The three systems model and postnatal depression

Why doing nothing isn’t doing nothing, and how the three systems model can help new mums


Here’s a little nugget of life changing information for you. How do I know it’s life-changing? Because I’ve been sharing it with clients, new mothers and midwives for years. It’s lovable.

If your therapist said to you, “you need more Green in your life”. Or, “what can we do to help you out of the Red?” Or, “I think you are a little too Blue at the moment” would you know what they meant?

If you don’t know what I mean by that, then keep reading. It’s a complex theory, but I’m going to share it with you in a super simple format. Stay with me.

When you feel stressed, your “fight and flight” system is activated. We call this the RED system. It’s a system because when it plays out, it affects our hormones, our physiology, our feelings, our thoughts, and our behaviours. These are all interconnected and they fire and wire together to get the job done. Hormones (adrenalin and cortisol), behaviours (being busy or flapping or crying or giving up or constant checking or avoiding), thoughts (I’m a rubbish mum, I can’t cope, why is everyone else able to do it), feelings (stress, fear, anger, envy, jealousy, inadequacy), physiological response (heart rate up, breathing irregular, problems sleeping). All negative feelings are found in the red threat system, including physical pain. They exist for a reason. The stress system is designed to get us to react to threat, however real or slight that threat might be. Interpersonal threat (for example, the fear of being not included, or not liked, or not a good enough mum) is as big for us humans as is physical threat, such as the danger of your baby being run over by a car or struck by lightning. There’s a reason why you compare yourself to others, why you love praise, and why you hate criticism! We are highly social beings, who rely on each other to survive and to thrive. I think this is even more important when we become mothers, because that’s when we are vulnerable, and we need the “village” to support us.

I work with new mums who are struggling. Their Red system is overactive. It feels rubbish. They want to feel better. How do we help ourselves to feel better?

When we are feeling bad, we often cope with distraction. I often hear mums say that they like to keep themselves busy. Do more house-work. Put more hours in at work. Book in social events with baby. This can be a welcome diversion from the anxiety or worry or low mood that we are coping with. The other thing that we might do when we feel bad, is to strive to be better at what we are doing, to boost our self-esteem. This can be subtle, and you might not even realise you are doing it. For example, be super effective at work, try to be a better mum, try to put a smile on our face and be fun to be with, make sure our kid eats perfectly healthy meals, have a tidy house, and so on.

Now, although those responses to feeling rubbish might help you feel better in the short term, they will not help you in the longer term. Why not? Because they are an activation of the BLUE system, also known as your drive system or your motivation system. The survival purpose of this system is to ensure that you do what needs to get done in order for you to survive – such as build a house, gather food, forge a career, make and keep friends, keep your child clean and fed and healthy. We love to be busy! We love to achieve stuff! We love to party! The Blue system’s hormones include dopamine (the addiction hormone), the behaviours include being busy and active, the thoughts are future oriented and focused on goals, such as fantasies, planning, measuring progress, the physiological response is associated with being energised. It feels good, it makes us get stuff done, so what’s wrong with that? Why do I tell mums in my clinic that they need to be less Blue?

The answer is: because both the Blue system and the Red system are activating. That means, they demand and sap energy from us. They empty your energy bucket. They tire you. (Even depression, where you might think you are doing nothing, drains us, because research shows us that the mind is fraught with stress hormones, even if the body seems drained).

There is a third system. The GREEN system. This is your rest and restore system, also known as your Compassionate system. This is de-activating. This is a system designed to get you to regenerate, recuperate and rest and connect with loved ones. As with the Red and the Blue system, the Green system has its very own network of interconnected physiology, thoughts, feelings and behaviours designed to meet the need for regeneration and co-regulation. When you activate your Green system,  your digestion is more effective, your immune system gets to work better, your health improves. You reduce the chances of getting those common pests of modern life associated with stress – cancer, heart disease, diabetes (statistically speaking – it’s not something we can say for each individual). The behaviours associated with the Green system are deactivated ones – lazing on the sofa, relaxing on a beach, sitting in the garden watching the clouds, being with a loved one. The emotions associated with the Green system include feeling calm, relaxed, at peace, content. The thoughts associated with the Green system are slowed down, almost to the point of not necessarily having any thoughts. They tend to be in the present – noticing the clouds, enjoying the hug of a loved one. The physiology associated with the Green system is that of the sympathetic nervous system –slowed, belly breathing, regulated heart-beat, reduced blood pressure. The hormones associated with the green system include oxytocin. You probably already know a bit about oxytocin from your antenatal classes. It facilitates labour, birth, bonding and breastfeeding. I’ll write that again in a different form: we evolved with a biological intertwining of motherhood with oxytocin – the connection and love hormone. Motherhood (and babies) needs oxytocin – they need the Green. Fatherhood, parenthood, family-hood, childhood, thrives on love and connection – thrives on being in the Green. The other thing you might know from your antenatal classes is that oxytocin and adrenalin generally don’t appear together. If one goes up, the other goes down. If you are stressed, your oxytocin levels will drop. In other words, one of the best ways to keep stress at bay, is to activate your oxytocin system. The best antidote to being in the RED system, is to activate the GREEN. This is not the case for the Blue – the Blue system can be activated at the same time as the Red. If you want to reduce your Red (your stress) the best way is to go into the Green.

