Pandemic parenting: why mums are burning out and strategies to recover

By Carole Bradshaw and Dr Benita Perch (ND)

If you feel stressed and sad at times, be assured you’re not alone. Almost two years in and the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on maternal mental health. There is no end of research highlighting the disproportionate and devastating effects the pandemic has had on mums at every age and stage in Hong Kong and around the world.

As practitioners, we’ve seen myriad mums trying hard to be superwomen, long before the Covid-19 virus shook the world. Superwoman Syndrome is real: in many families (not all, we know), the never-ending mental load falls squarely on mothers’ shoulders: the thinking, planning, organizing, and emotional labour of keeping a family and home running. Many mums were already stretched thin, particularly working mums. Then the pandemic hit and – burdened with even more roles and responsibilities – the fragile support systems they had in place to help them cope started to crumble.

Whether you’re a stay-at-home mum, a working mum, or – with the boundaries between work and home now blurred – both, pandemic parenting is causing many mums to buckle and burn out.

Some of the challenges that mothers are facing include:

  • The loss of control and ongoing uncertainty over school schedules, community outbreaks, and quarantine regulations
  • The return or prospect of returning to remote learning
  • The constant needs and schedules of family members
  • The restrictions around travel, preventing families from taking a much-needed break or spending time with loved ones abroad
  • Separation from partners, children, parents, and siblings in different parts of the world
  • A dysfunctional home environment
  • The work-life juggling act (as if it wasn’t challenging enough before!)
  • Pressure to leave the workforce or downshift careers
  • Job losses or income losses
  • The emotional toll of caring for stressed and anxious children (stressed kids equals stressed mums)
  • The sense of not being able to switch off, rest and recharge
  • A sense of being alone and lonely. For a lot of people, their window of tolerance is narrower, and they don’t have the capacity to support each other or demonstrate empathy as they might have done in the past.

It’s ok to not be ok. But it’s not ok if you’re on the brink of burnout.

Whilst it’s natural and normal to feel occasional bouts of stress, tiredness, and anxiety, it’s not ok to burnout. Burnout is a state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged periods of stress. Left unmanaged, it can make it increasingly difficult for you to cope with everyday life. Long-term, burnout can cause serious harm to your hormonal, digestive, nervous, immune, and reproductive systems.

What are some of the common signs of burnout?

Here are some of the red flags that can indicate you are burning out:

What to do when you’re starting to feel burned out

In normal times, we would encourage you to step away from the stressors that are causing or contributing to burnout for some time. This can allow you the space and time to rest, recharge, reevaluate, and recalibrate.

But we understand these are not normal times. The stressors keep coming and some, if not all of them, are out of our control.

Hope is not lost. IMI, we take an integrated healing approach to your wellbeing. Your mind, emotions, body, environment, sense of purpose, energy, and community are the seven pillars of optimal health and wellness. By taking care of each of these pillars, you can recharge and start to feel mentally well again.

Strategies to overcome burnout

As working mothers ourselves, we know real self-care goes way beyond face masks and bath bombs. Real self-care isn’t a once-in-a-while reward or indulgence; it’s an essential component of mental wellbeing. Here, we share a variety of strategies that you can use to protect against burnout. Taking even one small step at a time can soon add up to a giant leap forward.

Body

  • Homeopathic remedies and herbs can help to nourish your body and ease your mind. Adrenal herbs to help your body cope with stress include Ashwaghanda and siberian ginseng; nervine herbs to nourish your body include lavender and lemon balm. These can bolster your resilience to help you through your day.
  • Nutrients such as B vitamins, Magnesium, Vitamin C, Zinc and fish oils can all help to boost the serotonin and dopamine needed by your brain to support a happier and positive outlook.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Ditch the digitals at least one hour before bedtime; ensure your room is cool and dark and aim to get at least eight hours of sleep. Of course, we recognise this may not be enough to beat insomnia. Implementing some or all the strategies outlined below can help you. If you need a personalized plan, we suggest scheduling a consultation with one of our naturopaths.
  • Move for mental health. Physical exercise (we recommend a blend of both yin and yang exercises) and walks in nature are proven ways to boost mental health. If stress is causing aches and pains like back, neck or shoulder pain, our osteopaths can support you with cranial therapy.

