*Breathing in deeply*
It’s Midsummer’s Eve here in Sweden and, rather than sharing a festive recipe, I am sharing reflections from a deeply personal journey. I believe inspiration comes in many forms. I could show you a picture perfect side of my life, or talk only about the appealing side of things, or not share at all and keep things surface. I can’t edit myself or style my life the way I edit and style my food images. Personally, I question whether much of the content we come across online is really “inspirational” in a life-changing sense, or whether it serves rather to create more unhappy comparison, lowered self-esteem and greater distance between those who are #goals or #inspo and mere mortals.
I want to honour where I am in my own imperfectly perfect journey, right here and now. And there might be someone out there who relates to what I am about to share.
Going through all of the emotional and physical stuff I have been while being more active via social channels and more public with my life as a result has been hugely confronting. And, at times, I have had to draw upon all my self-love resources and all the tools I have learned and earned after literally years of self-help/therapy/conscious growth, etc, in order to not buy into negative self-talk and feelings of not enoughness.
I am currently 16 months postpartum and several things have led me to this point in my own health story; a point at which I’ve found myself refocusing attention on making positive, long-lasting changes through taking daily actionable measures… holding myself accountable and reaching out to others who “get it”.
I must begin this story by stating that I honestly did not mind eating more Thai take-away food and veggie burgers than could be considered balanced in the first weeks after bringing Oliver home from the hospital. I didn’t mind lounging around in bed eating beetroot chips and dark chocolate as I recovered from the birth experience and my husband simultaneously recovered from an accident (and broken ribs). It didn’t make me feel “bad” or lazy. I welcomed the opportunity to just bond and chill the heck out. It was a quiet, cosy, nurturing time that we spent cocooning with our third baby and the furthest thing from my mind was “bouncing back”, fitting into my old clothes or anything of that nature. I wanted to rest. And when I wasn’t resting, I wanted to nest. As seems to be the way with me when pregnant or immediately postpartum, I let my instincts take the lead. And it served me well during those first weeks.
HAVING IT ALL MEANS
BEING ABLE TO ENJOY HAVING IT ALL
Listening to my body hasn’t always been easy, but with concerted practice over several years, it has become more so. I moved through the initial healing from birthing – the stitches and so on – and, as time went by, I started to venture out a little more. My schedule began to fill up steadily (as it does!) and by autumn of last year I found myself in the eye of an anxiety storm. And it caught me completely off guard.
On the outside, things looked great; 3 healthy, happy children, loving husband, new home to move into, a course that I was studying (and loving), lots of opportunities (creative and professional) coming my way. I was grateful, happy and excited.
At the same time the overwhelm was immense. I developed urticaria (or “stress hives”) seemingly out of nowhere for the first time in my life and my immunity in general weakened. I didn’t even know what the hives were exactly, and at one point – as crazy as it may sound – I feared I was allergic to my baby Oliver, because I would break out in hives when he touched me. Of course, that supposition in itself was distressing. But not identifying that the stressful happenings in my life, exhaustion, anxiety and the hives were interconnected, I simply took antihistamines (which had only very limited effect), drank coffee and tried to soldier on.
At the culmination of this period I found myself at Arlanda Airport after about 45 minutes of sleep, literally shaking and fighting the impulse to be sick from extreme exhaustion, with 3 kids in tow facing a long-haul flight to America. I broke down in tears in the departure lounge and told my husband that I feared I was losing my mind. He responded calmly and earnestly, “You’re not crazy. You’re just really, really tired.”
It was only after we had travelled and settled into our new place (and I’d had time to sleep properly/reflect/be/breathe) that I realised the connection. The hives? They completely disappeared – no medication required. The anxiety, likewise. And then the residual postpartum weight started to shift also.
I don’t intend to suggest that anxiety of unmanageable proportions has been a constant since Oliver was born, but for many months there has been an undercurrent of not-100%-rightness that I have felt, both physically and emotionally. And this has been punctuated with seemingly random (though not random!) flare-ups of intense overwhelm. In any case, anxiety for me tends to be of the high functioning sort which sees me take on more in an effort to gain control of the situation. Which causes me more anxiety. Yay!
