Covid Babies and Postpartum Depression from Chinese Medicine Perspective
I can hardly believe it’s been two years already since we were having a normal family Christmas dinner. I look back at the pictures of that last care-free Christmas with a feeling of nostalgia. We had no idea how valuable it was just being together without the anxiety and fear of pandemic. I truly believe we have been in a collective depression for the past two years. Everyday I wonder how come I’m not hanging out more with others and it dawns on me that it’s because of Covid. It’s lurking under every aspect of our lives and now we make decisions based on it without even realizing.
Add to this the isolation of a new mother, not being able to give birth with your loved ones around you, or your family visiting if they live abroad or have health issues. Then the lack of support from new mothers’ groups, breastfeeding circles, library reading events or even indoors playdates. Last year even the playgrounds were empty. I’m sure a lot of mothers, resilient as we are, find a way
to get the support they need and socialize with the most important people in their lives. But there is a massive amount of preparation and planning for that, from creating pods, the lack of home tests, the fear of having unvaccinated kids around grandparents. Adding to that the Covid scare every time someone has a runny nose. All this planning and anxiety eats away at our limited amount of energy we have after we care for our babies all day and night. In fact the rate of postpartum depression during covid is significantly higher than previous years according to studies.
So here I want to focus on depression from the Chinese Medicine perspective. Focusing primarily on postpartum depression but keeping in mind that dads can also go through this and even people with older kids, or no kids at all.
Like any other Western Medicine diagnosis, depression is a broad term that can include many different patterns from the Chinese Medicine perspective. The main two categories being an excess condition and a deficiency condition. Clearly if a condition is an excess, meaning there is stagnation in the system, too much heat, cold, or phlegm. The body fluids are not moving properly and they become thicker over time and turn into phlegm. The best indication is looking at the tongue and if there is a thick coat, the pattern is an excess. (See my blog on Tongue Diagnosis) Mentally one can be stuck, feeling possessed, obsessed, with blocked emotions, or just heavy with lack of motivation. On the other end of the spectrum in a deficient pattern, there is not enough energy or blood to keep one happy and engaged. The negative emotions take over, also one might feel nothing, detached with no love, and no emotions, since there is not enough blood to keep one connected to one’s heart.
Classically the deficient pattern is what we attribute to postpartum depression, since one loses blood and energy during birth. In addition, a lot of time one is exposed to cold during birth and cold congeals blood, delays healing and creates stagnation on a deeper blood or organ level in addition to the deficiency of blood and energy. This is a third option where both excess and deficiency exist at the same time.
In a more detailed picture each organ and the function of it is considered to play a role. If the excess is on an energetic level, mostly the liver is managing that. In this case one feels stressed and holding the breath, there might be pain on the side of the ribs. There might be anger if the stagnation creates heat. A lot of times there is anger brewing under the depression and it comes out from time to time in an attempt to shake off the stagnation and rise the energy. If the blood is involved, the pathology is on a deeper level than just energy. The blood is a thicker substance and it takes more time and energy to build it and move it. If there is stagnation of blood, heat in the blood or not enough blood, the heart will be affected. There might be some chest pains or palpitations. If there is a lot of anxiety and thoughts going round and round preventing one from sleeping, the digestion needs to be assessed. Finally if there is grief and sadness the lungs are bearing the weight. But if the sadness is turned to self pity and coldness that creeps deep and one not able to spark any warmth of hope, the kidneys are also involved. The kidneys are involved if there is fear, shock or trauma leading to depression. Depression affects the spirit in addition to the body. You can see the spark missing in the eyes. That spark is “Shen” or spirit in Chinese Medicine and is directly connected to the heart and the most important aspect of being human.
The treatment is to move the stagnation and to nourish the deficiency. If both exist at the same time one can alternate treatments but always starting with moving stagnation first since nourishing an excess condition can make it worse. Acupuncture activates the inner healing of the body and spirit. Acupuncture can create a euphoric feeling that lasts up to 72 hours. It increases the energy and helps one think more clearly and hopefully in times of despair. It also helps move emotions. Often people are able to shed tears during the session or shortly afterwards. Sometimes bouts of hidden anger comes out after a session. Also in cases of fear and trauma nourishing and warming herbs can start a spark in an otherwise congealed nervous system. Add to that the element of touch and face to face sharing of one's heartache which to me is the central element in a healing journey.
So how can we help ourselves in this time of pandemic depression? I can only share what has worked for me so far besides weekly acupuncture treatments: Creating a steady exercise habit that is not too intense but that keeps me outside at least three times a week, even on cold days. Also continuing my yoga practice three days a week inside, and a fifteen minute deep breathing meditation every night. Making sure I’m taking supplements and vitamins and eating well. I’m taking vitamin C, B, D, Omegas, Calcium, Magnesium and probiotics everyday. I also added a creative musical practice a few times a week where I can just let go of my mind. In addition I put a lot of energy and effort in creating a sense of community. Scheduled or impromptu play dates outside, zoo visits, nature hikes or walks, and time at the playground infuses the day with positive energy. Having a few other moms around me that I feel close to has been a game changer in the past two years.
Looking back at the pictures from Christmas of 2019, my eyes get teary, but I feel stronger. I became closer to a lot of people in our “covid pods”, I witnessed some major ups and downs, and I am grateful for all the family and friends who have shared this journey.
lastly I want to share this story from Margaret Mead that touched my heart from one of her students:
Early in my career I heard a lecture from the anthropologist Margaret Mead. “What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?” she asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? “These are all early signs,” she continued, “but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.” High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had been fractured, and then solidly healed.
“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find clues of violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”