has varying priorities.
I also asked them to name their Negative Crazy Factor: The element that will make them crazy if it’s present in their life. Toxic relationships should be on everyone’s list. But other options are having too packed of a schedule, too much negative input from people, or too much input in general (social media and news binges are well-documented as being bad for our mental health). But again, some people are triggered more by one than another.
Some of these are easier to control. Others, not so much.
This mom of two small children, one still an infant, wanted to know, how could she really control her crazy factors? She said, and I’m paraphrasing, that she was in her early forties and was well aware that too much noise made her feel way over-stimulated, but small children make noise all the time. What’s a mom to do? Preach. I can’t tell you how deeply I sympathized with this question. There’s actually a name for the kind of noise sensitivity I have: misophonia, and it’s common among people who have anxiety and depression, a lovely result of the same brain issues that cause other symptoms. People with misophonia experience disproportionate feelings like fear and even rage when they are around certain types of sounds. (You can read about it here in a post called “Nails on a Chalkboard” https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/misophonia/). When my kids were little, Jeff suggested we try locking me in a small box with loud noises to desensitize me. To which I replied, “Haven’t we been doing that since the kids were born?” That was, in fact, not a good solution. Just like learning to “tolerate” things that trigger your anxiety and depression doesn’t work either.
This is why we have to name those crazy factors. Because though we can’t fully eradicate these threats to our mental health, we can work to do two things:
1. Minimize them. In the case of noise, I banned all electronic, jingly, rattly toys from my house. I just could not be a nice person and have a baby playing a synthesizer at the same time. I also often chose to give the kids all their screen time while I was making dinner because their whining and chatter while I was cooking made me – quite literally – crazy at the end of the day.
2. Make up for the things we can’t control by prioritizing those things we can. While you can’t banish all noise from your house when you have littles (and you wouldn’t want to restrict your babies this way), you can prioritize alone time in which you can reset your nervous system. While you may not be able to get quite enough sleep in certain seasons (Teething babies are not concerned about your crazy factor), you might be able to bulk up on something else to raise your spirits: an extra effort to eat well or see a fun and comforting friend you can talk to.
What we don’t want to do is ignore these needs or hope they go away. Nor do we want to try to rely on big events, holidays, or grand gestures to make us feel better. (Ask young moms how relaxing Christmas, vacations, or big birthdays actually are for them.)
What Can Post-Partum Depression Do For You: It is my least popular topic. Even though roughly 25% of women in this country will take antidepressants over the course of their lives, and the fact that women who have given birth are three times more likely to experience depression than other women their age, no one really wants to spend their “day off” with other moms talking about it. Because it can be, well, depressing. But ultimately, addressing this, as any other weakness, can be a gift.
And in this way, 2020 has been a gift most of us would rather not have unwrapped. Mental health issues are confronting all of us and we can choose to address them or be mastered by them. Like early childhood stage, we can’t control all the crazy factors that are present, and can’t get to all the things that used to bring down our stress. But we can make a plan to minimize the negative influences and maximize the positive influences. God bless you this week as you seek peace and stability the best way you know how.