COMPARING MYSELF TO PREVIOUS VERSIONS OF ME
When Oliver turned 1, I couldn’t help but compare postpartum me of 2011 and 2013 with the current version. By the time Louie and Lillian where 12 months old, I had lost all of the so-called baby weight without any dieting and no overbearing exercise schedule. And I had a LOT of extra weight to lose (at the end of my 1st pregnancy, I weighed 102 kg and at the end of my second, 92-93 kg). My approach was balanced, my attitude was great. And it worked.
In the first image below I am 31 weeks pregnant (yes, I still had 9 weeks of pregnancy and weight gain to go) with Lillian (aka Cupcake) in December 2012. I have no idea how much I weighed as I don’t own scales, but I was well on my way to 92 kg.
I didn’t mind, by the way. For those of you who don’t know, my pregnancy will Lillian was high risk. I had a blood clot inside the wall of my uterus that was larger than she was, that caused massive intermittent bleeding episodes and threatened her very existence. Weight gain was the least of my worries. I was thrilled to make it to 31 weeks, fat ankles and all. As seems to be the case when the actual big stuff happens, you don’t sweat the “small stuff”.
The second and third images are of me at 10 months postpartum the following December, weighing 58 kg (according to my parent’s bathroom scales in Adelaide). I look tired because we had literally just arrived back in Australia after long-haul, non-stop travel from Sweden via Dubai during which I had become unwell… and then headed out to a party after arriving in Adelaide! But I was genuinely very happy. And yes, I am drinking lemon squash with actual sugar in it in the image below because I really did consume what I felt like (all things in moderation, of course).
And so, given my history with pregnancy weight gain and postpartum loss , at the end of pregnancy 3 I wasn’t worried when the hospital scale revealed I was back at 93 kg in February 2016. But in February 2017, at 12 months postpartum and still 10 kg overweight with a body fat percentage of 34, I started to suspect that something was amiss.
Despite healthy eating and partaking in regular exercise, the natural, gradual and rather effortless shift back to my normal weight had completely stalled. And, what’s more, I was waking up routinely at 2-4 am with a racing heart and mind. Yes, anxiety was back too, only wrapped in a different package. During the day I’d be out and about… there were social and food situations galore, particularly when we were traveling in America and Australia for 4.5 months. All the while I was operating within an uncomfortably juxtaposed emotional reality; a genuine sense of excitement/happy gratitude (seriously, it’s pretty darn amazing to be traveling the world with your husband and children, meeting and making friends wherever you go!) and an uneasy, persistent, damn annoying background hum of not-100%-rightness that would sporadically ignite into episodes of full blow anxiety.
Through my course (more on that later) I was learning about the connection between cortisol, anxiety, weight gain/retention and sleep. The modules on this very subject couldn’t have come at a more apt juncture in my life! It’s safe to say that between pregnancy insomnia, co-sleeping with babies/toddlers and breastfeeding on demand and working late at night to achieve things that I can’t with the kids around across a 7 year span of time, I have rarely – if at all – during this “motherhood period” had 8 consecutive hours of sleep.
And my natural response to feeling low energy or under the weather? Keep going! Heaven forbid, don’t stop or you’ll crash*!
*Which is exactly what tends to happen.
It’s a vicious cycle. And all the kale in the world wont cure it.
This is what it looks like for me:
Feel motivated and driven > take on too much > feel tired > drink coffee or exercise to increase focus and stamina > sleep less > feel anxious > try to regain some semblance of control > take on more obligations/must-do’s > feel increasingly tired and overwhelmed > caffeine becomes necessary for “functioning” (but causes unease) > exercise is done to maintain a sense of control/restore “normalcy” (but seems to heighten the “tired but wired” factor) > sleep situation worsens > immunity deteriorates > anxiety increases… and so it goes on.
THE ANXIETY+WEIGHT CONNECTION
Whether or not I have experienced full-blown adrenal fatigue, I’ve certainly experienced adrenal imbalance brought on by long-term stress (from lack of sleep/modern life/my own people pleasing tendencies, etc.). And adrenal imbalance causes both insulin and cortisol to remain elevated in the blood, leading to extra glucose being stored as fat. Guess where? That’s right; the tummy area. It’s a total myth that excess activity always leads to weight loss. In fact, when our adrenals are pushed to the max, we can remain stuck in a perpetuating cycle of excess weight/fat retention (more on that later!).
