The Surprising Connection Between Maternal Mental Health & Physical Well-Being
Updated: May 14, 2020
If you haven’t personally struggled with maternal mental health, chances are you know someone who has. According to recent estimates, 1 in 5 women experience symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), an umbrella term used to categorize the group of symptoms that can affect women through the entirety of pregnancy and postpartum. Of those women 50% will not seek help.
Many things contribute to maternal mental health and women’s experiences with depression, anxiety, and other conditions pre & postpartum. PMADs are often understood in the context of biological factors, such as hormones, genetics, and a history of mental health struggles. These are among the considerations that medical providers use in identifying and treating PMADs, but they’re not the only factors.
Lately, more attention has been paid to the importance of community connection and the support systems in place for mothers. LUNA was founded partly as an avenue of connection for mamas in our community, and we are so heartened when we hear from our members that LUNA has helped ease the transition into motherhood and lightened the accompanying mental load just a little bit.
Less often do we consider the physical components of maternal mental health. The fact is, our physical state during pregnancy and our healing after childbirth are intrinsically tied to our mental and emotional well-being. It’s certainly not the only contributor, but it’s more important than most people realize—and it’s where the full range of LUNA’s pregnancy & postnatal wellness classes comes in. Here are a few vital aspects of physical wellness that are directly related to maternal mental health, and some resources to help.
Pelvic floor dysfunction can contribute to depression. A 2019 study found a significant association between depression and pelvic floor disorders (PFD). Pelvic floor disorders are particularly common in pregnant and postpartum women, yet they often go undiagnosed and untreated. A recent study found that around 27% of US women had at least one pelvic floor disorder. Both hypertonic and hypotonic pelvic floor muscle tissue prior to pregnancy can present PFD during pregnancy in the form of incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, or pain. The probability that a woman will undergo surgical correction of POP (pelvic organ prolapse) by age 80 is estimated to be one in five.
One reason these conditions could contribute to mental health issues is that they are uniquely isolating. Despite being so common, many women hide the issue because the symptoms, such as incontinence, can be embarrassing. Couple this with physical pain and complications with sexual intimacy, and you can see how a PFD diagnosis comes with a significant mental load.
It doesn’t help that midwives and OBs aren’t well-versed in specific pelvic floor diagnostics and unfortunately do not refer to pelvic health specialists like pelvic floor physical therapists very often.
In my own experience, when I was around 6 weeks postpartum, I shared with my doctor that I was having the sensation of a tampon falling out of my vagina and was concerned that I might have a form of prolapse. (This was prior to my education and expertise.) My doctor looked at my labia (no internal assessment whatsoever) for about 5 seconds and said, ‘I don’t see anything falling out, you should be fine.’ This type of response is SO common. The silencing of women and their concern for their bodies is all too prevalent.
Knowing the importance of pelvic floor health, we make sure that every exercise within the LUNA program encourages effective pelvic floor function and/or rehabilitation. We’ve also partnered with experts in the field such as Alicia Willoughby, our resident pelvic floor physical therapist. Our pre and postnatal physical therapy programs on our app address all aspects of PFD and how to best support your physical well-being in pregnancy and postpartum. You can browse our library of resources for pelvic floor health here.
Postpartum pain is directly connected to mental health. All too often there is so little focus on the mother and her healing, both emotionally and physically after childbirth, and that has a direct impact on maternal mental health. Recent research shows that postpartum pain is linked to postpartum depression in mothers, with additional factors, such as experiencing perineal tears or C-section, and inadequate pain control after childbirth, also playing a role. For years the medical field had been focused on pain during childbirth, but recovery pain after labor and delivery had been overlooked. This 2018 study was the first to differentiate the two and identify pain as a significant risk factor for postpartum depression.
All of LUNA Mother Collective’s prenatal workouts, along with the Core Before series, address specific modifications for the pregnant body. By addressing pain or injury during pregnancy we can set ourselves up for a better healing and rehabilitation postpartum. Common injuries such as SPD (symphysis pubis dysfunction), SI joint pain (sacroiliac), sciatica, and diastasis recti are all addressed and given proper modifications to encourage pain management.
LUNA Mother Collective’s postpartum programs including the first 6 weeks (led by our resident midwife Georgia Noonan) and the early weeks postpartum (led by Alicia Willoughby) present a gentle return to healing and rehabilitation. We believe that providing women the space to heal with realistic expectations and education is a key benefit in supporting a mother’s overall well-being. You can browse LUNA’s full course offering and sign up for a subscription here.
A weak diaphragm leads to breathing that heightens anxiety. The breath offers a direct pathway to the nervous system and can affect our state of being in different ways. Breathing that’s short and rapid activates the sympathetic nervous system and causes stress hormones to kick into gear. Conversely, deep diaphragmatic breathing, which is the foundation of LUNA’s workouts and conditioning programs for the core and pelvic floor, activates the parasympathetic nervous system and helps lower blood pressure, drop heart rate, and encourage feelings of calm. As a bonus, if you are pregnant, your nervous system is directly linked to your baby’s nervous system, so as you are breathing using deep diaphragmatic breaths, you bring both your own and your baby’s nervous system back into the parasympathetic state.
The diaphragm is the primary respiratory muscle and it is a muscle like any other muscle in our body. If the diaphragm becomes underutilized, it weakens and shortens, which in turn creates a more shallow breathing pattern that leads to stress response and anxiety. After years of chest breathing, it takes consistent practice to retrain this muscle to work within full function and capacity, and that’s what the LUNA program offers. If you’re not sure how to do this, start with the diaphragmatic breathing fundamentals tutorial on LUNA’s subscription channel before moving on to daily workouts that leverage this specific breathing pattern in every movement.
Exercise has very real mental benefits, but it’s not always accessible. You’ve heard before that exercise is advantageous for mental well-being as well as physical, and this is even more true for mothers. A 2019 review of research concluded that physical activity during pregnancy and postnatal periods reduces risk of depression after birth of the child. Unfortunately, women may receive mixed messages about the risks and benefits of physical exercise during pregnancy.
During my high-risk pregnancy I was told by doctors to not exercise at all. I had always been an athlete, but I didn’t know anything about the benefits of exercise and diaphragmatic breathing during pregnancy so I followed their orders. I was scared, and when I asked questions as to why a lack of exercise was beneficial to my pregnancy I was met with generic answers like “better safe than sorry.” It was upsetting, to say the least, and I felt lost without any resources or support.
Some other hurdles preventing pregnancy and postpartum exercise include lack of time for self-care, and unanswered questions about how and when to return to exercise and address pain and injuries after childbirth. That’s why LUNA’s online program offers guided instruction and resources pertaining to your specific phase of life so that there is no question where you should start, what you should be doing or what is safe/effective for your body. Plus, it offers the convenience to access these resources online at any time, from anywhere.
Discover the Difference of LUNA Mother Collective
While the issues outlined here are sometimes overlooked in traditional pre & postnatal care, we are on a mission to change that. Our app offers a full array of workouts for pregnancy and postpartum, women’s health physical therapy tutorials, preparatory classes for childbirth and postpartum, and more. Take advantage of 7 days FREE on LUNA Mother Collective when you sign up today!
Also, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @lunamotherco stay up to date on the latest news and announcements and connect with other mamas in our community.