We have been having some very open discussions during our Mental Health Awareness workshops around parenthood and mental health in the workplace, and specifically, how the challenges of being a parent can impact on our ability to cope with work pressures.
So, we thought we would share some key changes associated with parenthood that can sometimes negatively impact mental health and so inevitably affect work performance and resilience.
Emma Treby is our Education Specialist and regularly facilitates our mental health awareness workshops. In addition to her role with us, Emma also lecturers and supports people experiencing stress, anxiety and overwhelm on a 121 basis in her solution focused practice.
Here Emma takes us through some of the challenges of becoming a parent and how they can lead to compromised mental health, impacting work performance and our ability to cope with work-related stress.
The Challenges of Parenthood
There are some very real challenges associated with parenting, related to all stages from birth onwards, which can then impact on our ability to deal with work pressures. Many parents experience compromised mental health, although they are not always consciously aware of it. Instead, they might have noticed difficulties in coping with work pressures, juggling a shift in priorities and responsibilities or a feeling of overwhelm, often without knowing why.
There are several key changes associated with parenthood which can negatively impact mental health, including:
- Hormone fluctuations
- Sleep deprivation and other sleep issues
- Altered responsibilities and priorities
- Time pressures
- Changes to routines
All of these changes impact how our brain functions and in turn shape our resulting feelings, emotions and behaviours and sometimes our physical health too.
In understanding how the brain works you can take steps to reduce the negative impact and instead focus on what you need in order to be the new, best version of yourself as a parent (and as a partner, employee and colleague).
Becoming a Parent
Becoming a parent and being a parent are life-changing experiences which offer us so many opportunities for love, joy and happiness. However parenthood is not always joyful.
For many, it also comes with constant worrying, permanent tiredness, overwhelm, emotional imbalance, and never seeming to catch up with the endless to do list and competing priorities.
Add to this that we are constantly bombarded with how to parent, how to look after ourselves, how to have it all and we can find ourselves in a bit of muddle.
Just as we have higher expectations of ourselves and our productivity at work than ever before, so we mirror this in our parenting.
Every day there are new articles on how to parent, how to bring up children in a way that they are resilient to meet the pressures of modern life and how to manifest a successful future for yourself professionally and as a parent.
For many, stress and anxiety become a normal part of being a modern working parent and as time goes on, we might not even recognise that we are stressed or anxious – we just are how we are.
So, how can we recognise that our mental health might have been compromised and what can we do to get ourselves back on track?
The first step is to reflect on how parenthood has changed us, biologically and socially.
Lets start by looking at our hormones
It is well-documented that women go through huge hormonal changes through pregnancy and birth, and that these continue for up to 2 years post-birth.
- Oestrogen and progesterone levels increase rapidly through the first trimester to peak in the third trimester and it is the rapid increase in oestrogen at the beginning of pregnancy that can lead to nausea known as morning sickness.
- In the third trimester progesterone peaks and readies the body for birth, impacting physical health (back and pelvic pain) and influencing mood (increased irritability).
- Our neurotransmitter oxytocin (the one associated with love and connection) increases through birth to aid the biological processes for birth and recovery and to ensure bonding.
- Oxytocin production reduces with increased stress to the point where excessive stress can inhibit oxytocin and even prevent contractions i.e., the brain assumes it is not safe for the baby to be born.
- During birth we also release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which increase contractions and the effects of oxytocin.
- After birth there is a sharp fall in adrenaline and our release of the neurotransmitter endorphins (our natural pain killer – emotional and physical) drops sharply. Within the first 24 hours this is coupled by a dramatic dip in oestrogen and progesterone leading to mood changes often referred to as the ‘baby blues’.
- If there has been increased stress and anxiety before birth and through labour this can then lead on to Post Natal Depression.
- Hormones typically begin to reset after approximately 2-3 months. However, this time is often associated with an increase in our stress hormone cortisol due in part to a significant reduction in sleep.
There are changes associated with these hormone shifts and changes in the female brain which mean that for first time parents this change will continue for approximately 2 years.
