Want a quick run-down on the science behind self-caring?
Now, I’m not gonna’ lie – it’s hard to keep it super quick – this stuff gets complicated. Heart rate variability, neurochemistry, magnetic resonance imaging scans, neuronal connections and synapse firing patterns…
But you don’t need to know all that. In fact, you may have actually already experienced how the science of self-care works…
Let’s start with your last stressful event. When was the last time that you felt so anxious that you didn’t know what to say? Or so overwhelmed that you didn’t know what to do next? Or so distracted with something else that you forgot what you were doing in the first place?
For me, it was just the other week. I found myself in the tiny bathroom on an airplane, en route from France to the USA, trying to keep Maxime from climbing off of the changing table, while hovering Sage over the paper-covered-toilet seat, and focused on keeping them off the floor and away from the soap, the tissues, the emergency call button, the everything.
This is what I call “Mom Triage Mode.”
You know what I wasn’t thinking about? Anything else. Not the grocery list. Not the big project I was working on. Not even Sage’s riveting discussion about the ocean’s mesopalagic zone and the Mariana Trench (her current homeschool obsession). My brain simply couldn’t think. This happened four more times over the course of the flight. Every time, a total mental workout that required my complete attention.
And it happens to me, you, and everyone else, on a regular basis. Okay, maybe you aren’t in an airplane bathroom balancing two babies by yourself, but it’s a super-common pattern: you feel stressed (or sad, or another strong emotion), and all of the sudden, it’s hard to think.
It’s not because you’re failing, or incapable, or not strong enough. It’s because when your emotional brain (primarily, your limbic system) turns on, your thinking brain (e.g., your prefrontal cortex) turns off.
(High school science refresher: The limbic system governs your emotions. It’s responsible for survival, instincts, and memory. It regulates your stress and relaxation responses. In contrast, your prefrontal cortex is responsible for things like processing information, making decisions, brainstorming, coming up with creative solutions to problems, figuring out what to say.)
So when you’re trying to give your crying baby a bottle, and prevent your other one from taking his diaper off and running around the living room, and get to the stove before dinner burns, and answer the phone so you don’t miss the delivery guy, AND your husband still looks at you in the middle of this chaos, all nonchalant, and says “Hey honey, do you know where my ________ is??” … you might feel like you’re losing. your. mind. Because, you kind of are. But rest assured, there’s a scientific reason for it.
There’s also a simple solution if you often find yourself in the middle of Mom Triage Mode:
Use self-care to retrain (and rewire) your brain.
Generally speaking, “triage” is a way of managing multiple crises at once, by thinking about them strategically, prioritizing, and acting. It’s impossible if your thinking brain isn’t working. But when you have the right self-care rituals, you train your brain to stay calmer during chaos. You practice a different, healthier response to stress, and this rewires your neuronal connections to operate more effectively when you’re under fire. So even though it’s a little bit harder to think, you’ll still be able to.
As always, practice makes it habit, so here’s how to start giving this strategy a try:
- Be aware when you move into Mom Triage Mode.
- Feel your emotional brain fire up.
- Notice when your thinking brain turns off.
- Breathe deeply (it’s one of the proven neurophysiological secret weapons to bringing the prefrontal cortex back online).
- Remember, this is science – not something you’re doing wrong.
- Commit to a little extra care sometime in the week.