Have you ever felt so burned out that when your child has a meltdown, you overreact or completely lose it? Are you so exhausted and overwhelmed that you constantly feel as if you are in fight or flight mode? Do you believe the negative voice in your head about the fears of you being a bad parent and spouse? If any of this resonates with you, you may have Depleted Mother Syndrome. This is a term that describes the depletion and exhaustion that many Mothers feel and can impact your ability to function. Let’s explore what Depleted Mother Syndrome is, and better yet, what we can do about it.
- What is Depleted Mother Syndrome (DMS)?
- What Causes DMS?
- What are the Symptoms and Effects of DMS?
- Are There Any Treatments or Diagnosis?
- Tips to Break the Cycle of Mom Overwhelm
Table of Contents
What is Depleted Mother Syndrome?
Depleted Mother Syndrome (DMS), was first mentioned in the book Mother Nurture by Rick Hanson, Ph.D, Jan Hanson, M.S., and Ricki Pollycove, M.D. and began shedding light on the many responsibilities that accompany motherhood.
DMS is when responsibilities placed on a mother (or parent) keep piling up, while her resources decrease, or were never there originally. As a result of this imbalance, internal and external triggers cause emotional sensitivity. In short, a depleted burned out Mom or parent.
This resonates with me now and I don’t even have a newborn! I think it highlights that this can occur not just with newborns, but at various stages of motherhood as well. As long as an increase of responsibilities, decrease in resources, and emotional sensitivity are present.
I also want to highlight that while this syndrome specifically says “Mother,” I think this can apply to whomever is the main stay at home parent. Depletion and burnout are serious, so I hope that you find the tips in this article helpful for you.
What Causes DMS?
The causes of Depleted Mother Syndrome can vary, but if we look at the big picture, we may see why it happens. With increase in demands we may see:
- Most household tasks falling to women along with child rearing
- Being on call all day and all night, with no sick leave or weekends that cause physical and sleep burnouts to occur
- Breastfeeding or weaning from breastfeeding, as a literal physical and emotional depletion
- Physical body changes from pregnancy can leave Moms with a negative self body image, but no time to cope with that drastic change
While a decrease in resources can look like:
- Sleep deprivation and interrupted sleep, thus not being able to hit restorative REM sleep
- Less connection to a community–again leaving women to full time care and work alone
- Mothers diets are generally rushed, if they eat at all, losing out on nutrition which they desperately need, especially if breastfeeding
- Relationship struggles; it’s no secret that having a child causes changes in relationships with our partners
- Often women will lose out on their professional status at work because they are now parents
What Are the Symptoms and Effects of Depleted Mother Syndrome?
Some of the leading symptoms and possible effects of DMS are stress and exhaustion, low immunity, low energy, and even depression or anxiety.
Stress and Exhaustion
Stress and exhaustion are the leading symptoms and cause of Depleted Mother Syndrome. The stress could come from physical, mental or emotional sources, regardless of which, they will affect the body and take their toll.
The body will react in various ways to the stress and exhaustion that it is experiencing. Generally the immune system weakens, energy levels plummet with the exhaustion, however insomnia can also occur due to stress. Digestion issues can arise, and even headaches. You may even see it present as a disconnect from your child(ren).
DMS can affect your emotions to become dysregulated showing up in forms of greater irritability and even forgetfulness. You could see an increase in depressive symptoms (i.e.persistent sad, anxious, numb, and hopeless thoughts and feelings) and anxiety symptoms (keyed up or on edge, irritability, sleep disturbances, or impairment in functioning). If you are predisposed to have postpartum depression or anxiety, you could then also be disposed to have DMS. Nearly 1 in 10 women experience Postpartum Depression,
The effects that these symptoms can cause will likely vary from person to person, but some could include:
- Negative beliefs are heightened
- Irritability and anger as buttons are pushed frequently and regularly
- Inability to concentrate on things at hand
- Memory and attention span problems
- Crying spells.
If someone spends too long in the flight and fight system there can be lasting negative impacts to a mother and even the family. So what can be done about DMS?
Are There Any Treatments Or Diagnosis?
This is tricky because Depleted Mother Syndrome is not yet recognized as a listed medical condition. However, the American Psychological Association does recognize parental burnout as a condition along with the effects that it can have and offer tips. As stated by the American Psychological Association “According to the IIPB Consortium study, up to 5 million U.S. parents experience parental burnout each year.” Depleted Mother Syndrome falls under this category, and by talking about it and by bringing up DMS we can share the need to have it be recognized as a medical condition.
This does not in any way diminish DMS and what Moms go through. In fact, it is essential to support a Mother who is experiencing overwhelming stress or exhaustion combined with a lack of resources. The symptoms and effects of DMS can have very serious long lasting effects on your health and can impact your child(ren). Consulting with a healthcare professional as well as a therapist can still help, by listing the symptoms that you have and advocating for them, finding treatment plans is still an option.
In some cases medication may be needed like antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication to manage symptoms and effects (curious about breastfeeding and antidepressants, read here). Therapy can be very helpful in exploring factors or triggers that cause overwhelm or irritability to occur.
