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Anxiety in Motherhood and Why It’s Completely Normal
I was probably what you would call a risk-taker.
Jumping out of a plane at 15,000 feet? Check. Travelling to remote places as a solo traveller, with no real plan? Check. I could give you a whole list of crazy things I did and looking back at some of the risks were perhaps a little on the thoughtless side. “Live life to the fullest” and “life is short” were my mottos. I cringe when I think about what my kids might want to get up to one day in their own young adulthood and also wonder whether they would actually believe some of my stories.
Because, in truth, after becoming a mother, for a while, I was quite the opposite—risk-taker quickly evolved into risk-averse. When discussing doing something fun, I would think about all the many things that could go wrong—from a simple day trip to a more adventurous holiday abroad. My husband, on the other hand, would think about all the good bits and the exciting possibilities.
For a long time, this led me to believe that there was something seriously wrong with me. I grieved the fun-loving, spontaneous person I had been before becoming a mother. If my husband hadn’t changed much in this department, why had I?
It was through engaging in cognitive behavioural therapy that I started to learn more about how (put simply) our brains physically transform when we become mothers. That it’s not only our daily lives that change but our emotional lives too and it turns out, this is largely neurological. In fact, scientists are only recently beginning to link a mother’s behaviour with changes in the brain.
Research has shown that the amygdala region of the brain, which drives emotional reactions like fear, anxiety, and aggression grows in the weeks and months following birth. This enhanced amygdala makes us much more sensitive to our baby’s needs, putting us on high alert.
I came to understand that these feelings of hypervigilance (which I experienced in an intense way) and the anxious emotions that would, at times, take over my voice of reason were something that all or most mothers would experience on some level. I realized with a kind of relief that it wasn’t a “fault” in me. It was simply biology!
This biology was designed to protect. It was designed to ward off danger. It was there for a reason—to care for our offspring who are unable to meet their own needs (who are, of course, completely vulnerable). But here’s the thing, in my case, this level of hypervigilance was, for a time, debilitating. It was creating irrational fears, masked by a veil of my feeling I was protecting my children and myself. This is when anxiety can become a problem and when it may be time to seek further support.
Yet, for the most part, a low level of anxiety in motherhood is completely normal (and often experienced by the majority of mothers I work with). Imagine, if we were still back in prehistoric times, how important that hypervigilance would be—literally hunting for food and defending our young from vicious predators.
Thankfully, the vast majority of us do not have those same immediate threats to deal with, yet today the activity in the brain of a new mother can potentially behave in a similar way.
These feelings then are not always the “problem” we think they are, nor have we left our old fun-loving selves behind forever. We are simply evolving to be a new and more improved version of ourselves. A version that has developed an additional layer; encompassing a greater ability to anticipate issues, to protect, and to deeply care for our children.
We don’t always need to be fixed, although, for some of us, support to manage these new feelings can be helpful. In fact, for many of us, anxiety in motherhood as a result of changes in the brain can actually be a gift. These alterations in the maternal brain can bring with them incredible new skills and behaviours, not only in the protection and love we give to our families but also at work and in society.
After all, doesn’t the world need our strength, empathy, and protection now, more than ever?