By: Diana Korevaar (perinatal psychiatrist and author of “Mindfulness for Mums and Dads”)
Parenting Really is a Challenge
It’s 3 am. Lou holds her 2-week-old son close to her chest as he cries and arches his back. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she enters “breast refusal” into the search engine on her phone. Lou’s world feels as if it’s falling apart. Having had their second argument for the day late that evening, her partner Anton sleeps restlessly in the adjacent bedroom. As humans, it is the workings of a relatively small part of the brain which relentlessly churns out thoughts, which transforms a difficult experience of exhaustion and fear, into one of anger and despair.
In many ways being a parent has never been more challenging. Modern technology has effectively removed the boundary separating our homes from the demands of work and the opinions of others. Yet riding the waves of exhaustion and irritability whilst at the same time tuning in to the emotional experience of our children and partners is a fundamental aspect of building robust relationships.
“Not Good Enough”
Without the capacity to work skilfully with our emotions, our experiences in life are interpreted through the lens of a negative bias - the legacy of evolution, which favours detection of threat, rather than an assumption of safety. Negative emotions such as anger, fear and shame disconnect us from the present moment and escalate in strength by automatically retrieving memories, images and thoughts of similarly distressing experiences in the past, often far back into our childhood.
So, in the early hours of that morning, well beneath her conscious awareness, Lou’s central nervous system would be gathering information from previous life experiences which left her feeling in some way “not good enough”. This same circuitry would probably also be retrieving memories of past experiences in her relationship with Anton when she felt unsure about her choice in partner.
Emotions are Infectious
Looking at the storm of emotional reactivity enveloping Lou’s young family, we now have a much better understanding of why we are often so sensitive to the emotions of those around us. From within days of birth, the human brain is specially designed to pick up on the emotions of others and the effect can be very powerful. Whether it is a tone of voice, a facial expression or even someone’s posture - this specialised system in the human brain ensures that like sponges, we soak up the emotions of others. This is why relationships are so vulnerable to powerful feedback loops of negativity.
Not only this, but due to a process called neuroplasticity the areas of the brain associated with emotional distress such as fear, anger or shame, strengthen the more often they are activated. In practical terms this means that the more often we are hauled into reacting to negative emotions by getting caught up in the thoughts that come with them, the more easily we will fall into the same potholes of reactivity in the future. However, the same process of strengthening of neural circuitry also happens when we learn how to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and optimism, or even a sense of being at ease when faced with a difficult situation.
Emotional Resilience in Children
We now know that the capacity of the human brain to manage strong emotion does not fully develop until well beyond adolescence. Within days of being born, children pick up on and react not only to internal experiences of hunger and physical discomfort, but also to the emotions of caregivers. Without the support of his mother, especially sensing her distance, the distress of Lou’s young child would probably have continued.
It is easy to get confused about mindfulness. Is it something you are doing when you pay attention to a dedicated App on your phone, or when you take yourself off to a quiet place and follow a favourite guided meditation? Escape can easily become the implicit, if not the explicit goal. Mindfulness makes much more sense when we find ways to seamlessly integrate the processes into everyday life, using it to help us transform difficult emotions.
How to Approach Mindfulness for Inner Calm and Stability
Let us imagine I was working with Lou the day after her distressing night. The fresh memory of that experience would provide the perfect opportunity for teaching practical skills of mindfulness. Rather than simply exploring her experience by talking it through, I could take advantage of the brain’s capacity to act as a powerful simulator, and bring the situation back to life for us to work on together. Imagery is a powerful way to activate systems of emotion, giving us direct access to the circuitry of reactivity.
After suggesting to Lou that she closes her eyes, I would then ask her to bring back the memory of what happened in as much detail as she could remember. The pattern of her breathing would probably become more rapid and shallow and located high in her chest. The small muscles of her face, and the muscles of her neck and shoulders might be tightly contracted. She may notice fleeting images of her baby’s face as he cries, or an expression of anger on Anton’s face as they argued. I would suggest she tune into these experiences, get to recognise the “circuit” of reactivity.
Having activated Lou’s emotional distress, whilst her eyes are still closed, I could then guide her through a way of activating the circuitry of relaxation and tuning in to her baby. We need to pay attention to how we do this work because the emotional centre of our brain is always activated, it is never neutral. Rather than striving to create change, I would model the use of a kind and encouraging voice, perhaps suggest she now bring to mind an image of her son lying peacefully sleeping in her arms, and concentrating on that, ask her to imagine what it would feel like in her body if she could simply pretend to be strong and courageous, working with facial expression, posture and breath.
For homework I might suggest that Lou practices what it feels like to switch between automatic pilot (inviting in thoughts and engaging with them), then switching back into mindful awareness, paying attention to breath and posture, what she can see, what she can hear, in this way finding anchors which provide distance from thinking.
It would also be helpful if Lou could learn how to recognise when she was using distraction as a way of avoiding the noise in her mind – she could experiment with turning off a radio or TV that was providing background noise and put her phone on silent for an hour. In that time, whatever else she might be doing, she could imagine tuning in to a quietness within her. The more closely she listens for it, the clearer it will become.
Mindfulness can become a way in which we live. When thoughts are no longer the enemy, we can be creative, turn to and deeply take in the small pleasures of life that might otherwise pass by unnoticed.
For more information from Dr Diana Korevaar visit: https://www.iampresent.com.au/