Vigilance and threats: Why does motherhood leave us feeling wired?

There are so many paradoxes to the motherhood experience. One I’m working on at the moment is how to reconcile vigilance and flexibility. Attention to threats, and being ‘more relaxed’.

Let’s start with what we know about the brain

There is research that shows becoming a mother has a ‘dramatic’ impact on brain function, as well as changes in physiology, endocrinology, immune function, and behaviour, which begin during pregnancy and persist into the postpartum. This list doesn’t include the psychological changes to our sense of self, meaning, purpose and identity, which have also, unsurprisingly, been shown to be significant.

In neurobiological terms, a small almond shaped set of neurons known as the amygdala shows increased activity in the weeks and months after having a baby. The amygdala is responsible for emotional reactions like fear, anxiety and aggression and these changes make a mum hypersensitive to her baby’s needs and motivate mothering behaviours – essentially to ensure we take steps to keep our baby alive.

Why are we more likely to be vigilant, and how does this relate to feeling wired, exhausted and reactive?

Contemporary pop psychology has ensured we are generally fairly familiar with the idea of ‘fight or flight’ versus ‘rest and digest’. In this post I want to explore the specific context of motherhood in relation to these states of the autonomic nervous system.

The amygdala activates the fight or flight response to prepare your body to avoid (cue: run away or fight) threat. The frontal lobes are part of the newer, more rational part of the brain, where rational thinking and reason occur. Your frontal lobes help ‘triage’ threats, and when determined to be only mild or moderate, it responds using logic. If the threat is perceived to be intense, the amygdala takes over.

But in motherhood, due to both changes in the brain and social conditioning to be vigilant about so many potential big and small threats to your child, tiny stressors or even hypothetical threats might produce strong fear, anger or agitation responses.

You might experience sudden, illogical, and irrational overreactions to a situation (which obviously you don’t recognise as such at the time).

I’ve experienced my toddler’s emotional outbursts and uncooperativeness as an attack on my own sense of order and control. I felt irritable, even panicky, with an urge to exit the situation rather than have to deal with it. I’ve reacted rather that led calmly. Without the frontal lobes, you can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control your responses.

What role can yoga play?

There is evidence that shows movement can help us process challenging life transitions.

Movement practices like yoga promote acceptance of exactly what is, including a dramatically changed sense of ourselves, and new ways of feeling and being in the world.

At a physical level, a deliberate physical placing of the body with attention to the inner experience and the breath improves ‘proprioception’: our ability to locate ourselves in time and space. This has a close relationship to our central nervous system, in particular the parasympathetic nervous system, because when the mind body has strong awareness of its relationship to gravity, we feel deeply safe.

There is a long nerve called the ‘vagus nerve’ that begins at the lower part of the brain where it connects with the spinal cord. It runs all the way down our body, with both a front and back, and connects to the lower abdomen, contacting nearly every organ. Its job is to sense danger and communicate that message to the entire body, a process referred to as ‘neuroreception’.

Anxiety, vigilance, anticipatory stress: these are all forms of overactivity or enhanced sensitivity to danger or threat. An exaggerated intensity of unconscious behaviours designed to detect threats. And the more we scan our environment for threats, the more aware of threats we become. This process is also quite taxing energetically on the mind body, so contributes further to maternal exhaustion.

Being a mother to young children requires significant focus, concentration and awareness. Chatting with a friend about her medication the other week, she shared that she had radically underestimated the need for good executive function during motherhood.

The idea that we are vague, tired, forgetful and in trackies masks the reality that we are also project managing, negotiating, problem solving, critical thinking, stakeholder management, record keeping, time management and budgeting. Not to mention multitasking. That one deserves particular attention here, as research shows we don’t actually do it very well, and if we do try to, it has some pretty alarming impacts.

Multitasking is managed by executive functions controlled by the frontal lobe. According to research, multitasking attempts impact the brain similarly to slowing down the processing capacity of your laptop from having too many tabs open and too many programs operating at once. The ‘goal shifting’ involved in deciding to do one thing instead of another and then switching back, as well as changing from the ‘rules of the previous task to the ‘rules’ of the new task (think: using a stove, strapping a high chair, texting, feeding dog) all take their toll on our effectivity and cognitive ability. Chronic multitaskers (ie. mothers!) also can have trouble tuning out distractions and concentrating. You might find yourself unable to avoid apps or social media.

So, to recap. We have the biological changes such as our enhanced amygdala, and the impact of the neurological behaviours like multitasking as a result of the demands of care giving.

I’m not suggesting all mothers have diagnosable hypervigilance or anxiety. I’m saying surely these phenomenon occur on a spectrum and are probably experienced quite widely. I certainly relate to the idea of a perpetual scanning of my internal and external environment for “Things I’m Supposed to Be Across or Worry About”.

But the problem is: the more I engage in this scanning, the more I teach my brain it’s important to scan, and the more overactive I might be if I do detect relevant ‘activity’.

Problem is, modern motherhood and social media and capitalism and ALL THE THINGS mean we seem to have an endless number of potential ‘threats’ we could be scanning for, or anticipating. Standards have undeniably been lifted since our parents’ days. Science has revealed more potential dangers for babies and children, and society and media have enhanced pressures on mothers regarding behaviours and appearance.

So, how can our understanding of the brain and body help us in our response to the above challenges?

Not all the threats we might ‘detect’ are the same. We can retrain the brain to allow the frontal lobes to triage more appropriately using logic, and also our actual values (ie. what really matters to us and what is annoying but not that important) by spending a little bit more time in the parasympathetic nervous system. Of course we will still worry unnecessarily sometimes, but the more we can de-stress the brain, the more clear we will be on what ‘really matters’.

The vagus nerve responds to slow, deep breathing. So, self-soothing behaviours such as asana practice if you can, or otherwise, deep belly breathing, send the message that the threats we might feel as though we need to scan for or detect are not genuine. We are safe. Our kids are safe. Everything is going to be alright. (I could go on a COVID/climate change tangent here but I will not. It is not helpful for me to spend too much time there, at this exact time in my life, I have found. So, broadly speaking, we are going to be OK. Or at least, to the extent that I can control, my choices will not be significantly detrimental to me or my kids if I’m operating from a place of calm when I engage in threat detection.

So.

Self soothing behaviours such as deep breathing have positive impacts not only for ourselves but also for our relationships with our kids and partner.

When we can slow down, even slightly, we reduce emotional reactivity and increase our internal awareness of how we’re being, feeling and what we’re needing. When we feel more attuned to ourselves, we can attune more to others, and relate to them with more authenticity, vulnerability and connection.

You may choose to take a moment while engaging in deep diaphragmatic breathing to consider an expanded sense of yourself. First, ground yourself with mindful awareness of where your physical body is in space. Scan, perhaps, from the head to the toes without judgement.

Next, expand your attention to encompass awareness of all that you are, and have been, and will be – not just the immediate role and day to day experiences of this phase of life as a new(ish) mum. You are vast. You are potential. You are light and strength and love and choices and changing, every moment.

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