How acupuncture helped treat my post-natal depression

February 6 | Guest post by Ruth Dawkins
By: ~ggvic~CC BY 2.0

I am the mother of a nearly-three-year-old boy. Despite living in the chaos that surrounds your average toddler, my mental health is pretty good. Most days I score pretty highly on the happy scale.

That was definitely not the case right after my son's birth though.

Tom's birth experience was drastically different to what I'd been hoping for and expecting. Instead of a calm, quiet drug-free home birth, I ended up being whisked to hospital in an ambulance, and having every intervention I'd hoped to avoid. Immediately following the birth, I knew that my physical recovery would take a while. What I didn't realise was how long it would take to recover mentally.

The early days of being a mother are such a blur of hormones and exhaustion that it is hard to separate that from anything darker or deeper; but I know that it took months before I stopped crying at the memory of Tom's birth. It took much longer than I expected to feel like I'd bonded with him, because I resented what he'd "done" to my body. I breastfed for nine months, but hated it, because it felt like my body still wasn't my own.

Spending my days tired, angry, and in tears became the new normal. But there was no way I was going to admit to anyone that I was struggling — not even the people closest to me. Whenever I had a doctor's appointment they did their thing and went through the checklist of depression symptoms. But if you don't want to talk about it, it doesn't take a genius to give the answers that'll make them leave you alone, rather than the answers that flag up a problem.

When Tom was about nine or ten months old, things seemed to calm down on their own. I felt like we were doing a pretty good job as parents. He was sleeping well, and developing a brilliant, funny, clever personality. We went on a lovely family holiday, staying near some friends and soaking up some sun. All those memories of the birth were starting to fade into insignificance.

But then when he hit about 16 months "the crazy" came back with a vengeance. I don't know what sparked it off; whether it was just my hormones changing again, whether it was the effect of other stressful things happening in our lives, or what. But it wasn't good. I was back to feeling exhausted, angry, weepy, and resentful of both Tom and my husband for no reason at all. I always loved them, and there was never any danger of me harming either one of them, but I was unable to keep the small irritations of everyday life as a wife and mother in perspective. I felt like I was entirely not myself. It was like I was watching someone else living my life, and not making a very good job of it.

After one particularly irrational argument with my husband, I promised to go and speak to my doctor. I was prescribed antidepressants, which I tried for three months. I know that the advice is to persevere with them for longer than that, but as far as I was concerned the physical and emotional side effects outweighed any possible benefits. They gave me terrible skin, which killed my self-confidence. They made me grind my teeth. They made me feel spaced-out all the time.

I made the decision to stop taking the antidepressants and try to fix things my own way. We decided that when Tom turned two we'd start putting him into nursery for two mornings a week so that I could reclaim some time to myself. I started blogging and took up photography for a creative outlet. I went running a couple of times a week because exercise always makes me feel better, even though I'm always reluctant to start. And, the most crucial thing, I went back to see an acupuncturist.

I'd never had acupuncture until I was pregnant, but after 16 weeks of horrendous morning sickness, I'd taken a friend's recommendation and made an appointment with someone who specialized in fertility and emotional health. It only took one session to stop my sickness — after weeks of being unable to keep down food, I left his clinic and headed straight for a big meal at a nearby Mexican restaurant — and that was me converted.

I went back to see him, and gave him a rundown of everything I'd been feeling — both in my head and in my body. I liked the fact that he took a much more holistic approach than my doctor had. The causes of how I was feeling were as important to him as the feelings themselves. Instead of separating out my physical and mental health, he treated them as one thing.

I know some people dismiss acupuncture as hippy nonsense, but for me, it completely works.

There wasn't the same instant, miraculous result that there had been with my morning sickness, but after a couple of sessions I started to feel like myself again. I was more energized, and so, so much happier. It was only once that fog had lifted that I could see how bad the previous few months had really been, and how incredibly patient my immediate circle had been with me.