Tips to Break the Cycle of Mom Overwhelm
Sometimes when you are in the thick of it, even these tips will seem too much. Please don’t try to tackle everything on this list at once. I promise that it will pass, and your head will break above the surface of the water. If you begin to feel so overwhelmed that you have crisis thoughts please dial 988, tell a trusted friend or spouse, and reach out to a professional for help. You are not alone, and you are needed here.
Learn to Ask For Help
This is one that I really struggled with as a new Mom, and continue to struggle with. For a lot of us it is ingrained to be as independent as possible and therefore it is a weakness to need help. Or perhaps you see that the “SuperMom” is so praised. This is such a societal lie. It will lead you to depletion, loneliness, and even depression. Finding ways to delegate and to accept help will help you to be a better Mom.
Set Boundaries and Say No
This is a tricky one to do. It’s something I am still working on. Some good questions to ask yourself before you commit to anything is “Will this person (or thing, or event), require energy that I don’t have?” “Will this be good for my mental health?” Or “Will it cause me to feel more overwhelmed and stressed?” If the answer is yes, then you may have to decline doing them. There will be other seasons in life when you can say yes, but right now is not one of them.
Become Aware of Your Sensitivities
Understanding what triggers you and what your breaking points are, can be immensely beneficial for you. The hope is that as you understand yourself better, you will begin to recognize the warning signs and can take needed steps before you reach burnout and depletion. Some of the hardest work to do is reparenting yourself and acknowledging what your old wounds could be. Then to not judge them or ostracize those feelings but acknowledge them and even challenge them. I know that this is a difficult step, but it can be broken down into bite size chunks, especially if seeing a licensed professional.
The best way to stay healthy and strong is through good nutrition. This can be so hard to do as a busy Mom though. So often we grab the leftovers, or the quickest option. While offering some form of sustenance in the moment, it doesn’t really help our body in the long run and can leave us feeling more hungry and irritated. Finding nutrient dense foods, fruit and vegetables, and drinking plenty of water will allow us to cope better with overwhelm and stress.
Sleep is crucial for mental and physical health. It is hard to prioritize sleep sometimes when the only time alone seems to be at night. But by finding a balance, you may be amazed at how well rested you can feel. It allows you to make better decisions, and to think clearly. Depending on the season of Motherhood you are in, you may need to prioritize sleep over a clean home, or getting all the chores done, so you can better function for your family the next day.
I know this is tricky to do with so much on your plate, but I love how walking outside can turn the day around, or moving my body in some way. It doesn’t have to be big or super long to be beneficial. Walking outside, dancing to your favorite song, or getting in some stretches can be an immediate mood booster.
Connect With Friends
Connecting with friends who uplift and recharge you are worth their weight in gold. Planning in time to see them or connect via phone or video call can be uplifting. Bonus points if it’s outside while you do it too!
Connect With Your Spouse
It took until my son was 10 months old for my husband and I to go on a date where we left the house. There were a lot of variables that added up and time slipped away. Connecting did still happen for us, but we found it through different ways that suited our circumstances at the time. We tried to have more positive interactions than negative ones and to focus more on each other than who was right. There is no perfect solution, but be kind to each other as you navigate this time together. If you are worried about resentment toward your partner that may be building, we have a few tips here.
Schedule Regular Breaks or Self Care Time
This relates back up to number one, of learning to ask for help. Asking a trusted friend or family member to watch your children while you go to lunch, an exercise class, or take a book to a park for an hour, can greatly help with your mental overwhelm. A few years ago, my husband and I recognized that we needed self care time. We came up with the plan,when one of us said that we needed a ‘Me Day’ we would be there for them no questions asked. We would cover food, childcare, etc. while the one needing a reset would do what they needed to do that day. For me it is often grabbing sushi and sitting at a park to eat it while reading a book. You cannot pour from an empty cup Mama, do something for you.
Consider Professional Help
Thankfully I think we have come a long way from many stigmas surrounding licensed psychological professionals. However, it still likes to creep in sometimes or we convince ourselves that we don’t really need help. If consistent “blue days” occur, or nauseous anxiety days are winning, consider meeting with a licensed professional. They are there to listen, to help, and to give you positive coping skills. It can be really nice meeting with an objective third party. You do not have to suffer and be miserable. We have great resources to help and positive coping mechanisms available in this day and age.
For more tips to overcome that overwhelmed feeling as a mother check out the video below
Depleted Mother Syndrome is very real and deserves attention. You do not need to suffer through it alone. Education and awareness for mental health support should not be overlooked either. More importantly, I hope that you recognize that it is not selfish to put yourself first. You are not a bad parent to need a break from your kids, and a chance to pamper yourself. You make a better parent when you are not depleted and running on empty.
Niki Cowan has a background in Medicine and Public Health. She is a Certified Health Education Specialist as well as a Medical Assistant. She’s passionate about Women’s Health and empowering women in their journeys. She is married to her wonderful husband Kevin, and they have an active son. While trying to have another little one hasn’t worked out yet, she is pursuing her passions and hoping to gain further education and experience in the area she loves, while playing with her son. She’s an avid reader, Original Great British Baking Show watcher, and very amateur kickboxer.