Add hypothyroid and breastfeeding hormones to the equation and what do you get? Weight (and a post-baby belly) that wont budge. Diastisis recti will only serve to amplify the visual effect of it all. As a result of the postpartum combo deal (weight gain deluxe with a side of hypothyroid and diastis smothered in cortisol, super-sized), I looked like I was in the second trimester of pregnancy for a good year postpartum!
Excess tummy is very normal after having a baby; I know this from personal experience (x 3). But I also know what it is for my body to find its own balance again and “release” excess weight naturally over time through sensible diet/exercise and breastfeeding.
What happens, however, when you do all the same stuff but the formula doesn’t add up to the same result? That’s where I have been the past few months, despite having come a long way if looking at the weight factor alone (which I do not).
My journey back to me is motivated by self-love and a desire to have balance in my life. And because I truly believe that the weight/sleep/emotional overwhelm/anxiety issue is actually the same thing in different manifestations, the only way for me to move forward has been to look at things holistically.
If it’s running on the performance/burn-out treadmill that perpetuates imbalance, then the cycle has to be stopped, firstly. Clearly I can’t abandon all my pursuits and responsibilities to go on a retreat or chant in a cave somewhere. After all, I have three young and very dependant children to care and provide for. I can, however, take simple actions towards prioritising myself again.
Jumping back to the topic of my course, some of you may be aware that I have been studying Health Coaching for the past year, for my own personal interest for the most part. It has been an absolute revelation, not merely in terms of knowledge acquired. The greatest lessons have been those of a personal growth nature. Having said that, one interesting fact that I learned in a recent lecture with Deepak Chopra* (*hello! I am still pinching myself that after years of doing his meditation experiences [as documented on this very blog], he is one of my lecturers!), that weight loss programs have a 24% success rate when a person engages solo, and a 55% to 66% success rate when done with emotional support. To me this is further proof of what I have seen to be true in my own life; that our physical and emotional lives are inextricably linked and taking care of both is the key to optimal health, balance and happiness. Health Coaches may refer to the non-nutritional elements that “feed” us as primary food. These things include our careers, relationships and spiritual practices. What we consume in terms of nutrition is referred to as secondary food. As a result of doing my course and practicing health histories and consults with other students, I have been getting ample support in various areas, particularly in primary food. I feel like I have been in therapy. In a good way. 😀
WHAT IS WORKING FOR ME:
ACHIEVING BALANCE WHILE DIMINISHING
PERINATAL ANXIETY & EXCESS WEIGHT
Looking at both my primary and secondary food areas, these are the things that have worked for me and have resulted in a MASSIVE reduction in anxiety (as in, I haven’t had it at all for a few weeks now!), a huge difference in my belly and simultaneous weight loss of around 5 kg over a 4 week period.
Eating healthy food at regular intervals. So not nothing at all, followed by massive meal, followed by endless snacks at midnight 😛 , in other words.
Cleansing. Eating “clean” in smaller portions. Drinking lots of water (more than I think I need!).
Eating nutrient dense foods for sustenance rather than reaching for something sugary/empty processed carbs/a caffeinated drink. This should be a no brainer for someone who has been around IQS circles as long as I have, but it still can happen.
If taking supplements works, I do it. I am not a big fan of taking medications for symptoms (unless absolutely necessary), but I don’t have any problem with adding certain supplements to my diet. These can included multi-vitamins (I took prenatal ones daily throughout all my pregnancies), probiotics and so on. Personally, I find zinc and B12 have a positive effect on me. And making sure I get enough vitamin D living in Sweden is crucial to my mental and physical health.
