You know that feeling all too well…The tightness in the chest, the racing heart, the sense of dread, the lump in your throat. There’s a sense of impending dread filling your body…but why?
You’re stuck in traffic. No big deal, right?
There’s a tough deadline at work you’re racing to meet. You’ll be ok!
Your child is having a melt-down in the supermarket after you said “no” to their 274th pleading request. Meh, it happens.
…or maybe, you’ve made a decision and gone against your gut instinct purely to keep the peace. …because that’s what mothers do!
These feelings are all too common as a mother in modern-day society; and whilst each of these things on their own may not seem like the end of the world, they all trigger your sympathetic nervous system. And when your nervous system is constantly being stressed, it accumulates and impacts your physical and mental health.
What is the nervous system and what does it do for the body?
The nervous system is a sophisticated network of nerve cells and fibres that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord to various parts of the body. This intricate network allows all the parts of the body to communicate with each other – from eating to breathing to walking and more. It’s also alerts the body of any changes occurring both outside and inside the body.
Using both electrical and chemical means to send and receive messages, there are two main divisions of the nervous system:
– The central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and spinal cord.
– The peripheral nervous system (PNS), which consists of nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body.
Diving a little deeper – the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is one part of the PNS that controls involuntary actions of the body, such as heart rate, digestion and blood pressure. The somatic nervous system (SNS) is the other part of the PNS that controls voluntary actions of the body, such as movement of our arms and legs.
Deserving a special mention as one of the most important nerves within the body (part of the ANS) is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is what allows you to feel at ease inside your body. It’s in charge of the relaxation response, which is the opposite of the fight-or-flight reaction. Chronic and continual stress therefore makes it difficult to return to a state of mind that feels like home.
Now that we’ve had a quick flashback to high-school science and know a little more about how the nervous system works, the question specifically is, how can motherhood impact it?
Becoming a mother changes life in so many ways. Suddenly, you’re responsible for another human being 24/seven, which means you never really get a break. Your whole world revolves around this little person and their physical and emotional needs. Your needs become secondary as you’re left succumbing to every little request, leaving you stressed and activating your sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
The Stress Response (fight, flight, freeze, fawn)
So motherhood is stressful and constantly activating that stress response. How your body reacts is telling of what’s going on beneath the surface.
You’ve likely heard about “fight or flight”. Once the brain perceives a threat (or in modern-day terms – a stressful work situation rather than being chased by a saber tooth tiger!), it sends messages through the nervous system to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare the body for action by increasing heart rate, blood pressure and respiration.
In small doses, this stress response can be helpful. It can give us the energy and focus we need to get through a difficult situation. But when this response is constantly activated, it takes a toll on our physical and mental health.
So what about the “freeze” and “fawn” response?
The freeze response is defined as a “deer in the headlights” condition, in which the body and mind are paralysed with dread and unable to flee. The brain realises there’s no way to defend oneself or run away, so it dissociates and “numbs out” in order to avoid facing reality. Often this rears it head in the way of drinking or other substances to distance yourself and ‘unwind’ without actually dealing with what’s happening underneath.
The fawn response is about people-pleasing. It is about giving into the demands of the other person in order to keep them happy, and often begins as a trauma-response as a small child.
As children, we are entirely reliant on our caregivers and, if they are abusive, must maintain an “on-the-side” relationship with them in order to stay alive. Those who react with a fawn demeanor are more inclined to get trapped in co-dependent or abusive relationships later in life and willing to take a partner’s abuse that most people would not endure without fighting or fleeing the situation.
Signs of a fawn response
- Lack of boundaries and unable to say no
- Faking it to “fit in”
- Neglecting your own needs
- Avoiding conflict
- Constantly trying to read people so you can mold yourself to suit
- Being taken advantage of
- Keeping others happy no matter the cost to yourself
- Fear of saying or doing the ‘wrong thing’
On the surface, some of these may appear to just be accommodating and helpful towards others; however when done excessively, they are damaging and lead to a dysregulated nervous system.
What does a dysregulated nervous system look like?
A dysregulated nervous system can lead to a whole host of physical and mental health problems and manifest in some of the following ways:
Ever notice when you’re under pressure, your stomach to hurts? It’s not uncommon to experience diarrhea or constipation as a result. This is due to the fact that when you’re stressed, blood flow to the digestive system is reduced, stress hormones cause the release of gastric acid and emptying of the stomach to slow down.
