What is anxiety?
It’s uncomfortable, unsettling, overpowering and at times, debilitating.
Physically it can leave you feeling short of breath, tight chested, your muscles contracting, your head aching and your stomach churning. Mentally it knackers you out but you can’t sleep, you’re in a fog, unable to focus or concentrate and your short term memory is non-existent. But as a tired new mum many of these feelings are symptomatic of your situation anyway.
Anxiety can affect different areas of our daily lives, interfering with work, relationships, even how we bond with our baby. Though each of our experiences of anxiety will be unique, what goes on within us when we’re anxious is not. And this understanding can be a great first step to taking control of it. Our bodies are wired to function in the same way, and there are many techniques we can use to manage and reduce anxiety when it strikes.
Why do we experience anxiety?
Though it may seem rather unhelpful, anxiety does have a purpose – it’s part of the innate way we deal with stress. Anxiety is our body’s protection mechanism, also known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
There are two branches to our autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is our fight-or-flight response, the state that puts us on high alert and allows us to react to and escape from threats. If you were being chased by a lion, this response would be appropriate. The parasympathetic nervous system is our ‘rest-and-digest’ state, where we feel calm and relaxed. These two systems should work in balance, each used when required.
Since our ancestors had to be on the lookout for threats in order to survive, we evolved using our fight-or-flight system on a daily basis. Nowadays, however, the threats that we face are nowhere near as life-or-death, yet our bodies react in the same way and habitually shift into the sympathetic nervous system. This is what’s behind the anxiety we feel in everyday life. It’s how our body is reacting to what it’s perceiving as a threat. Add in smaller life stresses, work and family commitments, and you can see why many of us feel anxious all the time! We’re stuck in fight-or-flight, often without even realising it.
It’s important to remember that anxiety in itself isn’t a bad thing – it becomes a problem when we experience it so much that it impacts on our ability to live our lives fully. We’ve become used to living in fight-or-flight mode, but it is possible to train ourselves to feel calmer, relax more fully and cope with anxiety.
What about anxiety in motherhood?
Baby brain, is it real? Understanding Matrescence
All of us will have heard of the term ‘baby brain’ but not many of us will have heard it called Matrescence. Matrescence describes the physical, neurological and mental changes that a woman experiences when she goes through pregnancy and becomes a mum. Just like in adolescence, when the way in which we are ‘being’, ‘thinking’, and ‘feeling’ changes from girl to adulthood, so we can experience very similar changes from woman to motherhood. In both teenage brains and new mum brains there can be fogginess, memory loss, difficulty with decision making, and a whole roller-coaster of emotions.
Have you ever asked an adolescent a question and they have responded with “I don’t know!”. If you have it’s probably because they are laying down new neural networks and their old ways aren’t there for them now.
From Womanhood to Motherhood
Being aware of matrescence, and understanding it, may help you to realise why you aren’t functioning in the way that you used to. Why you aren’t able to take some things in your stride that you easily did before. Perhaps you wonder why you feel more passionate and emotional about things? It is because your brain is changing and will continue to do so over weeks, months and sometimes years – very similar to the way you did during adolescence. If you add lack of sleep, a change in lifestyle and some scary moments during childbirth into the mix; baby brain can well cause you to have feelings of guilt, anxiety and depression.
Five attributes of a baby boosted brain
What makes matresence happen?
When a child is born, a mother is born. This is the start of a new life with a baby boosted brain.
As soon as you are pregnant, a rush of hormones changes you. You start to notice the changes both in your body and in your brain. You might notice that you are focused on things that you were not interested in before. The pregnancy hormones, the lactation hormones, those that start labour, all work to change the way you think and the way that you feel, they change your mind and they change your body. On top of all the ‘motherhood’ hormones, you also experience an increase cortisol and oxytocin – the hormones for stress and love. These two hormones are highest in a woman ever in her life from two weeks before the birth of their baby to several weeks afterwards.
Why do you need stress and love hormones?
We need high levels of stress and love hormones so that we want to hold our babies close and look out for danger. Your brain is alert for threats. You are driven to do this less by your logical brain and more by your emotional brain – your limbic system. The limbic system is a very primitive part of your brain which is there to keep you safe. It causes you to react rather than respond; with ‘fight’, ‘flight’, ‘freeze’ or ‘tend and befriend’ actions. We are born with templates in our limbic systems. We all have an innate fear of falling, and loud noises. As we go through life we lay down more templates – things to react to without thinking.
You might have a strong fear reaction to snakes, spiders, guns, an empty purse, a frown or other images or sounds. As you go into motherhood you find that more templates are laid down and you look for danger in other ways because you’re not just wanting to keep yourself safe, but you’re also wanting to keep your baby safe. A lot of mums find that they are more scared of heights, or driving long distances, or going out after dark. Simple things that they thought nothing of before they had children. In short it is normal to have more feelings of guilt, anxiety and low mood during matrescence.
The challenges during matresence
During early motherhood, our emotions are on a rollercoaster and we’re not able to think as clearly as we would like. When we are feeling emotional we add more of these templates to our limbic system. When we are feeling calmer we then rewire our neo cortex – which is our thinking and imagining responding brain. You might have the expectation that if you wait long enough, you will go back to ‘normal’. But it is really important to understand that this is the start of a new normal. You are bringing new and different qualities to your life, your family’s lives and your working life. ‘Mummy brain’ is actually real. It is a thing. And it’s a permanent change. Your senses regarding what is going on around you are heightened, you are more able to multitask, you have more ability to keep going sometimes against all odds, and you are driven to make the world a better place.
But perhaps most importantly you gain emotional intelligence – that ability to really understand someone else. But do remember, once your hormones calm down you are able to easily relearn patterns. If climbing heights was important to you before you had a baby, you will master it again. If however you would like to change your career to reflect your new found motherhood skills, you will find a way to make that happen too.
Learn ways to stay calm. If you are in the middle of matrescence, know that it will get easier but you won’t go back to ‘normal’. You have a mother’s brain now. Recognise it, allow for the changes and enjoy these new perspectives. Change the world, understand people more – but give yourself time. Just as you can’t rush through adolescence, matrescence takes time. Share your experiences with those you trust. Let’s keep talking about what really matters.