Disconnecting. I fully appreciate that these may not seem the easiest things to do in a fast-paced world with an A-Type drive, but I have started implementing a few simple things that are so easy to incorporate into my daily routine that it seems absurd not to do them. These include using the timer system to help me maximise my productivity while minimising my time engaging in one activity. For example, if I have email to respond to, I can set a timer for 30 minutes and attempt to cover as much as possible within that time frame. Once the timer goes off, I take a break, drink water and move on to something else. Another things that sets me on a good path for the day is morning meditation or breathing exercises. I am a huge fan of discovering simple meditation practices and yoga flows online (thank you, YouTube!) and there are several 10-minute practices that are great. Another is a simple breathing exercise that involves breathing in to a count of 4, holding the breath for a count of 7 and exhaling to a count of 8. This is a go-to of mine. It works.
Getting moving. In my experience, when my adrenals are under pressure, certain types of activities that I ordinarily love and gravitate towards only exacerbate the problem. Having said that, movement of some form always elevates my mood and is a natural vitality booster. I love running and hot yoga, but they don’t always love me back. In fact, during periods of anxiety they can add to the downward spiral and manifest in weakened immunity. Opting for walking, laps in a pool, yin yoga, Pilates or Body Balance classes can be much more health affirming during times of stress. The key is listening to my body.
Getting organised. I can’t tell you how much simply writing things out helps me clear the head clutter. What’s more, scheduling my day into digestible portions of time (such as allocating 30 minutes to answering email before taking a break or prioritising 10 minutes for breathing exercises) not only helps me curb my multi-tasking tendencies but also helps me focus as I am engaging in the activities that I have determined matter most. My day is more productive, my head space is clearer and any time left for just being can be enjoyed without guilt or an undercurrent of anxiousness about commitments left unmet.
I created my own daily plan with all my “minimums” included (such as drinking water, etc). I literally use a timer to keep track of my activities, lest I get sucked down the overcommitment rabbit hole.
Just stopping… and sleeping! We all know that an excess of belly can be a spin-off from pregnancy, but stubborn belly fat is also a common sign of adrenal fatigue. Not only does the stress hormone, cortisol, activate glucose, fats and amino acids to keep our body fuelled between meals, but it maintains blood sugar levels and helps our cells absorb glucose. Fat cells have special receptors for cortisol, and there are more of these receptors in our abdominal fat cells than anywhere else in our bodies. Thus our bodies can respond to the stress by inviting more fat to be deposited in this area, perpetuating the cycle of adrenal imbalance. One of the top recommendations for people suffering from adrenal fatigue is to simply slow down and rest as much as possible (aiming for 8–10 hours sleep per night if possible and maintaining a regular sleep pattern). Eating less food late in the day (when we eat, our cortisol levels are elevated), “unplugging” from all technology two hours before bed and trying to be asleep by 10 pm are all simple ways to promote a better quality of sleep and deeper rest.
Focusing on joy. In the midst of emotional crisis and times of healing, there are still things to be grateful for. Gratitude lists and affirmations have served me well for the past 18 years and, although ideally I would do them daily, I will always come back to them in times of need. Having fun, lightening up, laughing and indulging in pastimes that are enjoyable should be prioritised as a matter of self-love and self-care. For me this means cuddles with my kids, fun family activities (such as cooking together), and scheduling time for creative pursuits and exercise.
Decluttering. My anxiety kicked off in full force around the time we were getting ready to sell our last home. It’s when the boxes started emerging from storage that the extent of our possessions (and my overwhelm) met with the light of exposure. I’d long considered us to be minimalists of a fashion. But no. We had stuff. It was just hidden from view. With every box that emerged from our basement came an added sense of emotional heaviness, a mental burden (“What the heck are we going to do with this stuff?”) and a physical, logistical issue of moving/clearing/rearranging. And that’s where Marie Kondo and the KonMari method came into my life. I will share more on that in future posts (an entire blog could be dedicated solely to her method). Suffice to say, it works. I describe the experience as being semi-traumatic and ultimately utterly liberating. I wont go into the clutter and excess weight correlation in this post, but there most definitely is one!
Saying no and setting boundaries. This has been a challenge and a theme in my life for, well… my whole life! Interestingly, just as I was in the process of drafting this post, I took a short break and this article from The New York Times immediately popped up in my Facebook feed.
“Humans are social animals who thrive on reciprocity.
It’s in our nature to be socially obliging, and the word no feels like a confrontation that threatens a potential bond.
