Becoming a parent can be a wonderful, rewarding and exhilarating time. But what the expectations and gorgeous social media posts of others don’t tell you, it can also be exhausting, guilt-inducing, even anxiety-ridden and confidence-ebbing.
When preparing for the arrival of our first-born most of the focus is on the pregnancy and the birth with very little information about how to cope with a child and difficulties you may experience. That often makes it even harder to admit that you are finding it tough, especially for mums because of the common assumption that you should find slipping into your new role the most natural thing in the world.
According to a recent study by Waterwipes more than 50% of UK parents feel like they are failing within the first year and that they can’t be open about their experiences. Women’s bodies especially have been through the biggest trauma they will ever probably go through, followed by an identity shift of seismic proportions. They are sleep deprived and on a roller coaster ride of hormonal surges and dips. It’s no wonder that so many women suffer from issues around anxiety in these first few years of parenthood.
It is part of our evolutionary directive that everything we do is effectively maintaining the survival of our species. Of course, in today’s world, our baby is not likely to be attacked by a wild animal or exposed to dangerous elements. But in our minds, enough dangers are lurking. Our own mortality is suddenly highlighted making the survival of your kids and the fear of anything happening to them, or ourself, almost unbearable. With the ever-presence of Dr Google we are also self-diagnosing, and often catastrophising, at the touch of a button.
Fight or flight
As our brain navigates our world it creates our own perception of reality, simply by searching for past information, making patterns and finally matching old information to things that are happening now. Although this function usually happens in the rational thinking part of our brain, in a situation where you might be, or even just think you are, in immediate danger, the emotional part takes over.
This emotional side of our brain is the oldest part. Before we evolved the ability to plan, imagine or reason we just operated from an instinctive position only needing to fulfil our need to survive. This ancient part of our brain has managed to keep humans safe effectively throughout our existence, but when we are in this heightened state the patterns are not matched very effectively. It is only designed to keep us safe at any cost and this scattergun approach means that more and more things are being labelled as dangerous.
Our brain and our bodies respond in exactly the same way to something which is an actual danger, like a sabre tooth tiger, as it does to an imagined danger like accidents/illness happening to us or our child. Stress hormones flood our bodies, our hearts speed up to pump the blood faster into our arms and legs preparing for us to escape, our muscles tense readying to fight, our breathing becomes faster to get oxygen into your blood faster. All of this makes our chests hurt and our bodies tremble. Any of that sound familiar?
We cannot think straight as the thinking part of our brain has been shut off.
In evolutionary terms, it wouldn’t be much use to ponder our options when faced with an actual predator. We simply don’t have time. It would kill us, like needing to jump out of the way of a speeding car.
But nowadays when our alarm system is being triggered we are not in actual mortal danger. Understanding this can explain a lot. Can you remember a time you may have forgotten what you had learnt in an exam or clammed up when anxious about an interview or a presentation? That’s when your thinking brain has been turned off and the fight or flight system triggered instead.
My own experience of postnatal anxiety came after a traumatic birth with my second child. The trauma of the birth had set off my emotional brain onto high alert. For over a year I felt like I couldn’t control my own mind, especially at night when it would be racing with fears about anything and everything, intrusive thoughts and panic attacks. I would allow myself to imagine terrible scenarios and then actually visualise myself in them, really feeling the fear of sorrow and pain.
What I wish I’d known when I was struggling with these feelings is that the more I understood anxiety and learned that I can control these thoughts and physical reactions, the less they happened. Each time our brain thinks there is a danger and we remain in control we are creating a new neural pattern, one that recognises that we’re safe, we’re ok, that there is no danger. When we understand what is happening we can start to realise that we have it in your grasp to calm your body and mind and take back control.
How we can help ourselves
What we need to do is build ourselves a toolkit of strategies, so that when our thinking brain has been hijacked we can simply access our tools. The first step to this, which sounds almost too obvious, but isn’t for anyone who has been hyper-vigilant for some time, is to find yourself a way to relax. Even if this relaxation is only for 10 minutes you need to remind your body how to do this and allow yourself some perspective which you cannot get if your brain is being dulled by the fight or flight response.
The best way to start doing this is by simply learning to use your own breath. When we allow ourselves to breathe properly which is deeply into our diaphragm, we are activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It releases calming hormones into our bloodstream which counter the ones released by the fight or flight system.
- To really breathe deeply you need to fill your stomach with the air, the opposite of what you usually do.
- Breathe deeply for the count of 7 inflating your stomach as you do.
- Then blow the breath out slowly through pursed lips to the count of 11. It is really important that your out-breath is longer than your in-breath.
- Then I’d like you to imagine if calm had a colour what colour would it be? As you breathe in imagine this colour of calm filling your body up from your toes to the tip of your head.
- To add to this you could choose a word or words which mean safety and calm for you; then repeat them silently as you breathe in and out. Practice doing this every day.
At its core, anxiety has a belief or fear that for whatever reason is making your unconscious feel it needs to protect you. I can help you to uncover these beliefs and provide you with the tools and techniques to allow you to start taking back control of your life.
Rachael is a Cognitive Hypnotherapist and has recently moved to Worthing. She can help you the unconscious patterns and beliefs that are making you behave in ways you want to change or holding you back from being the best version of you.