Postnatal mental health care, from a Chinese Medicine perspective.
Anna McMullen BHSc. CM
Having worked as a Chinese medicine practitioner for over twelve years, I've been lucky to have been able to work with countless women as they move through their fertility journey. I've honed my practice, by learning from some of the very best fertility practitioners in Australia and around the world, from within my own field as well as practitioners in the fields of integrative medicine and conventional medicine.
Within my field, I am known for my experience in supporting natural fertility and IVF. I work with patients as they prepare themselves to conceive and then as they are trying to fall pregnant. I work with pregnant patients to support them and ease discomfort during their pregnancy. I can help support pregnant bodies to become ready for labour, and even work with patients who are hoping to encourage labour to begin.
Each step along the way, supporting the emotional wellbeing of my patients is at the forefront of my mind and my treatment principles.
What you may not be aware of, is I am also able to support women during the postnatal period.
Today I’d like to talk to you about women’s mental health in the postnatal period, including:
the way pregnancy and birth impacts the mother
how Chinese medicine views postnatal mental health
some simple ways of supporting a woman as she heals
what to do if you suspect postnatal depression or anxiety may be impacting you or a loved one
and how I can help
The impact of pregnancy and birth on mental health
Pregnancy can be extremely taxing on a woman's body. This is accentuated by the impact of birth itself, whether vaginal or via caesarean section. There is a huge loss of Qi and blood during birth which leaves the mother in a weakened state.
This is true even in a complication-free vaginal delivery.
So imagine the impact on the body if there are significant complications. Imagine the impact on the emotional state if the birth is traumatic in some way. Imagine the impact on a mother to go through trauma at a time when her body is already under huge duress.
Post natal depression and anxiety, birth trauma and related PTSD are all conditions which can arise in the post natal period. They can affect up to one in five women here in Australia. That’s around 100,000 families a year. Symptoms usually appear in the days or weeks following the birth, but can take up to a year.
Sometimes it can be difficult to see what is happening. Symptoms such as exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, worrying about the baby and fluctuating emotions can be a normal response to sleep deprivation and the lifestyle adjustments which come part and parcel with a new baby.
However, feelings of anxiety, insomnia and exhaustion even when getting adequate sleep can be indicators of mental health imbalances. Feelings of anxiety, fear or grief when reflecting on the birth can be signs of birth trauma.
Often, there can also be complicated feelings of guilt or shame at ‘not coping’, or at having what could be perceived as negative emotional responses during what ‘should’ be a beautiful, joyous time.
Please remember, postnatal mental health issues are real illnesses. These emotions, these symptoms are not a reflection of someone's worth as a parent. They are illnesses, and they can be treated.
The Chinese medicine take on postnatal care
Chinese medicine sees mental health as being interconnected with physical health. This is especially the case with postnatal mental illness. The depletion which occurs during pregnancy and birth makes it extremely difficult for the body to gather and hold the resources necessary to support the mind and the emotions.
This is then aggravated by the demands of caring for an infant. In many cases mothers have very little in the way of assistance or support with these demands. Mothers are expected to ‘get on with it’, despite the fact that they are in recovery from labour and birth and/or major surgery!
In Chinese medicine, we work to help rebalance the bodies energy. When working with a patient, I look at the things going on in patients’ life which may be either supporting or aggravating their mental health.
The way we look at the workings of the body is a little bit different from conventional medicine. Our focus is on the relationships within the body, the way organ systems interrelate and affect the person as a whole. This means sometimes we can help patients understand the way their body works in a slightly different way, to see how physical symptoms and the emotions might be connected. Seeing these connections means we are able to offer personalised guidance on lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and sleep hygiene; all important factors for supporting mental health.
Simple diet tips to support new mums
In the post natal period, it’s really important women are eating the right foods to help support their recovery from birth and the transition to motherhood.
Avoiding cold, raw and icy foods and drinks is important from the Chinese medicine point of view, as the body is depleted and this can further deplete the digestive energy. Choose warming, nourishing foods to help boost the digestion and strengthen the body. Herbs and spices such as cinnamon can be used to help warm the body and channel system, and fresh ginger can be eaten in abundance! It’s one of the best herbs for postnatal mothers as it warms the channels, boosts circulation and supports the immune system.
The Chinese medicine offering for postnatal care
A Chinese medicine consultation is also a safe space for patients to speak openly about the physical ailments and emotional distress they are experiencing. When working with a patient, I use Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) techniques to help patients challenge and release beliefs or thought patterns which are not useful for them.
Most importantly, acupuncture treatments are deeply relaxing. They are a great way to help patients let go and unwind.
It’s an opportunity to be completely still and at rest, time that is solely for the mother herself. Having this time is wonderful for new mothers.
What to do if you or someone you love is suffering from postnatal mental health issues
If you have recognised or suspect this is happening to you or a loved one, it is important to seek help as soon as you can. PANDA - Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia are a good place to start. They have checklists to help you figure out whether what’s going on is anxiety or depression. You can access the checklists here:
(While this article is focussed solely on post natal mental health care for women, men can also be affected. Statistics show up to 1 in 10 are affected. PANDA has a lot of great resources to support men’s post natal mental illness, and many of the suggestions here are also appropriate for men.)
The next step would be to visit your GP to make sure that your physical wellbeing is supporting your mental health. Physiological markers such as iron, vitamin D and thyroid should all be checked. If they are out of balance they can aggravate mental health issues. Talking with a counsellor who is experienced in postnatal mental health can also be useful.
These are just some of the things I recommend to my patients if they are needing help with their mental health in the postnatal period. They are accessible to all and a great place to start the healing journey.
The importance of postnatal care and support for women cannot be overstated. The old adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is indeed true. So what can the village do for a woman suffering from post natal mental illness?
My suggestion is to begin by talking with them about what you’re noticing. Be open and willing to hear what ever it is they want to tell you. If birth has been traumatic, do not offer sentiments such as ‘the baby is safe, that’s the main thing.’ This can be extremely damaging to someone who is in the midst of trauma. Try not to minimise or explain away symptoms or feelings, just simply listen. Try to respect their experience, even if it is upsetting to you.
If you’re unsure what to say, be honest and tell them that. Let them know you are there for them and will support them in getting the help they need. Supporting their physical needs can also be really helpful. Providing meals, snacks or help with cleaning can help reduce the load, giving them more space to heal.
When it comes to postnatal mental health issues: the earlier you seek treatment, the better. If there is only one thing you take from this article, let it be this: don’t delay seeking help.
Whether you are suffering yourself or concerned about a loved one, there is nothing to be ashamed of. There is no need to feel there is a stigma associated with these illnesses. The statistics here in Australia indicate just how common they are. They are illnesses, and with the right treatment women with postnatal mental health issues can, and do, heal and recover.
Anna McMullen offers acupuncture, Chinese medicine and NLP at Heathmont Chinese Medicine on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
If you'd like to make an appointment with Anna you can book below.