Pregnancy and Postpartum

Drinking and Postpartum Depression

Your world feels chaotic and there’s no escape. There are endless hours between naps, feedings and the constant fatigue. There is no one around to talk to and you feel overwhelmed and frustrated all the time. Having one more drink feels awful, but it gives you that escape you’ve been craving. Sound familiar?

Whether you want to call it an addiction or not, you’re noticing that you’re drinking more than usual. What was initially meant as a treat at the end of the day is starting to become a coping strategy (and, unfortunately, this one comes with some consequences).

If this sounds like your life right now, I get that you’re really struggling. This post is not about judging you or telling what is right or wrong. Addictions is hard. Postpartum depression is hard. For those who are in these circumstances, I hope the following post provides you some clarity and empowerment.

What is drinking doing for you?

Attempts to Self-Soothe:

Life feels chaotic and things feel too difficult to manage. There needs to be an end. It’s not possible to stay hyper-alert forever. You can’t always be watching the baby sleep. It’s overwhelming to be so stressed out at every feed. Drinking helps to balance your window of tolerance. When you’ve become a ball of stress, your body craves a way to settle down. So, a part of you turns toward drinking to help you calm down and relax.

Alcohol is an effective depressant. It forces your body to slow down giving that reprieve you desperately crave. In this way, drinking is an attempt to self-soothe. It’s a coping mechanism for helping slow down, numb out, or block off whatever it is you don’t want to address. You can’t necessarily leave the baby. You don’t want to call it quits as a parent. Drinking provides that mental escape when physical escape is just not possible.

Gabor Mate quote on addiction. Addiction as a coping mechanism during postpartum months. Addressing trauma to address addiction.

Lack of Internal Trust

If you’ve experienced enough trauma, neglect, shame or hardships in your life, you are likely aware that your internal system feels messy. You’re aware that many days you feel overwhelmed by worries, humiliation, guilt, anger, or self-hate. These parts of you are harsh and relentless. However, in their own unique way, they are trying to protect you. For example, you may have a critical part that shames you in order to encourage change. There may be a perfectionist part that nags incessantly so that you do not make mistakes.

Lack of internal trust. Coping with alcohol instead of being with our feelings. Alcohol and postpartum depression

When our system is full of these protective parts, it’s an indicator that there is limited trust inside. Rather than believing you are capable of handling difficult situations, your protective parts take over. For example, when you feel tired of parenting, there may be a harsh part that steps in. It yells at you to be grateful and reminds you of how hard it was to conceive. Your system doesn’t trust you to sit with the distress of parenting. It would rather help you avoid those thoughts by filling you with shame and guilt instead. This is not necessarily a helpful or effective manner of handling things, but it’s been like this for years.

Working with these protective parts are challenging. No amount of reasoning or negotiating in our minds creates that desperately sought after sense of calm. Our guilt, anxieties, shame and internal critics are forever yelling in our minds. So, a part of us starts to drink. It helps to quiet down all of those loud protective layers inside.

Why is it so hard to give up?

You already know that drinking excessively has consequences. But, why is it so hard to give up? If you’ve ever moved towards sobriety or harm reduction, you know this is no small feat. So, let’s take a look at what gets in the way of recovery.

Physical Dependence

So much of the addiction process is physiological. When we drink, the reward centres of our brain become affected. Suddenly, our brain produces an abundance of dopamine (a chemical that makes us feel good and influences our sense of pleasure). Once we get introduced to this experience of high-level dopamine, we start to crave it. By using, our brain is providing us enough dopamine that things feel so much better, calmer, and happier.

When substances are taken away, we feel depleted and depressed. Our brain is not producing the amount of dopamine that we crave. The normal level of dopamine production no longer feels like enough. For many folks, they can work through the triggers and traumas of their addiction, but their brain struggles to find pleasure in normal activities. It’s hard to read a book, talk to a friend, or go for a walk when you continuously feel so flat and apathetic.

Working through Pain Points:

man drinking and postpartum depression. working through trauma and grief to recover from substance use.