Emotions

  • As the psychologist Carl Rogers shared: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Accepting your feelings, rather than ignoring or suppressing them, is the first step to restoring emotional wellbeing. If you can meet your emotions, and really feel them, you can allow them to pass through you.
  • The right relationships can heal. Family or friends that can listen with empathy, meet you where you are at emotionally, and be with you in your moments of despair can help to buffer your stress response, slowing the release of cortisol (stress hormone) and allowing your nervous system to settle and become calm.
  • But even the most well-intended or typically compassionate friends may not have the ability or capacity to offer a trusted and non-judgmental safe space for you to feel and heal, particularly in these more testing times. Our mental health practitioners can hold space for you and the despair you’re feeling. They can help you identify the resources that can help to sustain you and develop the practical support you need to regain balance.

Mind

  • Say yes to the sustainers and no to the drainers. Prioritise what sustains you, be it reading books, walks in nature, exercise, or time with friends. And be honest about what drains you such as certain people, social media, or news bulletins. If possible, step back from the drainers to protect against the stress they cause.
  • Mindfulness and meditation are a proven antidote to stress. They release the happy chemicals serotonin and dopamine in your brain to restore a sense of calm. If you’d like to join a mindfulness community, we host free Monday Mindfulness sessions led by experienced practitioners both online and at our clinic.
  • Let go of perfectionism. At the best of times, perfectionism can cause overwhelm and a sense of feeling like you’re ‘not good enough’. Be kind to your mind by pacing yourself and identifying and addressing what needs to be done on any given day.

Environment

  • There are multiple benefits of spending time in nature. It’s proven to increase happiness, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve energy and productivity. Plus, it’s known to boost immunity, which can take a massive hit when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
  • It’s also important to spend some time in the sun. Known to increase the brain’s release of serotonin (the happy hormone), natural daylight reduces stress, curbs anxiety, and improve sleep. It’s also a great source of Vitamin D, which many Hong Kongers are short of. To improve your mood, go out in the sun or at least allow natural light into your home or workspace.
  • As much as possible, steer clear of toxins. Food, lifestyle choices, digital devices, friendships and more. Depending on what you are exposed to, these can either help or harm your mental health.

Spirit

  • Spirit often means different things to different people. For each of us, there is that special something that soothes the soul, brings calm to the chaos, and nurtures compassion for self and others. It might be prayer or voluntary work, the arts or sports. Whatever is it, it’s essential for your wellbeing to stay connected with it.
  • As mums shoulder the weight of their family’s needs, many share they’ve lost their sense of purpose – be at home, at work, or in life.  A sense of purpose can be the light to guide you through the darkness. Our executive and wellness coaches can help you to find or reconnect to your sense of purpose.

Energy

  • When you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or emotionally drained, the right remedy and dosage of homeopathy can help to rebalance emotions and restore confidence. Our homeopaths can prescribe the best remedy to support your mental health needs, taking into consideration your medical history, lifestyle habits, and personality,
  • Osteopathy, craniosacral therapy and acupuncture are all gentle therapies that can help increase your energy, soothe your nervous system, and restore mental and emotional balance.
  • Practicing yoga, Kirtan or Tai Chi can also help to unblock and encourage the flow of energy throughout your body.

Community

  • When you’re exhausted or overwhelmed, your first instinct may be to retreat. For some mums, this can help them to conserve energy. But if you hibernate for too long, you can start to feel unhappy and alone. Mothers with strong support from their communities are proven to have lower levels of stress and greater optimism about parenting. Our brains are wired to connect: strong social ties can help to protect against the detrimental effects of stress on your mental health. This is known as stress buffering.
  • Your community can remind you that you are not alone, that we are all in this together, and that we can all get through this together. Whilst in-person interactions are ideal, online communities (the uplifting, positive kind!) can promote a sense of belonging too.

If the pressures of parenting during the pandemic are weighing you down and you would like expert support, please reach out. Taking every aspect of your wellbeing into consideration, we can partner with you to create a personalised plan that protects and strengthens your mental wellbeing now and in the months ahead. Contact our integral health advisor for a free, no-obligation conversation to determine the most appropriate service or practitioner to help you forward on your journey to recovery and renewed resilience.

About Carole Bradshaw

Carole is IMI’s Brand and Concept Director and Core Process Psychotherapist. She integrates early developmental psychology with mindfulness and awareness practice in her psychotherapy sessions. Prior to this Carole has over a decade of teaching experience in mindfulness and yoga. Before discovering the health and wellness professions, she held leadership roles in the corporate and public sectors and understands the challenges that people face in an increasingly demanding and pressured world.

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