In today’s post, I explore the neurological reasons we feel more fear in motherhood and what this means for our surfing.
In reality, it’s three, maybe four foot on the sets and the sun is shining brightly on a near perfect at Bali’s famed surf break, Uluwatu. I am fidgeting and crafting excuses as to why I shouldn’t surf to my partner: the tide is too low, the crowd too heavy, the waves just too perfect. The truth is that this relentless fear had been hounding me for months since my first daughter was born.
I grappled with this by trying to tell myself to toughen up and force myself back into the water even when I wasn’t comfortable. This lead to more disappointing moments and a sobbing, slobbering meltdown that finally pointed me in the right direction. I started study the brain, fear, and the effect motherhood has on both. What I found was I wasn’t alone in experiencing increased fear, physiological evidence to support what I was feeling, and a strategy to cope with my feelings.
The truth was I didn’t become a scaredy cat overnight. I found out the actual structure of my brain had changed when I had my daughter to increase the amount of fear I felt in order to prime us for survival. This is how it works and what you can do when your ready to override your maternal instinct.
Blame it on the Cavewomen (Again!): Mothers are Hardwired to Protect their Babies
Back in our cavewomen days, we faced a lot of danger. One mistake in your perception of a threat and your life was over. Fear of wooly mammoths, saber tooth tigers, angry alpha-rivals in our tribe, and a general lack of resources were in the front of our minds, all the time. When our ancestors became mothers, the very act of protecting ourselves and our offspring caused the amygdala – the part of our brain that regulates fear – to go into overdrive.
“After the birth of a child, a period of high alert may have helped parents protect their babies from environmental harm in times when this was a treacherous and all-consuming task. Those mothers who were more careful with the baby were more likely to have a baby live,” suggests James Swain, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who mapped mothers’ brains using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while the mothers heard their own baby cry.
During this study, nearly all the mothers in this study had an extremely anxious neural response when they listened to own baby cry. Our primal instincts cause an enormous and often overwhelming desire to take care of our own child. This desire borders on compulsive and irrational even for mentally stable mothers. Scientists call this instinct to protect our young “maternal motivation,” and it seems to also entail protecting ourselves in order to guarantee we’re still around to raise the child.
Have you ever checked to see if your child was breathing more than once during the night? What about ten times? Twenty? I still check my four old every now and then when she seems to be sleeping just a little too peacefully. This compulsive behavior turns out to be very normal as long as it doesn’t take over your life.
So, what can you do? New mothers will hate this but not a lot. For the first 3-6 months, you should focus on providing a warm, safe environment for your baby and taking care of yourself mentally and physically. Take returning to surfing slowly. Walk, swim, or do yoga to get your fitness back. If you are physically able to surf, use your time in the water to relax, check in with yourself, and enjoy a precious few minutes away from your baby.
Your Brain is a Changin’
We’ve all heard of “baby brain,” but studies have demonstrated that our brains undergo significant structural changes during pregnancy and after birth. These changes are far more significant than just forgetting a few details of daily life, although forgetfulness is a byproduct of brain altering motherhood. In fact, the size of certain parts of the brain actually undergo remodeling that persists for at least two years after birth.
So in addition to the cocktail of hormones that begins pumping through your body from the time you fall pregnant, our brains are actually growing in some areas and decreasing in others. Structural growth in several brain areas including the midbrain region (which helps us develop the maternal instinct), the prefrontal cortex (which is involved in decision making, learning and regulating our feelings and thoughts, and the amygdala (which controls fear).
Let’s talk about the amygdala, that little almond-shaped ambassador of fear regulation that plays a major role when were surfing or pretty much facing any other “scary” challenge. The amygdala grows in the weeks and months after you give birth. Despite hindering your postpartum surfing ability, growth in the amygdala is good thing because according to a recent study, “Greater amygdala response when viewing their own children was tied to lower maternal anxiety and fewer symptoms of depression, researchers found.” Being protective over your child and yourself is an indicator of a normal mental response to motherhood. Attachment to your baby, ability to defend your baby, and the ability to (sort of) regulate your post-pregnancy emotions go hand in hand and directly related to amygdala growth.
