The Anxious Mum Brain – a (simplified!) tale of two halves.

I am the type of person who, since becoming a mum will throw myself and my little one into whatever group or activity is going on that day. We are social butterflies, and we love being so.

Unfortunately, mum-life is not this simple for many. Anxiety gets in the way. The more I speak to other mums, the more I realise just how prevalent anxiety is. As a professional who has worked within mental health services, I was still surprised by how many mum’s I was meeting who were struggling with anxiety. Many were still able to make it out of the door and attend groups and socialise; many others were not.

Perhaps being a parent overwhelms us, as so many additional fears? You have precious lives to nurture and care for; if that doesn’t create some worry, then I do not know what will!

Where does anxiety come from?

It may be helpful to know that there are different types of “Anxiety Disorders”, each with specific diagnostic criteria; yet people can still struggle with anxiety daily without the medical label.

People can be more predisposed to anxiety than others, but environmental factors can also contribute. I have worked with anxious children whose parents also struggled with anxiety; which suggests it could perhaps be a learned behaviour or have a genetic link; or both? The Mind website offers useful information about anxiety and its causes if you want to read more.

By no means is this blog going to offer a full description of anxiety, nor a full support plan of how to manage it. I will, however, start by offering information about over worked anxious brains, which will hopefully help you to understand what is going on upstairs at times of stress and significant worry, and why certain helpful recommendations are often made. My next blog will explore different strategies and approaches to managing anxiety – there was just too much to talk about in one go!

A little about the brain.

Within mental health, concepts and theories can be hard to grasp; personally, I love concrete explanations and knowing the science which underpins my practice helps me describe things better to clients. I have, therefore, found it useful to study more about how the brain works, especially in relation to our emotions and behaviour. So, here is my attempt to share some of my knowledge with you.

In a simplistic approach; think about your brain as being split into 2 main parts; the upper and lower. The lower part is the brain that developed first before humans were even human; this is your survival brain – it keeps you safe; it gets ready for fight or flight. No time for thinking here. You must survive, so it will do all it can to get you to respond accordingly. *

Your upper brain is your clever brain; it thinks, it comes up with plans, it is more logical. It can also deal with more complex emotions, like empathy. As intelligent as the upper brain is, it will be overridden by the lower brain in times of perceived danger. Your brain is bright, it is not going to waste time allowing you to think of a solution when faced with a child who is about to step into a busy road, or a partner who is waving fists at you, or a boss who is threatening to take your job from you. These are all perceived threats (although not necessarily an immediate threat to your life) and in that time, your brain works with your body to release hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol, to make sure your body is able to get out of the situation it is in. Why waste physical energy on places like your digestive or reproductive system? Your brain will make sure oxygen and blood are being pumped to places it is needed most. This process may go on for some time if the perceived threat continues.

Can you relate?

To try and put this into some perspective, I want you to think about a time when you have experienced significant anxiety or stress. How easy was it to concentrate at work during that time? Any special occasions you forgot? Did your health suffer? Maybe stomach cramps or headaches? Loss of appetite? Was it hard to think of solutions? My guess is your upper brain was not really working for you and your lower, egocentric, survival brain was taking over a lot of the time.

In these situations, anxiety is causing havoc physically too, in addition to the “mental” or “thinking” struggle. This explains why professionals often refer to physical exercises or activities when helping people to think about ways of managing anxiety. It is no coincidence that birth coaching or “hypnobirthing” focuses so much on relaxation – the last thing your body needs are stress hormones affecting the physical act of labour and birth.  I will explore some ideas around managing general anxiety in my next blog.

Now, the brain is of course more complex than just being split into 2 parts, yet I hope this representation helps you to at least grasp what is going on for you at those times when you feel that your common sense has been side stepped, your planning skills have walked out on you or your patience has run out. When you are running high on emotion, you have it tough, really tough. Being able to mentally function is difficult and it will take its toll on your body too.

I look forward to posting my next blog that will help you think about ways of getting that upper brain back on track again – lower brain is very kindly looking after us, but we need the top-down approach back, please.

*there are 2 great books I would recommend if this is the type of topic you are interested in. “The Whole-Brain Child” by Dr Daniel J. Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson (2011). They use the “upstairs and downstairs” brain analogy to help parents think about why a child is behaving in a particular way, and how you can engage the upper brain at times of emotional struggles. Secondly, “The Little Book of Big Stuff About the Brain” by Andrew Curran (2008) really helps to explain the complexity of the brain in the most simplest way possible (not an easy task!) by using diagrams and analogies.