Post-Natal Anxiety and the Nervous System
May 9, 2023
Within the education pillar of FLY Mama online support bundles, they share information about the ways in which anxiety can be experienced throughout motherhood.
Anxiety is a common experience and often expected part of being a mother – but it doesn’t have to be the norm and it doesn’t have to control your life and experience of mothering.
We believe that words create worlds and that understanding how and why we feel the way we do are key areas to healing. So, we deliver educational talks to provide you with this much-needed information as well as providing you with tools to help manage the fallout.
There is a huge connection between our mind and body and looking at both of them gives us a more complete picture of our health. Having a bottom up approach (meaning from the body’s perspective) helps us to approach our wellbeing from a different angle.
Here is a taster of the concept of the ‘Window of Tolerance’ by Dr Dan Siegel, which we talk a lot about in our videos on the platform. Understanding this can help you to manage common emotional states like anxiety, which can be brought about by everyday stressors, lack of sleep, hormonal shifts, inflammation in the body, physical injury and healing, lack of nutrients within the diet, dehydration, over stimulation of the senses, or past/present traumatic experiences. A Lot of which are commonly experienced by mothers.
Developed by Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, the Window of Tolerance describes the best state of ‘arousal’ or stimulation in which we are able to function and thrive in everyday life. When we function within or are able to keep coming back to, this window, we can cope effectively and relate well to ourselves and others. However, if we move outside of our window, we can become hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused.
Optimum arousal level
This is when you feel grounded, flexible, present, able to think and feel at the same time and open and curious. You feel like you can deal with whatever’s happening in our life. In this window you should feel connected and emotionally able to self-regulate. This is the ideal place to be or a palace to move back towards following fluctuation in stress levels.
Physiologically, within this window, we are able to regulate our breathing rate, heart rate, we are not holding excess muscular tension in the muscular-skeletal system, we can regulate out temperature, we can digest and absorb nutrients from our food, we can manage inflammation in the body and we have a healthy appetite.
Our immune, circulatory, reproductive, endocrine and hormonal systems are functioning well and with ease. We have good quality sleep (when we are able to), tissue repair is able to happen and we feel like we have more energy because the body systems are working optimally.
Cognitively, we can concentrate and focus, we make better decisions and don’t overthink and we can think and feel at the same time.
Hyper-arousal results from stress levels rising which bring us into a sympathetic nervous system response or a fight or flight response. It happens when we perceive a high level of threat and it can present physiologically in increased breathing, heart and circulatory rates. We experienced increased temperatures and muscular tension and our senses become heightened and sharp.
We may experience difficulty concentrating, we might feel irritable and overwhelmed, we might feel angry and notice have outbursts of anger and rage, or we might feel wired and anxious and move into a panicked state.
Anger and anxiety are normal parts of our stress response, but it is when we get stuck there that it is no good for us.
Hypo arousal occurs when the body can no longer function in a fight/flight response and moves into a freeze, ‘shutdown’ or ‘collapse’ state.
It is tiring for the body to function in altered nervous system states and be outside of its window for prolonged periods so it moves to the next available state if regulation doesn’t happen.
Our freeze survival response is a normal and much needed action of the parasympathetic nervous system but again is only supposed to be time limited and we really want to be able to move out of this, through our sympathetic response and to regulation as quickly as possible.
In this state you may feel symptoms such as depression, numbness, emptiness and dissociation. Hypo arousal is when you have too little arousal as the result of an overloaded nervous system. It can impact your sleep, eating habits, leave you feeling emotionally numb, socially withdrawn, and finding it difficult to express yourself. Your digestive and immune system may start to close down.
Muscular tension is still present, and our physiological systems go into a conservation mode-with reduced breathing, circulatory, hormonal, endocrine, immune and digestive activity.
We all have different nervous system wiring, patterns of physiological responses and capacity, due to factors such as: significant childhood experiences, our neurobiology, social support, environment, and coping skills.
Our stress levels fluctuate often too depending on what we are experiencing in life and how much support we have around us.
Stress and trauma shrink your window of tolerance, and when you have less capacity it doesn’t take much to throw you off balance.
The size of our windows can change from day to day but the wider we can make the window, the less likely we are to experience anger, frustration or feel flat, low, and lacking energy.
So how do you manage your window of tolerance?
We are here to help you increase your self-awareness of your own body’s response to stress and the fluctuations in your capacity as you move through motherhood and life.
To help you to connect to your own body’s physiological responses and to listen to them.
We help you to broaden your window of tolerance and increase your capacity to experience emotions without becoming dysregulated.
We help you recognize when you are experiencing emotions outside your tolerable zone – and gauge how it makes you feel and how it impacts your body.
Once you understand this you can begin to manage your window of tolerance by:
- Recognizing your window of tolerance and increasing your self-awareness of how you and your body respond to stress
- Widening your window of tolerable emotions
- Learning techniques for regulating when experiencing hypo arousal or hyperarousal
Being able to talk and express your feelings around this is so important. We all want to be seen, heard and validated, so being able to confide in someone about how you are feeling and when you are experiencing these altered states of arousal is vital.
Within our support bundles, there are many talks and guided videos including yoga classes, energy releases, embodied movement classes, breathing exercises and neurosensory exercises to help you to build your self-awareness, build capacity within your system, move out of altered nervous system states and to manage and reduce the fallouts.
If you know someone who might benefit from this support let them know about us. If you work for an organisation that supports women and birthing people and especially those who have experienced a traumatic birth or perinatal trauma at any stage pre or postpartum, we would love to have a conversation about the ways we can add to the support provided.
Michelle and Kelly from Fly Mama x