But when we dole out an easy yes instead of a difficult no we tend to overcommit our time, energy and finances.”
That absolutely resonates. But for me, as a highly sensitive person with a Type A drive combined with people-pleasing predisposition, I have been known to take “yes” to extremes. And pay dearly for it.
And so I am practicing not only that art of saying no, but saying no without justification/guilt. F.R.E.E.D.O.M!
WHERE I AM AT TODAY
I am still a work in progress in every way (as are we all), but in terms of the physical manifestation of the changes I have made in my life recently, I thought it would be interesting to share what has occurred over a one month period. I feel it MUST be said that weight loss has not been my primary goal. I’d rather be slightly overweight, comfortable in my own skin, happy and kind to myself and others than skinny, desperate, unhappy, burdened with self-loathing and riddled with projected judgements of others.
However, for the past few months I haven’t been entirely happy… or comfortable in my own skin. No one with the anxiety levels I had could be! And, as mentioned earlier, I instinctively knew that postpartum weight retention, exhaustion and anxiety were connected in my case. I was convinced that addressing one issue would automatically mean addressing all of them.
As has been the case throughout most of my adult life, the changes I have made have come from a place of self-love rather than self-hate. So that’s my disclaimer.
I am not sharing a perfected, filtered version of reality to make someone else feel bad. I am sharing this because hopefully someone out there can relate (and may possibly feel less alone in their own health/postpartum journey).
I am actually rather shocked when I compare these images, especially considering that during the month these changes have taken place I have embarked on long-haul travel, eaten far more food than I would have otherwise while on our cruise with Royal Caribbean (albeit on the healthier side [more on that in a future post]) and come down with a couple of colds (thanks nursery school germs! 😛 ) that have prevented me from exercising for a week and a half in total.
My husband took the pictures and though we tried to replicate the first stance/angle/position and shoot at the same time of day, of course we couldn’t 100%. The images are un-retouched, entirely unglamorous, utterly unflattering and feature messy morning hair (not Instagramable “styled messy”), 14 year-old leggings and a 6 year-old nursing bra. How’s that for #keepingitreal 😛 ? It’s uncomfortable enough sharing this as it is, so if unkind comments pop into your head, please feel free to leave them there.
I still have a few kilos (3 or so) to lose to be back at my so-called ideal weight (according to BMI charts, not according to a self-imposed number). The diastisis recti is a work in progress but definitely in better order and I continue to do certain exercises specifically to heal it. As you may be able to see, I still have a linea nigra (the dark line that can appear on the belly during pregnancy due to hormones) and stretch marks (which I did not acquire so many of during pregnancies 1 and 2). It will be interesting to see what happens with those things over time. Feeling good and emotionally stable as I do right now, I am in no hurry. Plus they don’t really bother me.
My skin does at times, however. Here are two images to show you what I consider to be a pretty amazing transformation. Image 1 was taken on the same day as the ‘before’ pictures you see above. Image 2 was taken on the same day as the ‘after’ images. Yes, I have some freckles and hyper-pigmentation (mostly acquired during my pregnancies, as is common), but as you can see, skin that was arguably extra “hormonal” is now “clear”, less puffy and more hydrated.
There have been invisible physical changes too. For example, I had a health check done before we travelled and my metabolic age had gone from 42 to 33. Over a 3 week period.
How can I not believe that all my issues are interconnected? It is glaringly obvious.
To sum up, for me a cleanse or reboot goes beyond drinking juice for a couple of days or eating raw food/low carb/soup/grapefruit/bananas for a couple of weeks. If things don’t happen holistically for me – if the root causes of an issue remain unexplored – the solutions I apply to the problem are proverbial band aids without longterm impact. The saying goes that happiness is an inside job. And I agree. But that “inside job” can have external manifestations too (hence including the images in this post)!
If you’d like me to share more about this particular journey of mine, let me know.
And regardless of where you are on your path, I send you thanks for your time spent reading this and I wish you a happy Midsummer/Midwinter!
❤ Marisa xx
*For your reference, non-metric people, 102 kg is 224,872 pounds and that is the most I have weighed as a result of pregnancy (or at all).