Motherhood and the Nervous System
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
Mamas of young kids, this article is for you!
Do you notice yourself often feeling anxious, irritated or overwhelmed? Do you find yourself craving bodily autonomy while your kids are wanting to be held or jump on you all the time? Do you wish you had more quiet time by yourself to escape the constant barrage of noise? Does it feel like there is no break from someone always needing something from you, and that you are so busy tending to others' needs that you can't get your own needs met? Are your energy levels consistently low, or do you sometimes get so depleted that you just crash? Do you get triggered by your kid's meltdowns and feel your own emotions boiling up inside, yet force yourself to suppress those feelings in order to stay calm for your kid's sake? Do you worry about your child's safety and well-being? Maybe you have a kid who likes to pull daredevil stunts that make your heart race on a regular basis? Or maybe your child has high energy, is very emotionally expressive, or has special needs that require extra energy on your part? Are you overwhelmed by all the things that you have to juggle, or frustrated that you can't get anything done without interruption? (I am literally being interrupted by my youngest child as I write this!) If you do, trust me when I say, I FEEL YOU! I am currently experiencing this, too. Yes, it's true, it comes with the territory of being a mom, and we love our kids so much that we wouldn't have it any other way (or maybe in some ways we would!) But let's be honest... it takes a HUGE toll on our nervous systems!
Let's talk about what happens in our bodies... Each time we get triggered, overstimulated or overwhelmed, our system goes into flight or flight mode. Our body senses danger and ramps up its survival mode in preparation to flee from or fight against this apparent "danger". But when this "danger" is our children, we can't run away, nor can we unleash our inner warrior! So we suppress that response, over and over and over again. It takes a LOT out of us to go against our body's natural stress response and push all those big feelings down, time and time again. When all that ramped up fight/flight energy doesn't get to be expressed, and the natural response doesn't get to be completed, our nervous system doesn't receive the message that the danger is over. It thinks that the danger is still there. This can result in the nervous system remaining in some level of activation, even after the stressful event has passed. This can show up in a number of ways... anxiety, irritation, sleeplessness, elevated heart rate, fast and/or shallow breathing, muscle tension, pain, digestive issues, etc. Sound familiar? And there's more... Another nervous system response can be freeze or collapse. In nature, when an animal cannot flee or fight their predator, the animal's next option is to "freeze" and hope that it's not noticed by the predator. The last resort is "collapse", where the animal essentially prepares for death by numbing out or dissociating. So if you find yourself feeling numb, spaced out, unfocused, disconnected from yourself or others, holding your breath, heaviness in your body or fatigue ranging from tiredness to debilitating exhaustion, you might be in this mode. Does this resonate with you? If so, you are not alone! Let's face it... motherhood is hard, and there is a lot weighing on us. Especially with this pandemic, and the unrealistic expectations placed on mothers of this generation. (I won't head down this rabbit hole, because it's a big topic that warrants an article all on its own!) Additionally, mothers who have had overwhelming or traumatic experiences in their past and already have a dysregulated nervous system may have a lower threshold or capacity for handling the stress that motherhood brings. If you are wondering why you are so easily triggered or exhausted, or why you don't seem to be able to handle what other moms can handle, it could be that your nervous system's baseline level of activation is higher, meaning that it takes much less stress to push you over the edge into overwhelm.
So the question is, if we cannot change our stressful surroundings, what can we do to help our nervous systems achieve better regulation? I'll share what I have learned so far, and the 3 things that are helping me stay well through this challenging phase of life.
1) I have regular Somatic Experiencing® (SE®) sessions. SE® helps me let off steam that builds up inside, by allowing my body to complete those fight/flight responses that have been suppressed. I do this not only to feel better, but also because I know I need to continually work on my own nervous system regulation in order to help support my clients and my children to achieve regulation. I am so grateful to be training in SE® so that I can offer it as an option to my clients. 2) I know what soothes my nervous system, and I find ways to make that happen. This I know about myself: I am an introvert, I am highly sensitive to noise, I need a lot of sleep, and nature soothes my soul. Therefore, I need alone time, peace and quiet (sometimes that means earplugs!), early bedtimes (this was especially important when my babies were waking me up multiple times in the night), and time in nature in order to recharge. You might be different than me... perhaps you feel recharged after an evening out with your friends, or working out, or meditating, or blasting your favourite music, or diving into a creative project. But whatever it is, it's important to know what nourishes your nervous system, and to work that into your life, even if it's just in small ways. If you don't know what fills your cup, just ask yourself what makes you feel most happy/peaceful/grounded/supported.
3) I listen to what my body needs and can finally have compassion around that. I used to be hard on myself for having those needs, when other people seemed to be managing fine without them. I used to believe that I was being weak or lazy, or would get frustrated with my short fuse. I now understand that everyone's nervous system has a different blueprint based on their life experiences, and that stressors affect people differently, even from one moment to the next. So nevermind that my friend, who is a mom with more children than me, can function fine on very little sleep... if I am exhausted, I go to bed early and give my body what it needs. If I am feeling irritation arise from too much noise, I ask for help (or let my kids watch some iPad) while I go somewhere quiet for a bit. And I find that when I listen to my body's cues, I am a happier and calmer person with a greater capacity for handling stress. With a calmer nervous system, there is room for more enjoyment in my life and a more positive outlook. And if I am having a day when my fuse is short and I can't give my body what it needs, then I can have compassion for that too. We are all doing the best we can. Motherhood is hard, and we can do hard things, with support. If you want to connect to chat more about this topic, or learn more about how SE® can support you, don't hesitate to reach out to me. Also feel free to post a comment... I'd love to hear from you! With love and understanding,
Joanna Hermano is a Trauma-Informed Physiotherapist and Somatic Experiencing® Practitioner-in-Training with special interest in persistent pain.