Other, more traditional cultures know this intuitively. They get mum to rest for up to 6 weeks after having a baby. It’s enforced in a lot of cultures (I’m not advocating that – I’m just saying). They give mum time to rest and bond, as she recovers from her birth. They feed her, put her to bed, give her massages, take all jobs from her. By taking jobs away from her (such as housework, looking after the other children) they are helping her to avoid going into the Blue (busy) system. This helps her get her Green system activated and flowing.

What do we do in our society?

Send mum home as soon as two hours after birth if she birthed vaginally and 12 hours if she had abdominal surgery. And of course, she can’t wait to get home, because the “care” on maternity wards is so lacking. She gets dressed, gets in the car, goes back to her house with a very tired partner (who was at the birth and is also knackered with the job of caring for her and for the newborn). The very tired partner will be expected to go back to work after a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, birth mum is expected to manage the baby, the house, the shopping, look after the other children, get up and dressed to go to midwives’ appointments, do the school run. Our culture praises mums who can “get back to normal” as soon as possible, including get back into their pre-baby jeans. None of this is conducive to oxytocin release. And I’ve only mentioned the pressure on mums to achieve the physical stuff. They are now also pressured to achieve the emotional stuff – that is a whole other blog. They are subtly but fully given the responsibility for the baby’s psychology. “Don’t leave baby to cry, or you’ll “damage” him”. “Play and stimulate your baby to build his intelligence”. “Respond to baby’s needs instantly, or you might damage their mental health”. “Don’t be anxious or depressed, you might affect your baby”. “don’t sleep with your baby or you might suffocate him”. The pressure on partners is also growing in our society. He or she is expected to be a physical and emotional support during and after birth, be a hands-on parent, go back to work within weeks as though nothing has happened. And guess what? Fathers are suffering too. Paternal postnatal depression, PTSD and anxiety is growing so quickly, that the NHS are having to develop services in order to respond to demand.

I understand that during the pandemic, breastfeeding rates increased in some parts of Britain. Midwives tell me that this was because new mums could stay home all day, sit on sofa with no bra, with nothing to distract them or make them get dressed and get out of the house.

I was sat with a client once, who told me in despair “I have done NOTHING all day”. I told her she had done the most important job in the world, one that no one else can do in the same way as her. She had been with her baby.

In our society, we don’t think of the Green as important. It isn’t valued. We squeeze rest time into our busy schedules. We scuttle around like hamsters in a wheel, too stressed to stop. Busy busy busy. And yet, not only is the Green important, it is protective for our long-term health. And it is critical for our mental health. I often remind clients of the adage “if you can’t find an hour a day to meditate, you need to meditate for two hours a day”. This is because when we are in the Red or Blue, we are activated, and it is difficult to stop. We need to stop in order to realise that we need to stop more.

This is why meditation and mindfulness and “self-care” are all the rage right now. There is a science behind it. When you meditate, you activate the Green. When you sit with your baby on the sofa – just sit – and notice his hair, his cheeks, his smell – you are practising mindfulness. When you put the soap down in the shower, and instead stand still, count to 10 slowly while you focus on the feel of the water on your skin, you are being mindful. When you listen to a relaxation MP3, be it 2 minutes long or 20 minutes long, you are being mindful. When you slow right down with your toddler on the way to play-group and notice the buttercups along with him, you are being mindful. You are feeding your soul. You are replenishing your physical and mental health. You are not “doing nothing”.

So, if you are struggling with your mental health – if you are “in the Red” too much, or the Blue too much, it’s time to find ways to “get into the Green”. Put time in your diary for your mindfulness practice. It’s called “practising” mindfulness because you are literally forging new neural pathways when you do it, and the more you do it, the easier it gets.  When some-one says “let’s meet up on Sunday afternoon”, you look in your diary, and it says “GIG”. You know that means “Going into the Green” and you say “oh, I’m sorry, I’m already doing something on Sunday afternoon. How about the morning?”

Go on, I dare you!

Three Systems Model is developed by Paul Gilbert aka Three regulation systems and the Compassionate Mind


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