I know some people dismiss acupuncture as hippy nonsense, but for me, it completely works. I don't need it a lot, but every six months or so I feel like my body and my head are starting to get slightly out of whack, like my energy levels are dipping, I'm getting more irritable, my eating habits are off, my motivation is going, my PMS symptoms become more extreme… and an hour of acupuncture always gets me back on track again. I have no idea how it works, but it does.

For me, acupuncture did what Prozac couldn't and helped me start putting my life back together. Perhaps that means that I wasn't suffering from chemical depression. I have many friends who find antidepressants hugely effective and say they couldn't live without them. Perhaps they persevered for longer than I did. Perhaps a different prescription would have worked better for me. Who knows? Really, who cares?

What matters is finding what works for you… and then not being afraid to talk about it. I managed the first a while ago, although I wish I'd done it sooner.

Now — eek — it looks like I've managed the second too.

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  1. Does your insurance cover the acupuncture? I would really like to not be on anti-depressants (more out of personal bias, than side effects) for my post-partum, but they're almost entirely covered by insurance so I don't know if it would really be responsible to switch it up when I'm not having any real problems with them.

    • Some insurance will cover alternative/non-Western medicine (I know ours does). Check with your provider!

    • I don't know where you live, but community acupuncture clinics are starting to become widespread. It's a different model of practice. They offer a very affordable alternative to individual sessions. You might try searching for one nearby.

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  2. I am so glad you found help through alternative means! I am totally among the converted when it comes to acupuncture. My gynecologist is actually who suggested I start because I have horrible periods and as she said "Western medicine doesn't know how to handle pain." 90% of my practitioner's practice was women dealing with PMS, menstrual pain, or fertility issues. That man was a genius. After 6 months of acupuncture and – more importantly- Chinese herbs my periods went from unbearable to completely manageable. I suggest acupuncture and Chinese medicine to anyone who will listen!

    • No, it doesn't hurt. There's a subtle "buzz" or slight "pinch" when a needle is inserted (some spots are more sensitive, i.e., requiring more attention, than others).

      1 agrees
    • I've had some for knee pain and was super surprised at how much it didn't hurt. It was slightly uncomfortable, but not painful. I'm quite intrigued and would be willing to explore more, if I didn't live in the middle of the desert. 🙂

  3. I'm so glad it helped you, accupuncture is the best.
    @Anie – regarding the cost, if your insurance does not cover it, I suggest checking your area for clinics they may offer a sliding scale or an accupuncture school which offers accupuncture by students at a discounted rate.

    @Stephanie – I have just been going for menstrual issues and my period did almost a 360 my last cycle! It was amazing!

    @Jen – it can hurt. For females, the middle of the your menstrual cycle you may find the most pain when the needles go in. Other times, you won't even feel it.

  4. This is very refreshing to read. I feel like physically-based changes helped me regain not just my former, pre-kids sanity but also a higher level of functioning than before kids. I changed my entire diet to help alleviate pain symptoms I'd had since childhood, stopped jogging and did lower-impact exercises for arthritis I'd had since high school, and amped up my anti-anemia game. I changed things outside of the physical realm as well, but I don't know if everything would have resolved as well as it has if I didn't tackle physical symptoms like fatigue and pain at the same time… which of course can be symptoms of depression, too, so it can be hard to tease out what to address.

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  5. I have Bi-polar2 disorder and I've been on antidepressants for a long time now. It always makes me happy to see someone get the help they need when it comes to depression because I suffered, untreated, for way too long. I just wanted to add, for anyone who is on antidepressants, that if you are experiencing a lot of side effects you are: a. on the wrong dosage; b. on the wrong medication; or c. both. Sometimes it takes a while to get it right but it is really worth it. I can't go over to only acupuncture because I have more of a permanent imbalance, but it sounds lovely.

  6. I'm so happy to read this! I'm a 4th year Chinese medicine student, I always love hearing success stories!

    Acufinder.com is a pretty good resource if you're looking for a practitioner. Schools usually have clinics attached to them for lower rates when you see a student, and of course Community Acupuncture is becoming much more popular and widespread.

    @Jen: most acupuncture will not hurt, but it depends on the point and a few other factors (like hormone fluctuations as Meg said). The needles are hair thin.

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