Unfortunately, this seems to last beyond the that critical first three months of your child’s life beyond: some studies have demonstrated that the brain changes of motherhood were still event up to two years after childbirth. So, long after you’ve moved on from the infant stage and are ready to get on with life, your brain is still screaming, “protect the baby.”
That’s why, 6 months after having my daughter, I was terrified of surfing waves over two foot. At the time, it was so puzzling and frustrating, all I could think was, “what happened to me? I used to rip these conditions.” I literally cried (also a sign of brain changes + hormones) a few times when I wanted to paddle out but just couldn’t.
After you’ve done your time with gentle exercise and chilling out (I know nine months of pregnancy + six months of “taking care of yourself and baby” seems like an eternity), it’s time to get back into the water. Again, go slow and be in tune with your body and mind. Certain days, you’ll feel the need to back off and others, you’ll know your ready. This is when you can start your process to becoming a surfer again.
These Neurological Changes are Mostly Good and Fight Postpartum Depression
One in five women experience postpartum depression. The baby blues is brought on by hormones, neurological changes, and lifestyle changes. I know so many women who worry before and after childbirth about so many things, including surfing. Society doesn’t help. So many people said to me, “forget about surfing” or “forget about traveling” and “you won’t being doing much after that baby is born.” This is so untrue and detrimental to women who love adventure and challenges. Life goes on and is what you make of it.
Postpartum depression can rear its head in a variety of ways including: lack of attachment, compulsive behavior, worrying, fear or constantly thinking things you can’t control. All mothers dabble in a bit of milestone obsession. I remember the constant desire to weigh my daughter and make sure she was gaining weight in the first six months. At mothers group, everyone talk ad nauseam about how their little angel could roll, sleep through the night, hold a bottle, etc. Things get worrisome when these thoughts become all-controlling, or conversely, a mother shows little or no interest in her baby.
Move It or Lose It, Literally
Of course, if you or someone who know is showing signs of postpartum depression, get help from a qualified mental health professional.
But the fact is most women struggle with their new roles, emotions, and thoughts after baby. Now that you know these feelings are totally normal and are brought about by actual physiological changes, you should be able to step outside of yourself for a moment and recognize what’s happening. Beyond self-compassion, the best outlet for the growing pains of motherhood for me was movement.
All humans need ways to release stress, new mothers included. Exercise is one of the healthiest, most efficient stress outlets. Regular movement creates neurons that helps us handle stress better and increase neurogenesis, or the process of creating new brain cells that is ongoing throughout our lives. Exercise can make you a nicer person and a better mother because you are more adept at handling stress. Another bonus, is when you’re fully engaged in exercise it’s hard to be hung up on what happened yesterday. Whether your surfing, running, doing yoga, or playing field hockey, you have an opportunity to be completely immersed in the present moment.
Of course, surfing is a great full body workout and I think we can all agree it’s hard to worry about anything but surfing when you’re out in the ocean. But there’s an additional “blue lining” to being in the water: water makes us happy. Studies have shown that merely looking at a body of water or a photo of water can make us calmer. So, imagine what being fully immersed in water would do to our brains? Thus, surfing by its very aquatic and physically demanding nature offers up a double dose of happiness and stress relief.
I didn’t paddle out that day at Uluwatu. At the time, I was so angry with myself that I went home and started a relentless study of fear and surfing. Little did I know, the episode in Bali was my brain’s way of protecting my daughter and I. Luckily, after that moment I unknowingly set myself on a path that ultimately lead understanding my emotions, surfing better, and being comfortable in bigger waves. The key was to change my brain and my technique incrementally. I took small steps towards my goal and was mindful of my condition as a mother.
Just a year after I cried in Bali, I set off on another Indonesian adventure, this time to the Telo Islands. In remote Sumatra, I was able to surf the biggest, most powerful waves of my life and survive some of the most sketchy moments I’ve had in the ocean. I put time and energy into changing the way I thought, trained, and performed, but I am still a work in progress. Step-by-step, I am building my confidence in the water and this confidence trickles into other areas of my life. Are you ready to take the first step to changing your brain?
Join me in Lombok, March 30th to April 6th, 2019 as we work on our fears little by little, surf good waves, and have mucho fun!