Mother’s Day 2021 was beautiful: cuddles from my kids, a 5K run, hiking with best friends and sushi on the deck. At the end of the day, reflecting on our joys, my 9-year old son – always ready with a quip – piped up: 

“That was a lot better than last year.” 

It was infinitely better than Mother’s Day 2020 when I had a breakdown.

I cracked, right in front of my children. It wasn’t pretty.

It started innocuously – the mounting tension of weeks of initial stages of the pandemic, pivoting my career, single parenting for nine weeks, not seeing friends and family, feeling isolated, scared and stressed, trying to homeschool, stacks of paper everywhere, and launching a virtual fitness business. Truthfully, that was the easy part – I exercised daily, teaching live fitness classes on Zoom and Instagram for my sanity.  

Mothers’ Mental Health Suffers

The mental health of mothers becomes a headline when research emerges – like earlier this year when a study showed that mental health visits of new moms rose more 30 percent in the last year, or the report published in the Lancet in May, that found more than 35 percent of mothers in Calgary, involved in a 12-year longitudinal study,  reported a significant increase in depression in 2020.

It isn’t unique to Canada – mothers all around the world report an inability to cope, the stress of virtual school and the never-ending Groundhog Day feeling. 

Moms used to strive for balance; during the pandemic, it has become impossible to achieve. If there isn’t a deadline to meet, it’s a snack to make, a kitchen to clean, an activity to plan, another load of laundry to do, fights to break up, and not enough hours in the day to fit it all in. And yet, paradoxically, there is also an endless amount of time – I love my children, but this is an unnatural amount of time together. Don’t get me wrong, there are many moments of joy, but what happens when it all becomes too much? 

And worse, what happens when the light inside you goes dim? 

The Anatomy of a Breakdown

On Mother’s Day 2020, it was too much – triggered by a frying pan falling out of a cluttered cupboard, which landed on my toe, representing my disorganized house and chaotic mind, I started to weep uncontrollably. Then I snapped and was yelling and crying and scaring everyone. It was thunder and lightning and crashing sheets of rain and we didn’t have an umbrella. There was a loud ringing in my ears; I was acutely aware it was Mother’s Day and everything was out of control. I couldn’t stop the spiral. I sat on the kitchen floor surrounded by pots and pans, repeating, “I am a horrible mother.” The children were crying, I was crying.

And then, the storm passed, leaving a wake of wreckage. 

I don’t have all the answers. But I know what happened to me, and I know what I did afterwards to address it. A caveat: every person’s mental health is unique, and I am a huge proponent of any form of therapy, have taken antidepressants and know that, for each one of us, our way out of the darkness will be our own path.  As a health coach, I knew I had to get back to basics. 

6 Action Steps to Get Your Mental Health Back on Track

Here are six research-driven action steps I followed to get my mental health back on track – they are all within your grasp. 

1. Reach out

Find a therapist, call a friend, and share what you are going through. The only way we are going to de-stigmatize breakdowns is if we talk about them. The one silver lining to the pandemic is that more Canadians are reaching out for help. 

2. Sleep

This is difficult for new moms, but it is crucial that we get 7-9 hours sleep a night to reset out body and our brains. Sleep deprivation affects our mental health and even though insomnia is complicated, if you are staying up late to watch Netflix for your “me” time, know that there isn’t a TV show that is worth your mental health.

3. Avoid sugar

It is no coincidence that my breakdown occurred after two months of freebasing treats. Remember the great #bananabread all over the ‘gram? We got into daily chocolate chip cookies. Sugar is tied to depression, anxiety, weight gain and addiction. I cut out sugar, then relapsed, then cut it out again. Every time I cut out sugar my mood improves exponentially. 

4. Breathe

Whether you can introduce 5-10 minute of meditation into your mornings, or deep breath work throughout the day (try closing one nostril, inhaling deeply through one, then switching, or doing Navy Seal breath work – breathing in for four counts, holding, and breathing out. It works.  

5. Exercise

It only takes three 30-minute sessions weekly to boost your mental health. You don’t have to be the fittest and you don’t have to go out and run a marathon: find something you love to do and get your heart rate up into a moderate to vigorous zone. McMaster University reported the “Pandemic Paradox” in April this year: that people with stress and anxiety know they need to exercise, but stress and anxiety are preventing them from exercising.  You aren’t alone – but you can choose to go for a walk. 

6. Spend time in a nature

Doctors in B.C are now prescribing nature for mental health because it works. Hundreds of studies have proven that people who spend a couple of hours a week in green spaces experience physical and mental health benefits, lowering their chances of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. 

We learned a lot from my Mother’s Day breakdown. My children know that I struggle sometimes, and there are moments when it is too much. They know to talk about their feelings. During the pandemic, my son has had a couple of anxiety attacks, where he is sweating uncontrollably and is agitated – we reached out to our GP and were told this is normal. We are all living through an extreme situation; our reaction to it might be extreme at times, too.  And that is okay.

The most important thing we’ve learned is this: When you have a breakdown and fall to the kitchen floor, you can lay there for a while. But you have to try and pick yourself up again.

Just try. 💗

Erin Phelan is a writer, health coach and fitness trainer with live and virtual classes. Her exercise videos can be found on her You Tube channel and links to healthy recipes and articles are at www.erinphelan.com.  Follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Erin’s health coaching program, The Healthy Six, is a three-week ‘reset’ You can find out more and register at www.erinphelan.com/healthy-six.