The immune system is designed to protect the body from harm, reacting to physical injury, infection and cell damage. When you have a cut, your immune system reacts swiftly by generating inflammation around the wound. When chronically stressed, the immune system runs unchecked and can result in attacking your body’s own cells, increasing the risk of autoimmune disorders.
The role of the cardiovascular system is to pump blood throughout the body to deliver oxygen and nutrients to cells. When you’re under stress, your heart rate and blood pressure increase as part of the “fight-or-flight” response. This can lead to long-term effects on your cardiovascular health, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
Getting enough sleep is hard enough when your little one likes to wake you in the middle of the night; but what it means when you’re chronically stressed is further sleep disturbances. Chronic sleep deprivation has a detrimental impact on your physical and mental health (and in 40% of cases, it is severe enough to interfere with daily activities).
How often have you grabbed for the chocolate or fast-food when you’re feeling stressed? That’s because cortisol, the stress hormone, increases appetite and cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods. In addition, cortisol levels appear to play a role in the accumulation of abdominal fat (central obesity) which gives some people that “apple” body shape. Carrying this excess weight around the middle, puts you at higher risk of both heart disease and diabeties.
Poor Mental Health
Anxiety, depression and panic attacks are symptomatic of a dysregulated nervous system. Poor vagus nerve function causes responses to external stressors to become overly excessive in the face of stressful events and trauma.
How to overcome old patterning and regulate your nervous system
Everything you perceive through your senses – what you see, smell, hear, touch or taste – is handled by the nervous system. While it scans your surroundings and processes your environment, your nervous system is constantly sifting through massive quantities of data and matching incoming sensory information with stored data to establish matching patterns.
Your nervous system is conditioned to behave based on past experience – whether rightly or wrongly – when you are chronically stressed or feeling overwhelmed. It also teaches your mind to automatically embrace more negative ideas and pessimistic expectations. This can frequently lead to you being less patient with your children or partner, or making incorrect assumptions about them based on prior experience (hello, going off at your partner for forgetting to hang out the washing for the billionth time!).
The nervous system, being the clever processor that it is, searches for and replays outdated patterns of behavior and memories over and over in an effort to replicate the old pattern. This sets off a vicious cycle in which you may feel weary, depleted, or overly emotional. The majority of this takes place at a subconscious level, which is out of your awareness.
So, what’s the solution?
The good news is, you can re-train your nervous system! Just like you can choose to focus on the negative or positive aspects of any situation, you can also train your nervous system to react in a more positive way to stress.
Here are some things that you can do to care for your nervous system and boost your mental and physical health:
Get enough sleep
When you’re sleep-deprived, your body goes into “survival mode” and releases stress hormones to keep you going. This puts a lot of strain on your adrenal glands, which can lead to adrenal fatigue. Aim for at least seven hours of sleep per night.
When you’re run down, your body doesn’t have the energy to fight off infection and disease. Eating a nutritious diet helps to boost your immune system and give you the energy you need to get through the day.
Exercise releases endorphins, which have mood-boosting effects. It also helps to reduce stress hormones in the body.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a few minutes to yourself to relax and rejuvenate. Take some deep breaths, stretch, or meditate.
Neuro-Linguist Programming (NLP)
NLP helps to re-pattern behaviours by teaching new ways of thinking and behaving, and regulates the nervous system by providing tools and techniques for managing stress and emotions. NLP is a set of language- and sensory-based interventions and behavior-modification techniques which help improve self-awareness, confidence, communication skills, and social actions. It helps to identify how one views the world affects how one operates in the world, and that it is necessary to change the thoughts and behavior patterns that have not proven beneficial in the past.
Through understanding how yours thoughts and emotions affect your behaviour, NLP provides a framework for making lasting change in your life.
To sum up…
The nervous system is an amazing thing – it’s constantly processing information and trying to keep us safe. However, sometimes it can get stuck in a negative pattern of behaviour. The good news is, there are things we can do to care for our nervous system and boost our mental and physical health. By getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet, exercising, taking breaks, and seeking guidance with NLP techniques, we can help reduce stress hormones in the body and re-train our nervous system to react in a more positive way to stress. Nurture your nervous system as you nurture your children, your body and mind will thank you for it!
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