First aid for my brain


I asked my husband this afternoon, do we live in hell?  Just tune out, he said, as the Ministry of Extreme Noise cranked up around us. Both twins had woken up from their afternoon nap in a right state. Isn’t sleep supposed to refresh you? For crying out extremely loud, it was as if they’d either never been fed, never been loved or had just had the mother of all afternoon nap nightmares.

I learned something very, very useful this week. I knew a bit about cortisol (the stress hormone) and it’s effect on the brain, but I didn’t really understand the mechanism. Stick with me if this gets boring, because it’s really good to know if you’re stressed out.

When you live in a constant state of stress, which was me for at least 5 of the past 8 months or so, you make too much cortisol, your stress hormone. When you’re body is under stress, you switch into fight or flight mode. All you need to do is survive and your brain in not interested in any of the other finer aspects of human relations. As a stressed out Mum have you ever found yourself reacting quickly, rigidly, and almost without emotion? It’s like, right, let’s get this done, what’s next? Do it. Now. Don’t f*** around, just freakin do it. WHY is this situation so crap, WHY can’t they just stop crying, WHY can’t I leave the house in the morning in a smooth, swift, one shot motion? Shut up shut up I can’t think, bottle, nappies, breakfast, next, next, next. Cortisol.

Cortisol actually causes atrophy in the connections between your logical thinking brain and your emotional, survive at all costs brain. So when you are stressed, the part of the brain that should be able to rationalise you back to reality, talk you through it, is cut off and your emotions, your fight or flight response, is in charge. So your thinking becomes rigid, you react to things without much logic and you develop a little feedback loop in your brain which gets you stuck in patterned ways of thinking and functioning. I found this enlightening.

The other thing about stress is hyper-vigilance. When you have had experiences that have been traumatising, you develop super fun hyper-vigilance. I use the word trauma because my psychologist did. It’s a bit of dramatic word but really, it means an experience that left a mark on you, that was really difficult, highly stressful, perhaps you didn’t cope very well with it and it all left a stamp on your brain to help you remember it forever. Never ever would I compare myself to someone who has experienced what most people might think of when we think of the word trauma.

When I hear my babies cry, I immediately have an adrenaline shot through my body. This happens if I hear any baby cry. It’s my body preparing for fight or flight. It immediately brings on my stress reaction. Laying in bed, I can hear when a foot brushes against a sheet in the cot in the next room. Hyper-vigilance. Charged on adrenaline, there’s no chance of sleep. No sleep, highly stressed the next day. More cortical, more brain cell death, more illogical, reactive me. It was suggested if I could cut out hearing all those sounds that I didn’t really need to hear, I’d have a fighting chance of sleeping and reorganising the chemical frat party that has been going on in my brain. Hello sweet earplugs. Two nights in, so far, so good. Other antidotes for cortisol that I’ll try next:

  • Play, play and more play – make myself get on the floor, tickle, laugh and play
  • Exercise. I’m saying it here. I will run the Gold Coast half again this year.
  • Time alone. Sooooooooooooooooo refreshing. A half an hour at the cafe across the road on a saturday morning all by myself.

3 responses »

  1. “I will run the Gold Coast half again this year.” Wow, that really struck a chord with me. I’ve only been running since September and I am a *long* way from being ready to run a half, but I definitely want to, maybe even a full marathon some day. Good luck sticking to your resolutions! 🙂

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