The hormone changes aren’t just for the mums
Men have high testosterone levels which drop on becoming a dad as the brain is preparing for a new role (testosterone blocks the positive effects of oxytocin which enables bonding with the child).
A decrease in testosterone is important as it enables the dad to be more sensitive to the child, and more motivated to care for them.
They get a greater impact from their oxytocin when they cuddle their child.
Equally, we also know that testosterone protects against low mood, so, a reduction in testosterone when coupled with struggling with a new work-life balance or a partner with postnatal depression can increase the likelihood of male postnatal depression.
Men also undergo physical changes in their brain so they find themselves worrying more than before as they become more risk aware with higher risk detection and also become more sensitive – we see this when something on TV might bring you to tears where it wouldn’t have done before having children.
So, why does this anxiety and risk awareness increase and how does it affect the brain and the way we behave?
This is where we need to look at how the brain works
When we are tired our anxiety begins to build up – we say it goes in our metaphorical stress bucket.
As parents, we need to recognise that there is now the potential for more worries to end up in the bucket:
- The small stuff – have I packed their sun hat for nursery or remembered to pick up more nappies? Or, worrying about asking for some time off to attend a necessary but unexpected medical appointment for your child.
- The big stuff – worries about financial security, health anxiety, and/or worries about their schooling, friendships and so on.
In addition to the added worries and increased risk perception our brains are having to cope with changes in routine and balancing priorities.
It is worth remembering that the brain sees all change initially as a potential threat and so it will remain on ‘high alert’. It takes time for the brain to adjust to this change, especially if you are someone who finds adapting to change more challenging.
The problem is that our stress bucket is emptied by good sleep – more specifically, our Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep, and it is commonly accepted that having children often leads to disruptions in sleep – particularly in the first year and up to 4-5 years and longer in some cases.
And of course, when we are tired and our buckets are full, we have brain fog, we have trouble recalling information, and our personal performance is impacted, which has the potential to effect how we feel about ourselves too.
Add to which, when we are tired, we are wired to look for something to boost our energy and of course high carb, high sugar foods are top of our list. These in turn give us a quick energy fix before sending our energy levels plummeting once more.
When we do not fully process our stress bucket, we rely very heavily on our short-term memory (as we haven’t processed and placed the information in the right place, and our short-term memory can only juggle about 5-6 things.
So, if we are already thinking about what we need for the morning meeting, alongside a conversation we must have with our colleague and remembering to add to the shopping list and get the dog booked in for his vaccination, we find that remembering that we said we would catch up for a coffee with our colleague has just vanished from our brain.
When a new piece of information comes in, a bit like juggling a ball, we have to drop a different ball.
There are several key changes associated with parenthood which can negatively impact mental health to include hormone fluctuations, sleep issues, adapting to altered responsibilities, priorities and routines.
These changes impact how our brain functions, which in turn shapes our feelings, emotions and behaviours and sometimes our physical health too.
Whilst some of the changes and challenges of parenthood can’t always be remedied in the early years of parenting (particularly hormonal fluctuations and lack of sleep), there are many things we can do to enable us to be more self-aware and to put small actions in place to reduce the potential for compromised mental health. We will be outlining these in our next blog.
Although the focus of this blog has been on the early years of parenthood, parenting teens can also come with its own challenges and deserves its own space for discussion in a future blog.
Would you or your team, benefit from learning more about the impact of sleep on mental wellbeing and resilience?
Our three hour course, Sleep for Enhanced Resilience, explores the impact of sleep, looking at why we sleep, what governs sleep and the impact of sleep deprivation on our the brain and body. It also looks at the simple things we can do ourselves to proactively improve both our quality and duration of sleep, to enhance our wellbeing.
Everyone who completes the course gets a workbook and manual which details all learning content and highlights key points to remember and actions to take so that they can refer back at any time and refresh their knowledge, enabling them to implement their new knowledge and skills immediately.
Sleep for enhanced resilience
Resilience Awareness Training
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