When we use substances to cope with our reality, we have to consider what’s happening in our lives that makes us so desperate to escape? Drinking excessively to cope is not anyone’s first solution to fix a problem. Having a baby should not make us so overwhelmed that we’re needing a bottle of whisky every night. So what’s really going on?

When you are no longer drinking, you are left with pain points. Perhaps it is underlying trauma from childhood that keeps coming up. Being around a baby makes you remember all of your toxic and negative experiences as a child. Your pain points may come from unprocessed grief and anxiety. You feel like you ought to be happy with your newborn, but it’s been years of IVF struggles and multiple miscarriages. There’s no way you can let your guard down because what if one more bad thing happens? The part of you that drinks minimizes all of these pain points. Once the substances go, you suddenly have to face your traumas.

Working through pain points means looking at and processing the original trauma. If you continue to be triggered today by situations from the past, that urge to drink will keep coming up in order to protect you.

Russell Brand quote about addiction. Addiction as form of coping. Processing original trauma helps reduce drinking. Working through over-drinking during postpartum months.

Habits

Habit formation can leads us to automatically reach for a glass of wine once the baby goes down for a nap. At the end of the day, we crave those several beers to help feel calm. We don’t even think or question our urge to grab a cigarette or a joint when we start our day. When it comes to these automatic routines, there are ways to change these habits.

4 Tips to Help with Drinking and Postpartum Depression:

1) Address the pain points.

Drinking is not the problem. It’s a means to make the pain stop. Until your postpartum depression, trauma, grief, and other pain points are addressed, that drinking part will want to self-soothe through substances. Healing from these pain points can involve a variety of interventions, including: individual therapy, support from friends and family, psycho-education, group therapy (for those in Kitchener, Stork Secrets provide wonderful care for postpartum depression), or medication.

2) Explore options for self-soothing

For many, accessing the interventions listed above is not possible. If this is your circumstance, you need to find alternative ways to work through difficult emotions. This is where effective coping skills can help. You need quick and reliable ways to slow things down. My favourite recommendation is the DBT temperature change exercise.

3) Find connection

Our shame drives so much of our need to drink. We worry that others will judge us. We assume they’ll reject us or mock us if they knew how much we are struggling. If there are people like this in your life, I’m sorry. These are not the supports you need right now. Find a safe community to talk to about your struggles, such as neighbours, friends, family, partner, colleagues, or a community-based mental health group. Having others who accept you and love you, just as you are, plays a significant role in healing.

4) Get to know your cues and rewards

One of the best tips for changing our habits is understanding our cues and rewards. Pay attention to what triggers you. Are you most likely to use when the baby refuses to go down for a nap? Are you prone to having a bottle of wine starting at supper time? Pay attention to the time, the place, the people and circumstances. Next, notice the rewards that you get when you drink. Are you able to pass out? Can you suddenly tune out the crying and shrieking? Are you able to manage boredom or frustration? Does your anxiety reduce?

understanding cues and rewards for addiction. Changing our habits to help address addictions and postpartum depression.

When it comes to changing habits, we want to make sure that we intervene with a different habit for these cues AND still receive a similar reward. For example, once the baby has done screeching for an hour and finally falls asleep, you may experience an urge to drink. It’s the only way to release all of that pent up anxiety and tension inside of you. In this situation, the cue is the baby shrieking before nap time. The reward is releasing anxiety. We want to bring in an alternative habit that will lead to the same result. You may find that running on your treadmill for ten minutes releases some anxiety. Perhaps playing loud, angry music on your headphones provides you some relief. You could work with a foam roller and target those parts of your body that are carrying the most tension. Pairing these new activities shortly after the baby has gone down for a nap leads to shifting out of the original habit.

Final Thoughts

Addictions is not simple, and one blog post cannot address the complexities of this mental health struggle. If you are struggling with drinking and postpartum depression, please speak with a safe and trusted person or a therapist. This is not a matter of will power. You are worthy of effective support and help.

Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.