4 Ways Moms Can Prioritize Mental Health

It's no surprise that moms are burnt out as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. One expert shares her best tips for reducing stress and boosting mental health.

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Anita Andrews is managing 13 Google calendars. The Philadelphia-based mom of two is an director at Adobe, and since Covid upended school, childcare, and life in general, Andrews has relied more heavily on schedules—including one for each of her daughters, one for her husband, and one titled "Me Time"—to keep her family organized, and herself stress-free. As stress-free as possible while juggling her kids' virtual school and a full-time job, that is.

"That's the tactical way we've managed this year," she says, adding that it's helped her to accept she's not going to get it all done, all the time. "I realized really early on that we know these things are important—sleep, exercise, taking time for yourself—but you can't keep them all equitably treated in any given week."

Moms have turned to coping tools to maintain emotional health this year. That might mean staying more organized, or carving out slivers of time for a virtual therapy session, or a binge session of Real Housewives, alone, with a pint of Ben & Jerry's.

To say the past year and a half has been tough on parents is a whopping understatement, with many maintaining their own careers while also teaching math and PE lessons to cooped-up kids. And much of this is falling on moms.

Women are leaving the workforce in greater numbers than men, and according to a jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, all of the jobs lost last December were women's.

Though it looked like there might be glimmers of hope for a more normal fall school year, the surge of the Delta variant right as students return to the classroom has complicated things yet again. So it makes sense for moms to remember, as they prepare for the unpredictable, that taking care of your mental health is just as essential as your physical health.

"Remember that the brain and the body are all attached," says Rebecca Vlam, a licensed clinical social worker and a clinical assistant professor at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania.

One of her goals is to help destigmatize mental health through education. "The more we normalize the fact that people go through depression, and the more we set up potential services to support people, the healthier everyone's going to be," she says. "And that includes the kids."

Depression has tripled among adults in America amid the pandemic, but even if you've never experienced it, navigating the past year has been a burden on mental health in myriad ways. Below, Vlam offers her best tips for supporting and prioritizing your mental health right now.

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1. If you're feeling blue, contact your primary care provider

If you're not feeling like yourself, reach out to your regular doctor to let them know, suggests Vlam. "We have chemicals [in our brains], which are impacted by lots of different things," she says. Things like postpartum hormones, PMS, pandemic-induced burnout, or, say, the lack of a proper vacation in over a year.

"One of the ways that we can decrease the stigma is by having these discussions openly with people who know what they're talking about in our doctors' offices," she suggests. Your doctor can help you navigate the best course of action, whether it's recommending a support group, therapy, medication.

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2. Boost your support system

When Vlam's two children were babies, she spent a lot of time at a local park. "I lived to pack up my kiddos and take them to the playground, where I developed relationships with all of these other caregivers," she says. "Being a new mom, or being a mom in general, can be very isolating, and these outings stimulated my mind again."

While meeting new people on the playground may be tougher while we're all six feet apart, the social worker suggests seeking out a support group, either in person or virtually. A proliferation of online support groups this past year has made connecting with other adults a little more accessible. (Though, Vlam notes, this option is still only available to those who can afford the internet, a computer, and Zoom.)

One such resource, Postpartum Support International, offers weekly online support groups for new moms, with 14 specialty groups (including ones for military moms, South Asian moms, and one called Black Mamas Matter).

For moms with kids of any age, Mentally Strong Moms offers a six-week program that combines an educational course, support groups and one-on-one counseling to help give you resources to parent from your healthiest place.

Or for $60 a month, Sesh, a virtual mental health support app, gives you access to group therapy sessions led by licensed therapists. With a max of 14 participants in each, members can sign up for hour-long sessions covering topics like managing stress or postpartum support. For one-on-one therapy, try the Better Help app, which connects you to a counselor for virtual sessions.

"One of the most important things to keep you healthy is human connection that's outside of your child," says Vlam.

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3. Get any amount of exercise

According to Vlam, "getting regular exercise is the most difficult, but probably the most important" component in maintaining mental health — though it's especially hard for anyone who's suffering from depression to prioritize it.

And even if you're not depressed, squeezing in exercise can be especially tough for new parents, and, during this last year when most kids attended school virtually, parents of school-aged kids.

But even a small amount of exercise is shown to boost mood and may also reduce your risk of depression. And the good news for busy moms: it doesn't even have to be a long or grueling workout. "It could be walking around the block, or sitting in a chair in front of a TV doing arm aerobics," she says. "Just move your body."

If taking a swim class at your local YMCA or going on a long jog is too much of a time commitment right now, take heart. The pandemic has prompted many gyms and instructors to move online. Seek out a local favorite, or try searching YouTube or Amazon for anything from beginner workouts to HIIT or weight training. Obe Fitness has a slate of postpartum and restorative yoga classes (some as short as 9 minutes), and also offers an easy way to virtually work out with your friends, wherever they are.

4. Prioritize sleep

"Telling a new mom to get good sleep is absolutely ridiculous," Vlam says. But it's also crucial to maintaining mental health.

If you're out of the infant stage and you have pretty good sleepers on your hands, forgo streaming that last episode of Bridgerton and prioritize sleep instead. Other ways to help ensure a good rest: avoid heavy meals before bedtime (which can disrupt sleep), invest in a white noise machine, and exercise. Getting in a good sweat during the day not only helps boost your mood, it also improves sleep quality.

If you have trouble winding down at night, try a meditation app or learn more about how to calm your mind pre-bedtime.

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